Looking at Slum Clearance in the Southwest

In this blog entry, Robert Fairbanks, author of The War on Slums in the Southwest, writes about how religious leaders campaigned for slum clearance in San Antonio and Phoenix.

The War on Slums in the Southwest traces the history of slum clearance and public housing in the Southwest and reminds us of the important role religious leaders had in the campaign to eliminate slums in the Southwest.

In two cities, San Antonio and Phoenix, Roman Catholic priests were the major actors in securing public housing for their cities. Father Carmelo Tranchese served as priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe on the San Antonio’s west side within its principal Mexican barrio characterized by a Works Progress Administration report as “one of the most extensive slums to be found in any American city.” Even before Congress approved the Housing Act of 1937, the priest campaigned for federal help in clearing the slums and the erection of needed public housing for his congregation. He worked hard to publicize the ill effect slum housing had on the city and finally, after teaming up with Congressman Maury Maverick, lobbied directly with Eleanor Roosevelt to secure the much needed slum clearance and public housing projects for his Mexican parishioners, as well as other needy groups throughout the city. The mayor rewarded him for his efforts by appointing him the chair of the city’s initial housing authority.

War on Slums_smIn Phoenix, Father Emmett McLoughlin, a Franciscan priest took on a similar role in securing public housing for that desert city. The headstrong priest arrived in Phoenix in 1934 to serve as one of several clergy in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the oldest in the city. Working with Mexican Americans and especially with African Americans in the city’s slums southwest of the downtown proved an eye opening experience for the priest. There he found unfathomable slum conditions that were in the words of one observer   “fully as bad as any he had seen in the tenement districts of New York.” African Americans often lived in wooden shacks, trailers sheds, and abandoned stores without water or sewage. His compassion for those slum dwellers led him to lobby Phoenix civic leaders for slum clearance and public housing. By publicizing those horrendous conditions and emphasizing their relationship to sickness, crime and bad citizenship, he convinced city fathers to support his effort to secure public housing for Phoenix. When state legislators final passed the necessary enabling legislation allowing Phoenix to form a housing authority, officials named McLoughlin chair of that body. As a result of McLoughlin’s efforts, Phoenix civic leaders embraced slum clearance and federal public housing by completing three projects before the end of World War II.

Even though both priests experienced physical threats and were slandered by slum landlords and others fearful of the public housing program, they were major warriors in the war of slums in the Southwest. Clergy played significant roles in other southwestern cities public housing efforts too. Almost every housing authority in the Southwest included either a Catholic priest, Protestant clergy or Jewish rabbi (and often several) on its initial housing authority. Such stories remind us that those who are passionately committed to responding to the plight of the poor could and did make a difference in the booming cities of the Southwest.

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