The clearance of the thriving, legendary African-American neighborhood in Detroit known as Black Bottom, circa 1950, was not caused by natural disaster, gentrifying developers, or a destructive riot by its residents. The slowly gathering public policy that led to its demolition included an element of racial animus in the city's politics, but more than anything, the death of a neighborhood replete with black-owned businesses and owner-occupied property stemmed from the ideas of progressive housing reformers.
They began to build in the 1890s, when Jacob Riis, a New York police reporter deeply versed in sensationalist journalism, portrayed New York's Lower East Side in How the Other Half Lives as nothing but squalid, showing no interest in the vibrant upward mobility of its immigrants.
Riis inspired the now-obscure Johnny Appleseed of American zoning, Lawrence Veiller, who convinced communities across the country that the density that makes housing affordable (without government subsidies) must be limited. The formula that brought housing within the reach of the poor—what Boston settlement house pioneers Robert Woods and Albert Kennedy rightly celebrated as a "zone of emergence"—would be cast aside.
Its replacement—literally in the cases of Detroit's Black Bottom, Chicago's Bronzeville, St. Louis' DeSoto-Carr, and so many other healthy neighborhoods—would be public housing. The "projects" were and still are the rotten fruit that grew from seeds planted by progressive public intellectuals. The premier modernist architect Le Corbusier envisioned high-rise urban campuses without streets or stores. Less well-known but still essential figures in American housing policy history were University of Chicago sociologist Edith Elmer Wood and self-styled reformer Catherine Bauer Wurster.
In her 1934 paper "A Century of the Housing Problem," Wood led the ill-fated charge that would guide New Deal public housing policy. She inveighed against the private housing industry broadly—even arguing against the idea that homeownership was one of the means for the poor to improve their station. "The housing problem is an inevitable feature of our modern industrial civilization and does not tend to resolve itself," Wood wrote. "Supply and demand do not reach it, because the cost of new housing and the distribution of income are such that approximately two thirds of the population cannot present an effective demand for new housing."