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From the Puritans to the Projects

From the Puritans to the Projects

Public Housing and Public Neighbors

Lawrence J. Vale

ISBN 9780674025752

Publication date: 09/30/2007

From the almshouses of seventeenth-century Puritans to the massive housing projects of the mid-twentieth century, the struggle over housing assistance in the United States has exposed a deep-seated ambivalence about the place of the urban poor. Lawrence J. Vale's groundbreaking book is both a comprehensive institutional history of public housing in Boston and a broader examination of the nature and extent of public obligation to house socially and economically marginal Americans during the past 350 years.

First, Vale highlights startling continuities both in the way housing assistance has been delivered to the American poor and in the policies used to reward the nonpoor. He traces the stormy history of the Boston Housing Authority, a saga of entrenched patronage and virulent racism tempered, and partially overcome, by the efforts of unyielding reformers. He explores the birth of public housing as a program intended to reward the upwardly mobile working poor, details its painful transformation into a system designed to cope with society's least advantaged, and questions current policy efforts aimed at returning to a system of rewards for responsible members of the working class. The troubled story of Boston public housing exposes the mixed motives and ideological complexity that have long characterized housing in America, from the Puritans to the projects.


  • In tracing the story of public housing from Puritan times to the present, Professor Vale pays special attention to the spatial dimensions of poverty management. His is not a mechanical tale of segregation, but a careful presentation of the placement of the poor in response to the policies of aid and discipline. This book, at once both an excellent history and an unusually thorough Boston case study, illustrates the continuing cultural and political ambivalence that plays itself out in ever-changing environments for the poor.

    —Sam Bass Warner, Jr., author of Streetcar Suburbs (Harvard)


  • Lawrence J. Vale is Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Book Details

  • 482 pages
  • 6-3/8 x 9 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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