In theory, urban renewal is any effort to direct city planning toward the improvement of the physical infrastructure. In practice, in the United States it has often meant the seizing of “blighted” property by the federal government and its redevelopment by private enterprise, underwritten by federal grants or loans. Many of the largest public works that shape urban landscapes are urban renewal initiatives, including expressways, bridges, parks, stadiums, and housing projects. While urban renewal promised better low-income housing and citywide improvements to slow “white flight” to the suburbs, its execution remains controversial. Critics charge that renewal projects further marginalize the poor and minorities and destroy communities while subsidizing facilities for the upper classes. Public housing projects—a keystone of urban renewal—are today almost universally seen as a failure and are being torn down. Their destruction symbolizes changes in approach to urban renewal, where structural rehabilitation and selective demolition are now favored over wholesale “slum clearance.”
The Early Stages
By the mid-1800s many Western cities that expanded rapidly during the industrial revolution were replete with dilapidated and dangerous buildings. Entire neighborhoods had become slums, with overcrowded and deteriorating homes lacking basic facilities such as plumbing. These predominantly immigrant and minority areas were epicenters of crime and delinquency. Narrow streets made garbage collection difficult and were a fire hazard. In the first modern instance of what would later be called “slum clearance,” between the 1850s and 1870s, Baron Haussmann destroyed many poor neighborhoods in Paris and replaced them with wide boulevards, parks, plazas, and new houses. He also installed sewage systems, streetlights, and other modern amenities.
In late 19th-century America, social reformers like Jacob Riis argued that the immorality of slum inhabitants resulted from the physical degradation of their environment. Thus, reformers promoted improved living conditions and the creation of settlement houses, which would act as the social and recreational center of a neighborhood and provide social services. Riis argued that such improvements would compel slum dwellers to become responsible citizens. Although some settlements and housing laws were initiated as a result, a 1929 government survey of 64 cities found that 15.6 percent of all dwellings needed major structural repairs and only 37.7 percent were in “good” condition. By the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s depression-era presidential inauguration, conditions had worsened. Roosevelt declared that one third of the nation lacked proper nourishment, clothing, and housing. His establishment of the Federal Housing Authority marked the nation’s first foray into government-sponsored slum clearance and low-rent public housing.
The Housing Act of 1949 allocated federal loans and grants for slum clearance and redevelopment; utilizing a wide interpretation of “public interest,” the government authorized property seizure for private redevelopment under eminent domain. Often, the land was resold to developers who constructed higher-priced housing. The money designated for finding satisfactory housing for those evicted was minimal, with the frequent result that slum dwellers were merely relocated to other slums. Additionally, slum-razing left a dearth of low-rent units, instigating a housing crisis for the poor.
In an effort to eradicate slums, the government embarked on a massive program to construct public housing projects for the poor across urban America. A low-income ceiling was enforced for admission; those with a higher income were refused or evicted. These “projects,” usually placed in depressed areas where private developers were unwilling to invest, concentrated large numbers of buildings and people in a “superblock” that disrupted the street grid. This application of Le Corbusier’s modernist “garden city” plan resulted in giant concrete and brick towers placed on large tracts of land left otherwise undeveloped ostensibly to provide open space for recreation. One of the biggest such projects was Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. Completed in 1962, the complex contained 27,000 people in 28 high-rise buildings that collectively occupied only 7 percent of the land. Projects funneled some of the city’s poorest residents—usually minorities—into buildings that were often surrounded by ghettoes, barren land, or highways.
Large-Scale Urban Renewal
The scope of urban renewal projects reached its broadest during the era of Robert Moses in New York City. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Moses—as the city park commissioner, construction coordinator, and planning commissioner—seized on the opportunities made possible by the Housing Act of 1949 more than any other entity in the country, spending twice as much federal money as all other U.S. cities combined in 1957. Every expressway in New York but one was built by Moses, in addition to seven major bridges, 416 miles of parkways, venues such as the Lincoln Center and Shea Stadium, and large-scale middle-income housing developments like Stuyvesant Town. He increased the number of playgrounds from 119 to 777 and also developed a network of state parks. By 1968 the total cost of urban renewal projects personally conceived and executed by Moses had reached $27 billion.
The Human Toll
Moses’s projects required slum clearance on an unprecedented scale, including the eviction of 500,000 people and the erasure of dozens of neighborhoods. As is the case around the country, many of the evicted were minorities, and the new housing was beyond their means. Thus the benefits of such projects went disproportionately to nonpoor whites, while institutionalized discrimination practically forced minorities and the poor into other slums or, increasingly, into projects.
One infamous slum clearance was the leveling of Boston’s West End in 1959-60, which evicted over 20,000 poor residents. Hoping to revitalize downtown, luxury apartments were built, along with a shopping center and a new government complex. Few resources were provided for those displaced by the bulldozer. In the razing of the West End, critics saw the destruction not only of homes but also of a social system that left psychological scars and grief reactions for years after displacement. Many West Enders landed in areas later slated for slum clearance, the majority wound up paying significantly more rent for their new dwellings, and the community dissolved as its members were dispersed throughout the city.
Public housing, saddled with the most disadvantaged Americans, isolated from white and middle-class areas of the city, and faced with constant funding cuts that ran especially deep during the Reagan era, was in crisis. Within only a few decades of their construction, most projects were over-run with crime and gang violence and were in such disrepair that they were deemed dangerous and even uninhabitable. Those living in projects seemed doomed to an environment of fear and despair, and activists argued that public housing was never given a chance to succeed, as it was given low priority and little funding.
Resistance and the End of an Era
Jane Jacobs spearheaded opposition to a downtown highway proposed by Moses in the 1960s and put forth her philosophical justification in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs and others contended that the “towers in the sky” and “superblocks,” so central to urban renewal, destroy the social fabric and vitality of the city and thus are designed to fail. Increased protests against such public works, and the race riots and civil rights protests of the 1960-70s that were partially a reaction to segregation and slum clearance, forced the government to rethink urban renewal.
In 1995 the Chicago Housing Authority declared that the Robert Taylor Homes were uninhabitable and would be demolished. Across the United States, the towers that once symbolized hope and a promise to the underprivileged were now seen as failures and eyesores, and most cities began rapidly pulling them down. As cities relocated those displaced from the projects and the federal government contemplated a new approach for housing the poor, there evolved a near-consensus that large-scale, concentrated housing projects should never be built again. Many in Boston lament the vibrant West End that was lost, and city planners seem to have learned from failed experiments with large-scale slum clearance and public housing projects to focus instead on redevelopment and rehabilitation, selective demolition, and vouchers to subsidize the relocation of the poor to middle-class areas.
Many recent urban renewal schemes focus on commercial development and sports arenas. Baltimore’s downtown baseball stadium—built over a railyard in 1992—is credited with revitalizing the area. Other cities have scrambled to construct downtown arenas, often couching them in larger mixed-use projects that broaden their appeal. One of the most ambitious examples is Brooklyn’s proposed Atlantic Yards. The $3.5 billion plan calls for building a basketball arena, yet it also includes affordable and market-rate housing, a park, hotel, retail shops, and office buildings. As with urban renewal in decades past, the project’s backers argue that it will revitalize a downtrodden area, while opponents claim thousands of lives will be destroyed by the bulldozer. The rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is also testing the government’s commitment to more equitable urban renewal, as debates rage over what to do with the many displaced poor black residents and whether to rebuild their lost neighborhoods.
- Bellush, Jewell. 2000. Urban Renewal: People, Politics, and Planning. New York: Doubleday.
- Caro, Robert A.  2006. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: History Book Club.
- Gans, Herbert. 1962. Urban Villagers. New York: Free Press.
- Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Modern Library.
- Venkatesh, Sudhir. 2000. American Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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