Public Housing, A Personal Perspective

Catherine Bauer’s photographs show that she was an avid field researcher of public housing built for low-income families. Following Bauer’s successful lobbying for the federal Housing Act of 1937, California passed a state Housing Authorities Law in 1938. Local governments established housing authorities in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and, later, Vallejo. Following controversial surveys of existing low-income neighborhoods and undeveloped sites, these authorities radically transformed vast areas of their cities through the construction of homes with the modern amenities that housing reformers argued allowed for safer, healthier living and recreation.

Catherine Bauer and William Wurster’s collection contains several slides of public housing in California, again labeled in Bauer’s hand and made using her preferred Kodachrome film. One slide shows a “court view” of Rancho San Pedro. Others show children at play in the yards and under the ramadas of Los Angeles’s 800-unit development, Aliso Village. One Kodachrome slide reveals an unrehearsed scene likely captured by Bauer on a 1942 tour of Los Angeles’s public housing developments. In another, William Wurster sits on a low wall in the courtyard of Valencia Gardens in San Francisco.

Many of these public housing developments fell far short of both reformers’ and residents’ dreams. Catherine Bauer worked hard to stop racial segregation in public housing and repeatedly spoke out against public housing designs that failed to incorporate features like cheery exterior colors and a sufficient number of ground-level units to allow families proximity to playgrounds and gardens. Bauer based these criticisms on research and fieldwork. In 1950, she visited the low-income neighborhoods of Chávez Ravine not far from downtown Los Angeles and problematically labeled her corresponding Kodachrome slides with the word “shacks.” When the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles devised plans to build high-rise public housing to replace the existing Ravine homes, Bauer opposed the design because it radically altered the current residents’ access to nature.[1] Instead of high-rise housing, the city ultimately built the Dodgers baseball stadium. Bauer’s photographs offer rare color images of the ancestral homes of a community that to this day remembers and shares the stories of life in Chávez Ravine.



[1] On criticism of the plans for Chávez Ravine, see, for example, Thomas Hines, “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism,” Journal of Urban History 8, no. 2 (1982): 133–134; Simon Eisner, “Seven Decades of Planning and Development in the Los Angeles Region: Simon Eisner,” interview by Edward A. Holden in 1987 and 1989, Oral History Collection, Department of Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles, 1992, 70–71,

Selected bibliography

Baranski, John. Housing the City by the Bay: Tenant Activism, Civil Rights, and Class Politics in San Francisco. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Cuff, Dana. The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Eisner, Simon. “Seven Decades of Planning and Development in the Los Angeles Region: Simon Eisner.” Interview by Edward A. Holden in 1987 and 1989. Oral History Collection, Department of Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles, 1992.

Hines, Thomas. “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism.” Journal of Urban History 8, no. 2 (1982): 123–143.

Kimble, John. “Insuring Inequality: The Role of the Federal Housing Administration in the Urban Ghettoization of African Americans.” Law & Social Inquiry 32, no. 2 (2007): 399–434.

Mechner, Jordan, dir. Chávez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story. Oley: Bullfrog Films, 2004. DVD.

Parson, Don. Making a Better World: Public Housing, the Red Scare, and the Direction of Modern Los Angeles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Pulido, Laura. Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Sides, Josh. L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Villa, Raúl Homero. Barrio-Logos: Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.