November 26, 2005

Everyone is to blame for the French riots ... except the rioters

The New York Times Magazine features an essay by Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard asking if the recent car burnings are the fault of Le Corbusier:

Revolting High Rises:
Were the French riots produced by Modern architecture?

The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, as Francophobes have been more than ready to explain, bears some of the blame for both. His designs inspired many of the suburbs where the riots of October and November began. In fact, he inspired the very practice of housing the urban poor by building up instead of out. Soaring apartments, he thought, would finally give sunlight and fresh air to city laborers, who had been trapped in narrow and fetid back streets since the dawn of urbanization. But high-rise apartments mixed badly with something poor communities generate in profusion: groups of young, armed, desperate males. Anyone who could control the elevator bank (and, when that became too terrifying to use, the graffiti-covered stairwells) could hold hundreds of families ransom.

High rise public housing projects for young poor people were a very bad idea (but not high rise projects for the elderly poor: for 12 years, I lived next door to an 18 story Chicago Housing Authority building where Vietnamese immigrants stashed their parents at the American taxpayer's expense, and I experienced no problems from it whatsoever).

But the relationship between high rise projects and rioting is dubious. The three most murderous riots in the U.S. in the last 75 years were #1 LA (South Central) in 1992, #2 Detroit in 1967, and #3 LA (Watts) in 1965. Yet, Los Angeles, despite its propensity for massive riots, has few tall public housing projects. As I wrote on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the South Central riots at the corner of Florence and Normandie:

Yet, this neighborhood hardly resembles what people familiar with the dismal big city ghettoes in the East and Midwest would expect for the Ground Zero of a riot. The residential streets around the infamous intersection consist largely of respectably maintained single-family homes...

Near Florence and Normandie, you can see long rows of small but attractive Spanish style stucco homes painted vivid colors -- purples, greens, blues -- more redolent of San Francisco than of Los Angeles.

The landscaping of the compact yards (which normally include a one-car garage) isn't as baroquely lush as in the wealthy white districts. Yet, lawns are kept neat, and here and there fuchsia bougainvilleas bloom in tropical profusion. The cars parked in the driveways tend to be sensible compacts. There are some junkers, but virtually none of the flashy wire-wheeled BMW's and Lincoln Navigators favored by drug dealers.

Since 1992, the national presumption about this neighborhood has been that it is the angry heart of the ghetto. In reality, now that the crack wars have died down, it serves its home-owning African-American residents as a surprisingly quiet bedroom community. It offers them an easy commute to downtown jobs.

The Florence-Normandie neighborhood has long been one of the more relatively well-to-do regions in South Central Los Angeles. In the census tract stretching south from Florence, for example, five of every eight residences are owner-occupied. Still, even the poorer of the traditionally black neighborhoods of Los Angeles seldom fit national stereotypes of what ghettoes look like.

A native of Chicago's West Side, who as a child witnessed its 1968 riot from her living room window, exclaimed, "I was really shocked when I first came to L.A. and saw the places where the 1965 Watts riot and the 1992 riot had started. They looked so suburban. I always assumed these were slums full of public housing high-rises like Cabrini Green in Chicago, with lots of broken elevators and dark hallways for you to get mugged in. I always figured the Watts Towers were housing projects like that. They turned out to be works of art." These are lovely decorative structures built by Watts folk artist Simon Rodia out of rubble and junk.

"Mostly I saw street after street of cute little houses with yards," continued the Chicagoan, who wished to remain anonymous. "No wonder you always heard about so many 'drive-by' shootings out there during the crack wars. Just like everything else in L.A., it must have been too far to walk."

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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