Thursday, August 11, 2011

Guest Post: "Conrad Egan"

by Matthew Brian Hersh, senior editor of the National Housing Institute's "Rooflines" blog.

NHC invites guest blog posters to write on important housing topics.  The views expressed by guest posters do not necessarily reflect those of NHC or its members.

I suspect I came to the same conclusion when titling this post as Harold Simon did when thinking of a title for our summer 2011 interview with Conrad Egan, who retired as president of the National Housing Conference in 2010. Conrad Egan—an organizer, housing developer, HUD official, and affordable housing advocate—is often best identified by name alone.

Don’t be mistaken: the whole cliche that he “needs no introduction” is not applicable here. Egan deserves an introduction. Our interview spans his five-decade career, from his time at the University of Michigan School of Social Work where he specialized in community organizing, to his abrupt meeting with Saul Alinsky in Chicago (who promptly told Egan to get back to Detroit), to his first stint at HUD working with the likes of Marilyn Melkonian, to the National Housing Partnership, to a second stint at HUD, to NHC, and to a decidedly busy post-retirement working to end homelessness in Fairfax County and serving on advisory boards to the Virginia governor, Housing Virginia, and DC’s Community Preservation Development Corporation.

It’s a fascinating interview on several levels, but Egan’s ability for storytelling is on display here, particularly when he describes being in Detroit during the 1967 race riots:

We could hear the guns—there would be a “pop,” and then there would be a 50-caliber machine gun response, “pop-pop-pop.” And the major rioting occurred a little north of us, up 12th Street, north of the boulevard, and then over on the west side, over on Cass and other streets like that. Our neighborhood supermarket got burned out. A lot of our neighbor institutions were destroyed. We were in our home and we heard all this stuff going on, but we didnt feel threatened or endangered.

I was working at the time at University of Detroit Housing Law Project over on the immediate other side of the CBD at the University of Detroit Law School. And I walked into the office, and there was nobody there, and the streets were deserted. So I eventually called my boss, who was located close by in a development called Lafayette Park. This is an interesting development in Detroit that was designed I think by Mies van der Rohe, if I have my architects correct. It’s typical Mies style.

And so she said, “Hey, come on over to my apartment and well get together.” It was a fascinating, amazing picture. If you looked out over this high-rise, and looked down on the folks who were there because they didn’t go to work because they were scared, they were down there swimming in the pool and having their margaritas and Bloody Marys. But as you looked out over the city, you could see the smoke plumes coming up.

There’s so much more. You should really check it out here.

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