The Midcentury Battle to Save America’s Cities from Crisis
Lizabeth Cohen on the Poverty and Prosperity of the American City
On a Thursday morning, May 25, 1967, the well-known liberal Democrat and three-term Illinois senator Paul H. Douglas led his distinguished National Commission on Urban Problems to New Haven to hear testimony about how millions of federal dollars expended over more than a decade had underwritten a multifaceted attack on slums and poverty in this “model city.” Chairman Douglas, a passionate advocate for urban America, and the commission’s other members had been appointed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson the previous January. Their assignment: to investigate a myriad of technical problems faced by cities related to zoning and land use, building codes, taxation structures, and the like—pesky bugs in what Johnson believed was a challenging but improving urban picture, thanks to his ambitious Great Society programs.
After undertaking inspections and hearings in 22 cities all over the United States, listening to testimony from hundreds of experts and ordinary citizens alike, the commission published its findings in December, 1968 as Building the American City, accompanied by 5 volumes of hearing transcripts and numerous research reports. President Johnson was not pleased with the commission’s conclusions. Months of bearing witness to the disturbing realities of urban life had led the commission to claim, “We found problems much worse, more widespread, and more explosive than any of us had thought.” Its members decided that they “could not lose sight of the relationship between these technical matters and social problems. We agreed. . .not to duck the tough issues of poverty and race.”
What Douglas’s commission found was that despite Johnson’s programs, American cities were in full-blown crisis, suffering most profoundly from an inadequate supply of decent, affordable housing, particularly the public housing that numerous housing acts had promised. Of the 800,000 units authorized to be built in the 6 years after 1949, it had taken nearly 2 decades for only two-thirds to go up, more than half of them small apartments for the elderly. And the commission despaired of finding remedies, given the foot-dragging and timidity of the federal bureaucracy and Congress; antiquated fiscal structures overly dependent on the property tax; misconceived zoning and building codes; the ineffective and fragmented state of metropolitan government, ill-equipped to cope with the disturbing reality of “a white suburban noose” surrounding troubled, more racially diverse inner cities; stubborn, pernicious patterns of segregation within cities; and much more.
24 months of immersion in the problems of urban America, punctuated by 2 rounds of urban riots—in the summer of 1967 and following Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968—had led the commission to see this urban crisis “as a test of our most fundamental beliefs,” whether the nation had “faith in freedom, in equality, in justice, enough to make sacrifices in their cause.” Exceeding President Johnson’s charge, the commission called for even greater federal action, including the construction of more than two million housing units annually with half a million reserved for low- and moderate-income families. Johnson, incensed at what he perceived as an indictment of his substantial urban accomplishments, tried to suppress the report. Only Douglas’s press savviness ensured its release in full.
Many of these worrisome findings echoed what New Haven’s officials had themselves experienced firsthand. In testifying to the commission, they certainly boasted of their achievements, but they also made no secret of the difficulties they had faced working within the limitations of federal urban renewal. In fact, they were likely among the commission’s most outspoken tutors in what was going wrong, not just going right, in the nation’s attack on its urban problems.
New Haven was the second stop after Baltimore on the commission’s ambitious fact-finding tour of American cities. Mayor Dick Lee, honored and excited to display the work that he and Ed Logue had masterminded in New Haven, decided to hold the hearing at one of the jewels of their urban renewal program, the modernist Conté Community School in the recently rehabilitated Wooster Square area. A lineup of practitioners and social scientists was carefully assembled to give expert testimony to the commission as it sought to learn from New Haven, because, as its chair explained, “This city illustrates as much, if not more, than any other city in the country, what an urban renewal program can do,” and its mayor “has had more experience on the subject than almost any other man in the country.”
In traveling to New Haven, the commission’s members flattered Mayor Lee that they were “bring[ing] the mountain to Mohammed.” The next day the commission would head north to Boston to hear from Logue about his work both there and earlier in New Haven, a city with which he was still very strongly identified. Acknowledging Logue’s talents, Chairman Douglas complimented him as “one of the stars in the urban firmament, probably one of the most creative and original thinkers and also a man of action.”
The meeting began according to plan. Mayor Lee spoke first, submitting a written statement and then elaborating orally. He took pride in community schools like Conté, Community Progress Inc.’s pioneering Operation Head Start, the relocation of industry to Long Wharf, and the ongoing renewal of neighborhoods and downtown. But he also seized the opportunity to complain about imperfections in the federal laws and regulations that stymied his team. Three obstacles particularly frustrated them and, in turn, preoccupied the commission during this hearing: the inadequacy of federal funding available for renewal on the scale of New Haven’s when there were so few local alternatives, the lack of sufficient provision for replacement housing for residents who were dislocated from redeveloped areas, and the difficulty of addressing the city’s problems without having jurisdiction over the full metropolitan area.
Lee lost little time proclaiming, “We do not have . . . the kind of financial resources which we feel are necessary really to meet the programs on a broad enough basis.” The lack of money for low-income housing and human resource programs was particularly galling when the need was so great and subsidies for agriculture and space exploration seemed to flow so generously.
Lee and his colleagues depended so much on the Feds because they had few alternative sources of funding closer to home. Whereas the private sector had famously claimed to have orchestrated Pittsburgh’s Renaissance through the corporate-dominated Allegheny Conference on Community Development, with minimal public expenditure, New Haven was smaller and enjoyed much less support from local business and industry. Lee and Logue had organized a field trip of two planeloads of New Haven’s leaders to Pittsburgh in 1957 to show them how it had been done there, but New Haven (like most other American cities) could hardly rival Pittsburgh’s extraordinary status as headquarters for Mellon Bank, U.S. Steel, Alcoa, Jones and Laughlin Steel, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Westing house, and other major companies.
In New Haven, as in many cities without deep-pocketed corporations or at least ones willing to empty them locally, the reality was quite different—and quite the opposite from what urban renewal’s critics on the Left often charged: that the program was promoted by a “pro-growth coalition” uniting civic and corporate leaders in pursuit of their common interests in the urban economy, often at the expense of ordinary citizens. That might have worked in wealthier places, but in New Haven and other struggling cities of the 1950s and 1960s, the challenge was simply to get businesses to care enough about revitalizing the city and not run for the exit.
Lee had learned this lesson early. When he campaigned for mayor in 1953, he promised to establish a Citizens Action Commission within sixty days of taking office. It took him nearly a year, because he had so much trouble finding someone willing to become chair. Typical, he said, was “one of the biggest men in the city” who had refused him so as not “to get tagged with a project that was so ethereal as to be doomed before it got off the ground.” The urban theorist Neil Brenner has argued persuasively, in fact, that the pro-growth coalition operated most importantly not on the municipal level, but rather on the national stage in promoting federal redevelopment legislation— what he calls the “national institutional envelope”—that protected large-scale corporate capital and put local political actors into “an iron cage of sorts” as they competed with other cities for private-sector investment.
Years later, Logue would reflect on the struggle to identify partners in the local business community: “Dick and I could never find standup businessmen in New Haven . . .They just weren’t there.” When Jeanne Lowe published a comprehensive study of urban renewal in several cities, she particularly lamented the lack of initiative shown by New Haven’s business community: “Almost everything of consequence that has taken place in New Haven in the past dozen years has been stimulated, put together and forwarded from City Hall, either directly or indirectly.” Aware of the private sector’s reluctance, the Lee and Logue team tried knocking on the doors of nonprofit foundations. That led to important seed money from the Ford Foundation and small grants from the New Haven Foundation, but nothing on the scale of what they needed.
After the mayor finished speaking at the hearing, the commission prepared to move on to hear testimony from two prominent urban experts: Jack Meltzer, director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University of Chicago, and Mike Sviridoff, founding director of CPI from 1962 to 1966 and now vice president of national affairs at the Ford Foundation, replacing Paul Ylvisaker. Suddenly, an uninvited speaker, a local man named Fred Harris, burst out:
You people have listened to the Mayor. How about listening to us? If this is supposed to be a public hearing, you should allow the public that are involved in all this redevelopment area to speak their opinion. . . .How are you people helping us when you listen to people like that, that decide what happens to our lives, and we are never given a chance to speak up and say what we think should help our neighborhoods?. . . .You have got the man presenting a big whitewash up here.
Harris was no stranger to New Haven’s urban renewers, even if he was unknown to the commission members. The 29-year-old New Haven native was the leader of the Hill Parents Association (HPA), an organization he and his wife, Rose, had founded in 1965 to protest what they considered a racist curriculum and appalling physical conditions at their children’s school in the Hill, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Haven. After securing toilet paper for the students’ restrooms, new paint and books, and a black principal at the school, the group had moved on to community issues: better police treatment; improved housing, particularly for the many newcomers to the neighborhood who had been displaced by urban renewal projects elsewhere; more parks and playgrounds; and a greater voice in New Haven’s redevelopment and famed anti-poverty program, CPI.
The HPA became the major opponent of the Redevelopment Agency’s initiatives, its leaders speaking out boldly at public hearings and lobbying city agencies on behalf of the Hill neighborhood. Although Harris had not been asked to testify at the National Commission hearing— the urban renewers preferring to explain their program’s deficiencies themselves—a friend in city hall apparently tipped him off and he and 11 other HPA members showed up at the Conté School, demanding to be heard. “We knew . . . that Mayor Lee was going to be speaking for the people of New Haven,” Harris later recounted. “Now ain’t that a bitch? He lives in good housing and sure as hell didn’t get us good housing, so how was he going to speak about housing for us?” Harris and his colleagues had filed into the Conté School auditorium and, finding no open seats, sat down on the floor in front of the stage, from where he now rose to speak.In New Haven and other struggling cities of the 1950s and 1960s, the challenge was simply to get businesses to care enough about revitalizing the city and not run for the exit.
Despite Harris’s interruption, the commission stuck to its schedule. Sviridoff submitted a written statement that praised “the vision and imagination of Mayor Richard Lee that shaped a new kind of urban renewal program in America” and recalled how “Ed Logue and I worked hand in hand under Dick Lee’s direction in an attempt to tackle the total problem,” as attentive to human renewal as physical renewal. With an irony Sviridoff did not seem to notice, given how his status as an expert had protected his spot in the speaker lineup while Harris was silenced, he went on to quote admiringly from Chairman Douglas’s own call in 1933 for organizing the weak to give them what “the world respects, namely power,” without which the “permanent benefits of Rooseveltian liberalism [ will] be as illusory as were those of the Wilsonian era.” Sviridoff then urged opening the New Deal door even wider in their own time: “Only the active and fullest possible participation of the neighborhood people in such a program [of renewal] can yield lasting and meaningful results.”
Soon Sviridoff, fulfilling his role as Ford Foundation urbanist, was supplying the kind of ammunition that would arm the commission in attacking Johnson’s urban policies as too limited. He reminded the panel that the highly touted poverty program received only one-fifth of 1 percent of the gross national product, when in 1938 Roosevelt spent fifteen times that on public works alone, “and that was not enough.” As national leaders called for domestic cuts to support the Vietnam War, Sviridoff feared “a mockery of our lofty goals.” He concluded, “If our cities decay beyond repair, and if poverty undermines the very fabric of the country, what kind of society do we have left to defend?”
Finally, the commission gave Fred Harris his turn. With his words, he transformed the focus of the meeting from the goals and challenges facing urban renewers to the impact their work was having on New Haven’s poorest residents, the citizens they claimed to want to help. Unsurprisingly, Harris deplored how redevelopment had saddled New Haven’s low-Income residents with many years of evictions and exorbitant rents. But he directed his harshest criticism at the way urban renewal decisions were made, drawing a parallel with how the city and the commission had failed to invite “the people that are involved in the neighborhood . . .to speak for themselves” at this hearing. “The people don’t have no voice here,” he argued, referring to both exclusions. Echoing Sviridoff’s call for neighborhood involvement but challenging the sincerity of his commitment, he urged, “If you involve the people in the neighborhoods, they feel as though they have a part. They feel as though they are helping to decide what is going to happen to their community.”
Harris made it clear that New Haven’s poorest residents wanted what urban renewal promised: better housing, good schools, effective job training, and other kinds of government assistance. But they also wanted the opportunity to define those programs for themselves.
Excerpted from Saving America’s Cities by Lizabeth Cohen. Copyright © Lizabeth Cohen 2019. Reprinted with permission from FSG.