A 1940s documentary about housing and poverty in Philadelphia, and progress since then
The 1941 Academy Awards were notable for several reasons.
"Citizen Kane" failed to win Best Picture, which instead went to "How Green Was My Valley." There was great anticipation from the public in the Best Actress race, between legendary feuding sisters Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock’s "Suspicion" and Olivia de Havilland in "Hold Back the Dawn." Fontaine’s victory was the only time an actress won for a performance in an Alfred Hitchcock film.
And it was the first year that there was a documentary film category.
One nominee for a gold-plated Oscar was a short documentary shot in Philadelphia, called "A Place to Live." It is the story of inner city life in Philadelphia, urban renewal and a boy living with his family in a squalid one-room apartment in a rat-infested slum neighborhood.
The Philadelphia Housing Association
"A Place to Live" is based on a survey done by a now-defunct nonprofit, the Philadelphia Housing Association. The Association was formed in 1909, when open sewers lined the streets and homes and churches shared city blocks with stables, pigsties and slaughterhouses. The group vowed to work to improve the housing conditions in Philadelphia by doing studies of the conditions that affected tenants, and advocating for adequate housing laws and enforcement.
Some of their campaigns led to an ordinance to limit areas for raising pigs and a program for citywide underground sewers in built-up areas. The group fought to establish a minimum sanitary standard and to adopt the Housing Code of 1915 by the state legislature. When local industry expanded during World War I and accommodations for workers became an issue, the group protested temporary houses and argued for permanent solutions. With population growth came overcrowding and the need for housing for people struggling to make ends meet. The importance of conserving new and existing neighborhoods led to the adoption of Philadelphia’s first zoning ordinance in 1933.
Through the Depression the group continued to argue for reforms, and in 1937 Philadelphia followed both state and federal legislation by enacting a public housing program.
"A Place to Live"
The movie opens with the question, “What do they imagine they can make out of this?” with a scene of neighbors hanging out and cleaning their North Philadelphia street, then a montage of iconic shots of monuments and City Hall. A series of sweeping views from on high follows as the narrator describes Philadelphia as “thousands of houses surrounding an island where the towers stand together. An ocean of rooftops under which millions of people live and work.”
As the narrator turns our attention to the human element of the city, he says “this is a city of people. Living in these wide miles of buildings, they are this city's true resource.” The audience is then introduced to a nameless young boy as his mother picks up the narration. She talks about her tween-aged son as he walks home from school with a classmate. After saying good-bye to his friend, we watch the boy face-off with a rat on the way to a cramped house where his mother is tending to his baby sister and cooking. We hear her inner worries for her son’s safety and his future. She openly wishes for something better. The mother asks her son to head out with a metal wagon and scavenge for scraps of wood to heat the apartment.
The original narration picks back up with a look back at what the founders of Philadelphia had in mind when they began in the 1700s. We see scenes of more statues and houses in Society Hill, a high-end neighborhood that is still made up of well-maintained, historic red brick homes. These ancestors “lived and died in the hope of the newest of all inventions, America,” he says. But, he asks, “what does this planned city come to? Has it worked or has it lost its plan?”
The film shows industrial plants belching black smoke, steel mills and factories, showing the changes that accompanied the coming of concrete, steel and electricity.
When this movie was made, large numbers of migrant workers came to Philadelphia as defense industries grew, adding to earlier problems of housing shortages, slum conditions, rising rent and chaotic urban expansion.
As narration ping pongs from the ominous male voice to the boy’s mother, we see shots of struggling families and huddled children. Bulldozers level blocks and blocks of dilapidated houses and talk turns to the new housing that will be built in its place.
In 2003, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) completed a costly redevelopment of the Richard Allen Homes, part of a city-wide public housing reinvestment program. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)
This development was called Richard Allen Homes and was one of Philadelphia's first federally funded housing projects. The development was intended to give a boost to the ailing construction industry and provide decent, low-cost housing to struggling working-class families, but actually it displaced more people than it housed.
In the film, the boy and his mother speak in dreamy voices of this new place to call home, and we are led to believe they are going to be living in one. But a different reality emerges and the narrator says, “but its not so simple. There just isn’t room for you here. Every step of the way is hard going. They say you ruin a good house. They say you look for other slums when you do move. They say they can’t solve the problem, can't afford to experiment. They say they don't see what they can do. They say, anyway, you don't know what's good when you see it. They call you worthless people; call you poison to any neighborhood. They say it's not for you.” We know now that the boy and his mother are one of the displaced families.
The film ends with a plea from mother and son for “a place to live in.”
Around the same time the film was released, a fair rent committee and a centralized subsidized housing listing service were created in Philadelphia.
After that, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission was formed. On May 24, 1945, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania adopted Urban Renewal Law and that same year, created the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority as the City’s urban renewal agency.
At the end of World War II, Philadelphia experienced a boom of residential building and entire new communities sprang up. At the same time, a growing number of older neighborhoods were being threatened by encroaching blight. Failure to enforce safety codes and sanitary standards over a long period resulted in countless safety concerns and uncorrected violations, from unsafe walls to lack of water supply. The Philadelphia Housing Association drafted a new charter for the city and its recommendations were a contributing factor to the creation of the Department of Licenses and Inspections in 1951.
As federal and state governments provide more tools to deal with housing issues, it creates a growing need for enforcement and oversight. Continuing attention is needed to achieve the maximum benefit from it. With renewal, redevelopment and enforcement there needs to be solutions to the problem of relocating displaced families.
The Association wrote that “the fight for better housing never stops.”
Sandy Salzman, Executive Director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, agrees with that line of thinking. The NKCDC is a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable development and neighborhood revitalization. “We still have blocks and blocks of houses that need to be demolished because they’ve been abandoned,” said Salzman.
The film depicts the beginning of the federal programs that brought extra funding into the city of Philadelphia.
"We are still using that funding," said Salzman. "It’s now called the Community Development Block Grant.” Salzman believes that CDBGs are vulnerable since President-elect Donald Trump has said he is going to cut off the block grant funding to sanctuary cities. Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey said on the senate floor that they should in fact cut off funding to the city of Philadelphia.
“I think that people who work in housing are really concerned about these actions that could happen,” said Salzman.
Philadelphia received $38.6 million in CDBG for fiscal year 2017. A portion of that goes towards housing. Salzman doesn’t believe that these CDBGs should be withheld from cities that have a lot of demand for housing, just because they are a sanctuary city.
“One is about the fourth amendment and the other one is about housing and making people safe,” she said.
A pamphlet about the Philadelphia Housing Association says that every solution leads to its own problems: “The pigsties are no longer, and bathtubs will be universal within a few years. But the dynamics of our society will never let us rest on our laurels for long.”
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