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Urban Renewal Syndrome—Part 1

Brent Cebul

Perhaps no federal program looms larger in our collective memory than ham-fisted and costly attempts at urban renewal. Created in the Federal Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 and lasting to the 1970s, urban renewal programs sparked a nationwide enthusiasm for revitalizing decaying inner cities. Often these projects resulted in urban redevelopment schemes distinguished by their harsh modernism and daunting scale.

Urban renewal programs, along with the social welfare policies of the Great Society, became a symbol not just of the collapse of urban America but also of the failure of progressive government action—perhaps even of liberalism itself. For nearly fifty years, the United States has shied away from comprehensive urban policy, almost as if we were suffering from a malaise similar to the so-called Vietnam syndrome.

While few would deny urban renewal’s role in eroding faith in government and aiding the fragmentation of progressive policymaking, a group of recent urban development histories suggests areas where our collective memory on this issue is significantly flawed. This faulty collective memory was largely shaped, I’ll argue in a later post, by subsequent forms of urbanism and political opportunism that have profoundly limited the range of national policies aimed at fighting social inequality, poverty, and urban blight.

Flawed Memory #1: Urban Renewal’s Advocates Were Primarily Elites.

The first wave of literature on urban renewal explored the program’s impact on the distribution of power, highlighting the emergence of municipal “growth coalitions”—elite public-private partnerships—that guided its implementation. To be sure, these interests dominated local administration of renewal programs, but as Nathan D.B. Connolly argues in his forthcoming book, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, this emphasis on chamber of commerce types misses other interests whose support also lent the program a great deal of legitimacy.

In his rich discussion of postwar Miami, Connolly shows how and why middle-class black homeowners, civil rights organizations like the NAACP, and progressive groups such as the League of Women Voters actively supported urban renewal especially when it came to slum clearance. Federal policymakers and these groups all considered urban policy to be essential economic components to spatial desegregation mandates handed down in cases such as Shelley v. Kramer (1949) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Vital to this vision of what Connolly terms “Sun Belt civil rights” was the belief that slum clearance would offer residents of substandard, socially and morally degenerative, and unhealthy city center housing the opportunity to move to the fringes of the city where they would own homes in racially homogenous suburbs.

As Connolly shows, however, these advocates unwittingly supported a program that, as he puts it, underwrote “the modernization of White Supremacy.” It is doubly tragic that urban renewal hastened the economic and spatial marginalization of the poor and minorities, since its original intent was to broaden economic opportunity through homeownership. With the exception of deregulating mortgage securities, the United States has never again attempted such a bold, if deeply flawed, housing-based assault on economic inequality.

Flawed Memory #2: Urban Renewal’s Housing Projects Were Socialistic.

It’s tempting to look at urban renewal housing projects and equate them with mid-century high modernism and European socialist planning (even if they did share intellectual roots). Yet in his book Manhattan Projects, Samuel Zipp uses urban renewal projects in New York City as a window onto American Cold War political culture and economic thinking. Zipp illuminates the degree to which renewal advocates construed the city’s full gamut of projects— from Lincoln Center to affordable housing—as a “weapon” in “the Cold War struggle for hearts and minds.” “Public/private urban renewal,” Zipp contends, “could operate as a potential immunization against the threat, a way to beat the Soviets at their own game.” By cultivating private sector partners, public officials believed they had found a means by which public policy could underwrite the material prosperity needed to demonstrate the superiority of democratic capitalism.

Flawed Memory #3: Urban Renewal Stifled Private Sector Action.

Martin Anderson’s The Federal Bulldozer (1964) focused on the waste of taxpayer dollars and called for a reintroduction of free enterprise to solve the nation’s worsening housing crisis. He argued that the private sector could deliver the promised fruits of urban renewal far faster than the federal government. Further, it was also in 1964 in the speech that launched his political career that Ronald Reagan referred to urban renewal as “assault on freedom.” It is true, as the federal planners argued, that without massive subsidies, the private sector was unlikely to undertake significant any new commercial or residential urban developments.

While these arguments helped popularize zero-sum appraisals of public- and private-sector initiatives, but they also fundamentally overlooked a critical aspect of urban renewal. In his recent work Insuring the City, Elihu Rubin demonstrates how urban renewal programs provided vital financing for a major private-sector development that would not have otherwise seen the light of day, such as Boston’s massive Prudential Center. In opting to push public funding to the private Prudential Insurance Company, Rubin argues that Boston planner Ed Logue, was deeply “attuned to the concept of momentum: large projects had a catalytic effect on the public’s attitude … toward renewal and boosted the city’s self-perception.”

Prudential in turn sold the development as a risky private-sector bet on Boston’s future. Indeed, in working hard to secure public subsidies, the Company emphasized the “civic” aspects of their $100 million development. A mere quarter of the redeveloped land, officials contended, would be devoted to private enterprise, with the rest available to the public in green space and plazas. In this way, as Chester Hartman puts it in his study of renewal in San Francisco, “the private investment community” came “to be seen as performing functions in the public interest.” In cities across the country, then, urban renewal became a stimulus to encourage private sector players to act in the public’s interest.

Flawed Memory #4: Urban Renewal Signified the End of Urban Liberalism.

To be sure, much about urban renewal caused Americans to lose faith not only in the government but also in progressive public policy. But as Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn demonstrates, urban renewal also inspired a new version of urban liberalism: white, urban professionals. Excavating the history of Brooklyn’s gentrifying neighborhoods, Osman offers a cultural history of a “new middle class” that took shape in direct response to the “Manhattanizing” programs of urban renewal that threatened their neighborhoods. In opposition to centralized redevelopment plans, these self-consciously liberal gentrifiers were also “privatist, celebrating the sanctity of home, small shops, bootstrap renovation, and freedom from city intervention. In the fight against Urban Renewal,” Osman contends, “they celebrated the free market, extolling the authentically organic cityscape and lambasting abstract regulation.”

These gentrifiers, while they might have preferred to be following in the footsteps of Jane Jacobs, soon discovered that their vision for equitable housing options caused them “unintentionally [to] become bedfellows with an emerging New Right critique of government intervention.” This would seem to be a classic case of modern liberalism’s lip service to the fight against inequality coming up against its inability to muster robust forms of collective action. The Urban Renewal syndrome lives on.

A subsequent post will take up why the Urban Renewal Syndrome persists and will argue for why it is so important to set the record straight on urban renewal.

Brent Cebul is an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

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