This week something unusual happened in Columbus Park. For the first time in a very, very long time, the City paid attention to a sorry, empty, overgrown, four block chunk of the neighborhood that lies between 3rd and 5th Streets, and between Campbell and Gillis. This attention came in the form of a declaration from the City’s Public Works department that community-funded, volunteer-constructed improvements for skateboarders on Harrison Street lacked the proper permits and would be removed.
The improvements include several ramps, curb improvements, and other minor enhancements that provide a better place to skateboard. These skateboarders engaged in all sorts of other subversive activities too, like cleaning sidewalks and curbs, sweeping the street, and picking up trash.
To their credit, now that the threat of removal has become more public, the City has expressed a willingness to work with the volunteers and neighborhood to find a solution, and stated that despite the work order, removal is not imminent. However, it’s not really a surprise that the City is unhappy with this. On a list of ways to cause problems on City streets, amateur concrete pours have to rank highly. But it is also hard to blame the volunteers for thinking no one would care. The site has been vacant and truly abandoned for fifteen years now, with a history of neglect and indifference that dates back much further.
Long ago there were homes and businesses here. But they were old and untidy and poor. In the era of Urban Renewal, that was reason enough to demolish them. By 1954, the northern part of Columbus Park – nearly half of the entire neighborhood – had been cleared to construct Guinotte Manor. Guinotte Manor was one of several public housing projects intended to concentrate as many of the City’s poor as possible in a few isolated districts. Under the pretense of public good, the City displaced those with historical ties to the place, demolished their investments, and through bad policy, ignorance, and indifference, created the conditions where crime, poverty, and decay could fester.
Like so many similar public housing projects across the country, conditions in Guinotte Manor were bad. Quality of life for tenants and the surrounding neighborhood suffered. In 2000, forty-five years after its construction, the Urban Renewal experiment finally ended with the demolition of the barracks-style apartments. The apartments were replaced with a new mixed-income housing project that provided a greater dispersal of low-income units (also called Guinotte Manor). By 2000, only around half of Guinotte Manor’s apartments were occupied, and the replacement housing contained fewer units in a smaller area. The land that was left over was promised as future market-rate development. It has been vacant ever since.
Owned by the Housing Authority, the site was locked away from the private investment that the rest of Columbus Park has witnessed over the past several decades. And perversely, the promise of future development removed all incentive for the City to maintain infrastructure or invest in the site in any way. Today the site is secluded and overgrown, with crumbling streets and sidewalks. Drug use and other criminal activity remains a problem. A semi-permanent homeless camp has been established on 3rd Street, and no wonder because the place is so obviously ignored. There is something symbolic about a homeless camp setting up on Housing Authority property on the site of former public housing. Urban problems don’t disappear when you stop paying attention.
It is unfair to compare the damage of Urban Renewal and destructive public housing policy with removal of skateboard ramps. The context and motivations are different, and in terms of scale and impact, skateboarding ramps don’t even register as a footnote. But when we see the City, in its mission to serve its citizens, poised to again displace legitimate users of these public lands to preserve a state of neglect and decline that has persisted since the end of its last failed civic experiment on the site, it feels like we haven’t learned anything.
The frustration is not that the City decided to enforce its oversight of the public rights-of-way. What is baffling and deflating is that the City has proven itself so diligent and capable in thwarting community improvements when it has been so chronically incapable of addressing actual infrastructure needs. The City’s financial challenges, and the implications of these challenges on the City’s decades of deferred infrastructure maintenance, are well documented. The recent progress that the City has made in prioritizing infrastructure investments more strategically is something to feel good about. But it is hard to fathom how a City that is so overextended is able to rapidly deploy this anti-skateboard reaction force. Likewise, when residents request basic infrastructure like crosswalks through more traditional channels, it is perplexing that the City spends its resource on pedestrian surveys to disprove the need rather than providing what its citizens are begging for. Finally, it is disheartening that after the long history of harm, neglect, and indifference for this site, the City finally engages the place, but only to remove the first investment and improvement that this site has seen in sixty years. If I claim the upturned sidewalk on my block is a skateboard ramp, will someone finally come fix it?
Learn more about the project from the people who are building it at http://harrisonstreetdiy.blogspot.com/