Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hip Hop & City Planning Series

How Urban Renewal programs birthed the conditions that created Hip Hop.

Urban Renewal programs which sought to rid American cities of blight often times created more blight by displacing thousands of city residents, expedited white flight into the suburbs, created the modern housing project, and created “hyper-ghettos” that isolated the poor and disconnected them from jobs. All of these factors led to the poverty, despair and disenfranchisement found in the crumbling neighborhoods of the South Bronx and other inner-city ghettos that helped create the culture and music of Hip Hop. Hip Hop was born in the 1970’s after the death and failures of President Lyndon Johnson’s, War on Poverty, the Civil Rights era and lastly from the programs that created the modern day ghetto, Urban Renewal.

To give some background of how Urban Renewal programs started, we have to look back to what caused the Federal Government to initiate “blight removal” aka Urban Renewal. Many American cities before World War II, were major Industrial hubs which were defined by major industry and workforce housing for factory workers. During World War II, which was America’s industrial peak, hundreds of thousands southern Blacks migrated to northern cities to find work in factories. While some were fortunate and were able to find work, many did not and still faced discrimination. Without jobs, many southern blacks were forced into existing segregated black neighborhoods which quickly became overcrowded. When soldiers returned back home, the over crowdedness in cities became more dire and the effects of America’s largest baby boom were beginning to be felt.

While many black neighborhoods were often in distress at the time when urban renewals programs began in the 1940’s, not all black inner city neighborhoods were slums. During Urban Renewal many middle class black neighborhoods were targeted for city civic projects or highway construction through their neighborhoods for the supposed greater good of the city. The targeting of black neighborhoods for highways created a two folded problem for cities, the first was that it destroyed viable neighborhoods and the second is that highways allowed whites to funnel out into the suburbs (which blacks were excluded from) and still easily connect back to city’s downtown without having to interact with inner city.

While some neighborhoods were cleared for highways other neighborhoods were cleared for the construction of public housing and some were rehabbed for wealthy neighborhoods (Society Hill in Philadelphia). The clearing of neighborhoods for urban renewal often times gave very little acknowledgement toe the displacement of thousands of people whose homes were being destroyed. The displaced residents of urban renewal were forced to move into what they could afford which were adjoining distressed poor neighborhoods which often times sank further into poverty.

Black families that had the capital to move, sought houses outside the black community which sadly triggered the irrational fears of the white community (fueled by real estate developers) that blacks moving in would quickly turn their neighborhoods into slums. Whites afraid of lower property values as well as other fears fled their neighborhoods if not the city. On top of this White G.I.’s returning from World War II were often given generous FHA loans to houses away from blighted cities, however black soldiers were often denied FHA loans. This domino effect led to quick disinvestments of the city’s tax base and a sudden shift in the socio-economic and demographic make-up of the city.

To rid cities of outdated slum housing, city planners sought to construct clean, well-run public housing high-rises with modern amenities in replace of existing slums. (Note: A previous post called, Great Planning Documentaries, included a film “A Place to Live” which covered the slum clearance of a North Philadelphia neighborhood for the infamous and later dangerous Housing project known as The Richard Allen Projects, which Bill Cosby grew up in and were the inspiration fro the cartoon series, Fat Albert.) Unfortunately, the construction of public housing ultimately caused more problems then it aimed to solve.

One of the many problems that public housing caused during the urban renewal era was compacting highly dense impoverished populations in poverty. Housing projects lacked access to jobs in their own neighborhoods and continued a downward spiral with the economic opportunity or any type of economic advancement within their community. This downward spiral into further poverty allowed public housing projects to become a magnet to crime and other social ills that plague cities. Ultimately the idea of housing the poor in isolated housing project towers was viewed as a mistake as most of the housing projects across the nation were tore down in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Although, many housing project were tore down in the 1990’s, by the early 1970’s the damage that these public housing projects had caused by concentrating poverty as economic investment had funneled out of the city, leaving the poor more and more isolated had already been done. In the early 1970’s the funding to many urban renewal projects was being cut off which included the federal funding to cities to help maintain various city renewal projects including public housing. As maintenance for public housing all but ceased, public housing projects quickly deteriorated and repelled any economic development which caused even more blight to surrounding neighborhoods.

By the mid 1970s, desegregation was beginning to take off that allowed more middle class blacks to move away from blighted neighborhoods which further led to the isolation of blacks in housing projects and run-down blocks. Property owners in these neighborhoods, who could not find anyone to buy their abandoned or half vacant properties, often set arson to their buildings so that they could collect on some money through insurance. These acts of arson left an even more scarring image to inner-cities, especially major cities in the east. In the South Bronx, the undisputed birth place of Hip Hop it is estimated that the Bronx borough lost 40% of its housing stock by the late 1970’s. During his 1980 Presidential campaign, then California Governor made a campaign stop in the Bronx and had remarked that the Bronx looked like London after the Blitz in World War II.

All of the conditions that were either caused or triggered by Urban Renewal programs had laid down the many problems of today’s modern inner-city. While many of today’s problems would have existed without Urban Renewal, there is no doubt that these blight removal programs exacerbated the problem.

These impoverished conditions left the children growing up in these neighborhoods with no voice and no outlets. The economic conditions of these kids made them improvise to let their expressions be heard. While they had no instruments, local Dee Jay’s would take the breakbeat of soul records and make a sampled sound that was uniquely their own. Kids who did not have a dance floor would often use pieces of cardboard boxes and use that as their dance floor as they danced to the breakbeat. These breakbeat dancers would later be called B-Boys. As the B-Boys danced, the Dj would make simple rhymes about who he was, how nice is skills were and where he was from. This eventually laid the basis to what we know as rapping today. The kids, who grew up in these neighborhoods that looked like war zones, could not afford art utensils so they made their world a canvas. The kids, known as graffiti bombers would “bomb” walls, trains or any other visible piece of infrastructure and spray-paint their names as tags on buildings to let the world know who they were…or more importantly let the world know they exist. Eventually graffiti bombing took off into intricate designs of their own style which became the neighborhood’s public art.

Once you combine the Dj, the B-Boys, the rappers, and the graffiti bombers you have all the major elements of hip hop. An art form and culture that is uniquely American and was uniquely born out of ghettos of America’s inner-cities that were shaped by the failures of Urban Renewal programs.

All of these conditions can be illustrated in Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s song, The Message. Filmed in the Bronx, the music video was the first early hits in Hip Hop and was the first to talk about the social conditions of the ghetto that created their art.
Excerpts from the song:

First verse –
Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care
I can't take the smell, I can't take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat
I tried to get away, but I couldn't get far
Cause a man with a tow-truck repossessed my car

Last Verse:
A child is born with no state of mind
Blind to the ways of mankind
God is smiling on you but he's frowning too
Because only God knows what you’ll go through
You’ll grow in the ghetto, living second rate
And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate
The places you’re playin’, where you stay
Looks like one great big alley way...

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