When I was in high school, I was constantly searching for high-level games. I played four to five hours after school every day, and at least that much on weekend days. My search for runs eventually led me to the "A-Rack"*- an asphalt patch of a basketball court in one the city’s housing projects. The Victor Tulane Court housing project was named after a prominent African-American Montgomery businessman from the early twentieth century. The 300-unit project had a reputation for being a tough place, and the basketball runs lived up to that reputation. That, however, was what I was in search of– “big boy” basketball. I don’t remember how I was introduced to that game or by who, but as I recall, I fit in pretty early. The fact that I was a white guy that could dunk made me a novelty and provided some level of credibility. From ’88 to ’91 I was an A-Rack fixture- for no other reason than the best basketball in the city was being played there and I wanted to be a part of it.
As a sixteen year old, I did not have an overt interest in urbanism. At the time I suspected I would end up in advertising as a graphic designer. In hindsight, however, my visits to Tulane Court proved to be my first real exposure to the concept of housing density. I had a difficult time appreciating the density, however, because the overwhelming impression of the place was one of highly concentrated economic poverty. The second impression was that despite (or perhaps because of) the economic conditions, the community had a very robust social structure. The density issue had a very practical application in this case. In my neighborhood the process of corralling ten people and heading to a basketball court was a Herculean task- at Tulane Court, all we had to do was knock on a few doors and walk across the street to get a game. While I had a sub-conscious appreciation for the benefits of density, I had a very conscious understanding of the detrimental effects of poorly executed density.
History has shown that the low-income housing projects of the urban renewal era were unmitigated failures. Part of that failure was in design- anonymous units were designed in anonymous blocks. Designers often provided prodigious amounts of open space for the residents, but in the effort to make them space for everyone, they became no one’s space. The result of those designs was buildings that exacerbated existing problems and open spaces that were effectively no-mans land. Beyond the failure of design, the bigger picture problems were created by the concentration of low-income households.
I have, on a few occasions, participated in charrettes dealing with the redevelopment of government housing projects. In typical charrette fashion, citizens were involved in envisioning the future of the neighborhoods. The residents, having been exposed to (poorly executed) density, almost always favor sub-urban schemes for redevelopment. Can’t say I blame them. The American Dream of a plot of land with a house and front and back yards is something that is ingrained into all of our psyches. Without an understanding that there are other, better alternatives to circa-1950 sub-urbs, we have established a default answer to “what is your vision for a better living environment?” The problem is, as the "haves" have discovered, sub-urban design does not produce healthy living environments. Is anyone better off if poorly designed communities are replaced with poorly designed communities?
If we are to become a truly great city, the community has to provide healthy and sustainable living conditions for all of its citizens. This process obviously entails more than urban design solutions. We've been down the road of design-only solutions and have seen the results. The community faces a daunting task- but it is not unlike what was faced downtown. The citizenry didn't comprehend the concepts of urbanism in the early eighties. Had you asked anyone about a vision for downtown development then, you would have likely received responses for sub-urban types of development- because that was perceived as good, and no one knew of a better alternative. It took several decades of community education and participation to establish a vocabulary that allowed us to develop a core that is authentic and that aspires to fulfill the promise of a healthy urban environment.
Much has been said and written about Chattanooga Venture, Vision 2000 and similar processes. Those efforts brought together a certain cross-section of the community to identify problems and enumerate strategies to address them. Is there any doubt that a similar, robust process to address our current problems could be equally successful? If a viable concept for empowering disadvantaged communities was developed, I'm certain that it would attract capital for implementation. That's where the Chattanooga way comes in- involving everyone who has a stake (which is everyone in the community by the way) in the creation of ideas to tackle the problem.
As for Tulane Court, it appears that in the last few years it has been redeveloped (presumably as a Hope VI project) and renamed the Plaza at Centennial Hill (despite the fact that there is no plaza). The redesign of the site has resulted in a project that looks an awful lot like a suburban apartment complex. In my estimation it appears that none of the design issues have been fixed- the development seems to be anonymous blocks of housing (they’ve just been given the veneer of sub-urban homes) oriented around an anonymous open space (it’s a nice size, but poorly designed). Of course, the bigger issue is the economic composition of the development. As far as I can tell, the MHA is making efforts to create a mixed-income community, and I hope they can pull it off. The A-rack appears to have survived the razing of Tulane Court, and part of me wants to return and run court one more time- old man style (after all, I get buckets and I can still dunk). If I go, I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Let the record show that aged 40, I can still dunk.
*I don’t know for certain if it’s the “A-Rack” or the “A-Rec”, nor do I know what it stands for. There were a number of colorfully named basketball courts in the city- my next favorite run after the A-Rack was “The Band-Aid”. The Band-Aid was the outdoor court facility at Alabama State University- so named because after any given game you would likely require one.