Recently, Boston’s City Hall was named one of the ten ugliest buildings in the world. The surrounding City Hall Plaza is already considered one of the world’s worst public spaces. This Brutalist structure has been the source of controversy for years; Boston’s own mayor, the beloved Mumbles Menino, hates it. Although I’m not a fan of this building either, I’d like to nominate another, less famous but no less dysfunctional building for this title.
South Shore High School in Brooklyn, NY opened its doors in 1970 and, within five years, its student population ballooned to 6800, making it the second largest high school in the US. Like Boston’s City Hall, the building encountered problems from the start. South Shore was also an extremely tense environment since its opening.
I don’t believe that architecture is the sole problem or solution to social issues, but it is often a contributing factor. In the case of South Shore, many of its basic problems were non-architectural but were magnified in a physical environment of colossal architectural failure. Let’s start with its location on the edges of three vastly different Brooklyn neighborhoods — East Flatbush, Canarsie, and Flatlands — all experiencing white flight and drastic demographic shifts during the 60s through the 80s. Its students, at first, were mostly a mix of working- and middle-class Jewish, Italian, and African American students.
But, because the school was so large, it was never really a neighborhood high school, and its students also came from both wealthier and poorer neighborhoods farther away — East New York, Flatbush, Mill Basin, and Bergen Beach. The distances and differences further eroded any sense of cohesion among the student population. More and more students were West Indian immigrants. Students from dour Glenwood Projects across the street from the school rubbed elbows with the nouveau riche National Drive kids.
Actually, no. For the most part, rigorous tracking resulted in precise segregation. The less college-bound the class, the darker the skin and the leaner the wallet. Gym offered a unique opportunity for students to mingle, in what might be described as a daily Lord of the Flies ritual.
I was in high school during a dark period for NYC public schools, also a dark period for the city. Crack, HIV/AIDS, the recession, the rise of youth gangs, increased crime, and sweeping budget cuts, all conspired with the already volatile makeup of South Shore’s student body, resulting in some troubling news stories:
* 5 Are Injured in Racial Fight at School, 13 Jun 87
* At Brawl Site, Tales of Recent Rise in Racial Tension, 14 Jun 87
* 3 Brooklyn Blacks Beaten in Attack by a White Gang, 4 Sep 87
* Racial Brawl Victims Bear No Malice, 5 Sep 87
* 6 Are Accused in Racial Fight at High School, 26 Nov 87
* Flatbush Youths Harass Strollers in the Village, 28 May 89
* Brooklyn Youth Is Wounded in Dispute over Coat, 11 Jul 90
* Youth Shot over a Coat Dies, 16 Jul 90
* Teen-Ager Arrested in Shooting of Girl, 3, 23 Aug 90
* Boy, 15, Is Fatally Stabbed at School in Brooklyn, 22 Sep 92
* Screening for Arms at School, 23 Sep 92
* School Safety Is Debated after Violence, 24 Oct 92
To be sure, the students, faculty, and administration were all demoralized by the budgetary woes — classes and after-school programs were cut, class sizes were increased, lunch was eliminated for many students. Some teachers, like Dr. Gussin, remained effective even as classes swelled well beyond capacity. Others gave up, like Mrs. K, the lone college counselor-turned-resident expectation manager, and her mantra of “Students from this school don’t attend colleges like that.”
South Shore is not simply a failure of aesthetics, but a failure of functionality. The project was ill-conceived from the start and, although not every problem I encountered 20 years after its opening could have been anticipated, a lot of the seeds were present in the late 60s. It was the embodiment of what Dr. Gussin might call “not a melting pot but a tossed salad” — an unhealthily diverse environment rife with criminal entrepreneurialism, mischievous ambition, polarization, and segregation, presided over by an understaffed administration and a lax security force that could barely contain its students within the massive compound. Ugly or not, like Boston’s City Hall, it never successfully fulfilled its stated mission.
South Shore has been shut down due to “chronic underperformance,” which satisfies me more than I would have expected. The building now houses four separate, smaller high schools. If the DOE ever decides to implode the structure, please give me a call. I would fly home just to witness it.