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COMM-ORG Papers 2006


Making a Better World: Public Housing, the Red Scare, and the Direction of Modern Los Angeles

By Don Parson

Available from University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Reviewed by Bill Pitkin

For someone like me born well after the post-WWII era, the term “Red Scare” conjures up images of blacklisted movie stars, a fanatical Joseph McCarthy, congressional hearings, and courageous actions of journalists like Edward R. Murrow.  These images are distant not only in time, but also in space and geography, seemingly part of only the national discourse and perhaps irrelevant for local social and political activists. 

This eloquent historical study by Don Parson corrects those misperceptions, uncovering how anti-Communist rhetoric was used in Los Angeles during the Red Scare to discredit a burgeoning public housing movement (“community modernism”) and pave the way for the pro-growth urban renewal policies (“corporate modernism”) that shaped what would become the nation’s second largest city by 1990.     

Parson begins by tracing the development of public housing policies during the Great Depression to assuage urban social unrest and protest by groups such as the Unemployed Councils.  Despite opposition from the real estate lobby, the Housing Act of 1937 was passed and provided for the development of public rental housing.  The Left saw public housing as a central component of the welfare state, putting it at odds with business interests and political conservatives.

In Los Angeles, a coalition of organized labor, religious groups, civic organizations and racial and ethnic minorities developed to push the agenda of Public Housing during the late 1930s, leading to the development of over 20 housing projects during World War II.  With rapid migration of workers and returning veterans during this period (the population of the city grew by 20 percent from 1940 to 1946), the pressure for affordable housing increased, as did organizing calling for public housing to alleviate the crisis.  Parson writes that “returning veterans proved to be the most willing to engage in direct action and were one of the most visible, and at times the most radical, of public housing proponents” (p. 86).  Despite the activism of these obvious patriots, opponents of a California public housing proposition in 1948 decried it as “a left-wing Communist scheme” and “the Hitler-Stalin hosing program.” 

A few years later, public housing opponents in Los Angeles seized on the fear of the Red Scare, smearing public housing activists such as Frank Wilkinson of the City Housing Authority (CHA). [1] The City Council asked the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate the CHA, leading to the firing of Wilkinson and others when they asserted their Fifth Amendment rights and effectively killing the public housing agenda in Los Angeles. 

Parson argues that, with the demise of the community modernist vision, the way was paved for urban renewal and the triumph of corporate modernism in Los Angeles.  He provides a thorough recounting of two of the most famous redevelopment projects in Los Angeles: Bunker Hill, which eventually allowed for the commercial redevelopment of downtown, and Chavez Ravine, which cleared the way for the construction of Dodger Stadium. [2] In both cases, Parson's detailed, diligent research in both these cases transports the reader to the emotional, heart-wrenching clearances of residents from their homes in favor of corporate interests. 

The ascendant pro-growth coalition would rule Los Angeles for several decades, unchallenged until the “slow-growth” movement of politically powerful homeowner associations in the 1980s.  Interestingly, today these two interest groups have been challenged by the inheritors of the earlier “community modernism” movement: community, labor, and religious groups who have successfully pushed for labor and housing reforms on behalf of the working poor in Los Angeles.   

I highly recommend this book for a wide range of readers. It is simply a must read for anyone interested in understanding current Los Angeles.  Researchers studying Los Angeles need to be familiar with this largely unknown history.  Activists and organizers working to achieve social equity would be well served by the historical analysis of why Liberals and Conservatives joined together in the pro-growth coalition that dominated Los Angeles for most of the latter half of the 20th Century and, while not as powerful today, still holds sway in the city.  For those researchers and activists not working in or on Los Angeles, this book provides a great example of urban historical research and provides lessons on how much even seemingly distant political discourse can affect the day-to-day realities of community residents. 

[1] Wilkinson’s death in January 2006 inspired a host of dedications (e.g. see about his tireless work on behalf of the poor in Los Angeles.  The Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research holds Frank Wilkinson’s papers, which inspired a multimedia exhibit on the history of housing in Los Angeles (see

[2] The Chavez Ravine story has been vividly retold in photos (Chavez Ravine 1949), film (“Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story”,, song (Ry Cooder’s 2005 release titled “Chavez Ravine”), and even animation (go to

About the Reviewer: 

Bill Pitkin currently serves as Research Director at United Way of Greater Los Angeles (UWGLA), where he oversees all research, evaluation and strategic planning activities related to UWGLA's Community Investment work. Previously, he held positions as Executive Director at the Los Angeles United Methodist Urban Foundation and as Research Director at the Advanced Policy Institute (since renamed the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge) in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Bill has published research articles and reports in areas such as community and nonprofit technology, housing affordability, mortgage lending discrimination, participatory planning in Latin America, and urban planning history and has taught in the UCLA Urban Planning Department and CSUN Urban Studies and Planning Program. Bill has M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Urban Planning from UCLA. He can be contacted at