In Saving America’s Cities, the prize-winning historian Lizabeth Cohen bends over backwards to be fair to Ed Logue, the architect of efforts in New Haven, then Boston, and finally New York to carry out the postwar policy that both the left and the right love to hate: urban renewal.
The cliche about urban renewal is that it ran roughshod over functioning neighborhoods, where “slum clearance” wiped out poor but viable communities. Urban renewal was also rightly attacked as “Negro removal.” It was abhorred by leftwing defenders of organic neighborhoods, in the spirit of Jane Jacobs, and by conservative critics of federal meddling, the classic being Martin Anderson’s The Federal Bulldozer.
It’s high time for Cohen’s more balanced reconsideration. The inventors of urban renewal were living at a time when urban dwellers and economic activity were moving to suburbia. The war-production boom had delayed urban decline, but by the late 1940s cities were becoming hollow shells. As middle-class whites fled to the suburbs, a second great migration of African Americans moved to northern cities, just as good jobs were disappearing.
The Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 provided federal funds to pay two-thirds of the cost of land clearance. The cleared land was mostly sold to developers. Some was reserved for public purposes, such as Boston’s Government Center. The first wave of urban renewal deserved the scathing critiques. “Residents were often excessively and insensitively displaced from their homes,” Cohen writes.
Yet Cohen insists that cities were in such serious decline by the late 1940s that something drastic had to be done, and that the practice evolved so that Logue, especially in his Boston and New York incarnations, represented a more complex second wave of urban planning.
As Cohen writes, Logue began as a fervent New Dealer, even something of a radical. Still in his early 30s, he was hired by New Haven’s reform mayor, Richard Lee, in 1953. Lee created a new super Redevelopment Agency that could bypass city government, take land by eminent domain, and receive direct federal funding. Beginning with New York’s Robert Moses, many cities used similar models.
Under Logue, New Haven got more federal money per resident than any other city. Urban renewal, New Haven style, was designed around the automobile, on the premise that if suburbanites were to be attracted back to the city to live or to shop, the city had to be as friendly to cars as suburban tract homes and shopping malls. The strategy was at best a mixed success.
Logue was recruited by Boston’s new reform mayor, John Collins, in late 1959. In a decade, Boston had lost 13 percent of its population and over 60,000 jobs. There was already a backlash against one first-wave urban renewal project. In the early 1950s, Boston’s West End, a vibrant blend of Italian and Jewish working-class communities, was demolished as a slum, replaced by soulless high-rise apartments and a park.
Logue and Collins were determined not to repeat this mistake. Logue had been high-handed in New Haven. He consulted with community groups in Boston, and renewal funds went to improve, not demolish, residential neighborhoods.
The one exception was Logue’s grand plan to revive Boston’s sagging downtown. As Cohen explains, businesses were leaving and new economic activity favored the Route 128 corridor. Logue felt he had to do something dramatic to signal a new Boston. This turned out to be the demolition of Scollay Square, to be replaced by a new Government Center, with the support of the city’s financial elite and the Catholic archdiocese. The heart of the project was a new City Hall, in the then-fashionable “brutalist” style. (Brut is French for raw concrete, but “brutal” better signals the result.)
Cohen is far more forgiving than most Bostonians of the travesty of City Hall. The idea was to signal openness of government. The result signals “fortress.” Compared to graceful public buildings like the Charles Bullfinch State House and the Adams Courthouse, which display the majesty of democratic government, Government Center makes government seem alien and forbidding.
Logue was lured to New York by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Like Logue’s other patrons, Rockefeller created a super-agency for Logue, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), with power to bypass local government. Logue got a lot of housing built, some with community participation, but he accumulated enemies. In the financial crisis of 1974-75, the UDC defaulted on some bonds, and Logue was dismissed.
Logue’s era was one of serious, large-scale public investments. Some were done well, such as public power and Social Security. By contrast, urban renewal was an uneven blessing.
Cohen writes that in many ways Logue was a tragic figure. It took him a lifetime as a public official to learn humility and to cultivate the art of listening to people and communities. His work on his last job, in the South Bronx, was almost a kind of penance for his earlier grandiosity and was exemplary.
A policy tragedy parallels Logue’s personal one. By the time the urban renewers had begun to appreciate bottom-up public planning, the big money was gone. Nixon, Reagan, and neo-liberal Democratic presidents had decided that the age of big government was over. Just as community development corporations had learned their craft, the funding dwindled. Worse, money for housing was increasingly privatized, with tax breaks to subsidize construction and vouchers that enriched landlords more than tenants. Government systematically disinvested in public housing.
Today’s planners have far less power than czars like Robert Moses or Ed Logue. They are better listeners. They also have far less money. Where Logue was contending with disinvestment and depopulation, today’s community planners have the opposite problem — gentrification that makes land prohibitively expensive. Power has passed from planners to developers.
Logue was a big city planner, but several of the issues that Cohen’s book revisits have contemporary resonances with the Outer Cape. The small housing projects here are exemplary in terms of the civic behavior and social goals prized by Lizabeth Cohen, Jane Jacobs, and the later-life, chastened Ed Logue. There is almost an excess of community engagement and contention — and certainly no planning czar. Rather than valid concern about reckless displacement, we now have excessive resistance to even a few affordable units. What’s lacking is serious public investment to create a housing sector that will be social in perpetuity and never subject to market forces bidding up land values.
The modest windfall of Covid relief funds subsidizing affordable housing on the Outer Cape shows in miniature what might be done. The scale is woefully inadequate. Cohen is right that the trajectory of urban renewal, from grandiose top-down planning to community-defined goals, is indeed a usable history. But today the needed public money is mostly absent.
Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in a Suburban Age, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was winner of the Bancroft Prize. Both Lizabeth Cohen and Robert Kuttner are part-time residents of Truro.