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...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews


A book as good as this certainly reaffirms the merits of solid and rigorous academic study...Vale details Boston's long public housing trajectory starting off with institutions such as Almshouses and the "Houses of Industry", before emerging in the 19th century with new variants such as the "public lands" policy, the sanctification of the single family home and various attempts at tenement reform...This is academic insight at its best.
Douglas Robertson


The strength of Vale's book is the depth of his research into the actual operation of the Boston Housing Authority in implementing these policies, particularly through tenant selection. No other study offers such a revealing look inside the operation of the public housing bureaucracy.
J. R. Breihan


Vale, an urban studies and planning professor, examines more than three centuries of Boston's provision for "the public neighbor," exploring "shifting relationships among the state, the market, and civil society," which reflect policy makers' profoundly mixed motives. From indoor and outdoor relief to tenement reform and settlement houses to urban renewal and massive housing projects, genuine desire to help the poor has always been interwoven with a demand for tighter social control. Increasingly the geographical placement of public housing has sought to insulate the nonpoor from social problems of the public neighbor. A fascinating analysis of how one city has manifested "our collective ambivalence" about citizens unable to provide adequate housing for themselves.
Mary Carroll

American Prospect

In his history of housing and poverty in Boston, Vale shows that the public housing program was intended to be something quite different from what it became. More important, public housing originally was not meant for the very poor...Economic conditions, Vale points out, enabled public housing officials to cull the most stable and best-paid low-income tenants...Not surprisingly, tenants in these years were model citizens who organized themselves into a wide array of volunteer organizations and took pride in maintaining clean and attractive buildings and grounds in the projects. The chief problem was that aspiring tenants tended to prosper, earning more than the rules allowed and forcing reluctant officials to evict them.
Alexander von Hoffman


From the Puritans to the Projects is a comprehensive history of urban housing in Boston and, more broadly, of the urban poor's attempts to find housing in America during the past 350 years. Beginning with Puritan almshouses in the seventeenth century, Vale traces the arguments and policies concerning housing for the economically marginalized in America, and poses questions about the practice of building high-rises to warehouse the poor.

H-Net Reviews

[From the Puritans to the Projects] is an impressive work, both in terms of content and presentation...[It is] a major contribution to recent scholarship on housing, urban history and public policy; its shelf-life will be long.
Kristin M. Szylvian

The Federal Lawyer

Vale is very insightful at decoding...half-conscious pop-culture signs and symptoms...[The book is] very informative and worthwhile for anyone interested in the tortuous history of land use policy and urban politics.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674044579
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 482
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

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

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Table of Contents



Introduction: The "Public" in Public Housing

Public Housing as an American Problem

Housing the Public Neighbor

Public Housing in Boston


1. Coping with the Poor: Techniques and Institutions

The Moral Geography of Puritan Space

New Institutions for Indoor Relief

Tenement Reform

Settlement Houses

Ideal Tenement Districts

2. Rewarding Upward Mobility: Public Lands, Private Houses, and New Communities

Frontier Individualism on Public Lands

Homesteads in the Boston Suburbs

Residential Districts

Communities by Design

Public Neighborhoods without Public Neighbors


3. Building Selective Collectives, 1934-1954

Boston's Selective Collectives

Public Works and Private Markets

Public Housing as Slum Reform

Public Housing as War Production (1940 -1945)

Public Housing as Veterans' Assistance (1946 -1954)

The Authority Is Watching

4. Managing Poverty and Race, 1955-1980

The Geopolitics of Public Housing

Urban Renewal

Rewarding the Elderly

The Mechanisms of Patronage

Racial Discrimination and the BHA

Battles within the Bureaucracy

The Decline and Fall of the BHA

5. The Boston Housing Authority since 1980: The Puritans Return

The Receivership

Four Redevelopment Efforts in the 1980s

The Politics of Public Housing Preferences

Getting Beyond Receivership

Boston Public Housing in the 1990s

Ideological Retrenchment

From the Puritans to the Projects




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