Jumat, 03 September 2010

Tenancy culture studies: 'Good Times'

Today's subject of study is, appropriately for Social Housing Month, the American public housing sitcom, Good Times.

(Good Times opening credits. You'll be singing the theme-song to yourself all day.)

Good Times, which aired for five seasons commencing February 1974, is remembered fondly, and rightly, for its ground-breaking depiction of black American working class life. It also broke new ground in its setting: a public housing project – never named in the show, but it's the Cabrini-Green project in Chicago, Illinois, that's depicted in the opening credits.

In its first season, public housing was front and centre in the storylines of Good Times: indeed, the very first pilot episode introduces us to the Evans family as they are about to be evicted for rent arrears. When we meet them, family matriarch Florida has only just gotten back to work after an operation, and her husband, James Snr, has been misled by a bumbling housing official as to the state of their rent account. The welfare office won't help: hardworking James Snr doesn't earn enough to cover the arrears, but he does earn just too much to qualify for assistance. The Evans children, James Jr ('JJ'), Thelma and Michael, consider raising the required funds by illicit means – Florida puts a stop to that – and James Snr sees nothing else for it but to pick up his pool-cue and do a little hustling. He comes through, the arrears are paid and the tenancy is saved; righteous Florida accepts this with equanimity.

In subsequent episodes, the Evanses would contend with broken down elevators and heating, pompous, ignorant housing administrators and, in the episode 'Springtime in the Ghetto', with the peculiar institution of a public housing 'best kept apartment' competition. In that episode, Florida is torn between the imperative to impress the judges with her tasteful furnishings, and Michael's attempts to rehabilitate Ned the Wino, the neighbourhood alcoholic – a metaphor, perhaps, for the tensions in public housing's own historical missions of maintaining orderly appearances and rehabilitating disorganised, disorderly subject populations.

As the series went on, Good Times changed rather a lot (like another tenurially significant American sitcom), with James Snr, then Florida, leaving the show, then the remaining family members moving out of the public housing project altogether, and catch-phrases eclipsing commentary. But those early episodes were significant – especially considering their timing.

As we saw in a previous tenancy culture study, through the 1960s and 1970s a new movement of social scientific investigation had uncovered the persistence of poverty amidst the prosperity of the postwar period. The first response was to call for this to be addressed by extensions to government programs of social security and urban renewal. By the early 1970s, however, this investigative attention had turned to focus on the role of those very programs of government in the production of hardship and strife amongst poor households. So, for example, Lee Rainwater's classic 1970 study of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St Louis, Missouri, Behind Ghetto Walls – pointedly subtitled 'black families in a federal slum' – described the project's grim towers as 'condensing into one 57 acre tract all the problems and difficulties that arise from race and poverty and all of the impotence, indifference and hostility with which our society has so far dealt with these problems'.

These sorts of criticisms came from a radical progressive perspective but, in the seismic shifts in economics and politics in the 1970s and 1980s, these arguments were also taken up by the new Right and the ground beneath a range of social programs, not least public housing, shifted too. In 1972, Pruitt-Igoe was demolished; in 1973, President Nixon instituted a one-year moratorium on public housing; construction resumed modestly towards the end of the decade, but fell away again in the 1980s. Between 1995-2004, 115 000 units of public housing in the United States were demolished, including most of the Cabrini-Green project.

(Pruitt-Igoe. Dy-no-mited.)

The United States might provide the most dramatic images of the decline and fall of public housing, but the pattern is broadly familiar here too. In the early 1970s, the strongest critics of the old Housing Commission – and, in particular, its plans for the construction of so-called 'suicide towers' in slum-cleared inner city suburbs – were the radical Builders Labourers' Federation, working class residents action groups and community activists; they were shortly joined by conservative critics like M A Jones, who made the influential, if not entirely consistent, arguments that public housing neither delivered its promised benefits (improved health, less delinquency), nor delivered to the persons who needed it (the poor, rather than the low-income workers who then made up public housing's clientele). We've not had the spectacular demolitions seen in the United States, but our public housing systems have been diminished too, especially under the Howard Coalition Government – without, it must be said, too much resistance from State Labor Governments – which over the 10 years from 1996 reduced funding to public housing by 30 per cent.

None of this account is meant as a recrimination against those early investigators and activists; rather, my point is to highlight how admirably Good Times encompasses both a critical position against the ways in which public housing was designed and administered, and a respectful acknowledgment of the place of public housing in the lives of many households. The Evanses make a home of their apartment, and it helps hold them together; James Snr and Florida also remember that mid-twentieth century private rental often meant a flat without hot water or its own bathroom. The title 'Good Times' is partly ironic, but only partly.