The Mid-Century Misfire That Was ‘Slum Clearance’ Tore Down Much More Than Tenements

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During World War II, a coterie of American men, secure in the righteousness of their cause, the necessity of their means, and the efficacy of their tactics, methodically destroyed Germany’s cities. A decade later, some of the same men, still just as confident of their purpose and certain of their methods, demolished their own cities, too. They used bulldozers instead of bombs and promised prosperity instead of victory, but the effect was the same: a landscape of empty lots and traumatized people.

The goal, in America, was a mix of righteousness and prejudice: to uplift the poor, eliminate the unsanitary, stimulate commerce, and bring order to the messiness of urban life. In the period’s ideological framework, this required radical strokes rather than patience, sensitivity, and grassroots labor. If that meant that immigrants and people of color would absorb most of the shock, well, the bureaucrats could live with that. In Germany, the same U.S. government that had ordered the obliteration also helped pay for the reconstruction. In this country, the market was supposed to take care of rebuilding; often, it never showed up. Today, when a few American cities are getting loved to death and converted into luxury enclaves, many more still struggle with emptiness. Blocks that were once crammed with brick houses and that thrummed with bakeries, taverns, tailors, butchers, and general stores now contain a drive-through ATM and a parking lot.

The constellation of good intentions and bad ideas that dominated mid-century urbanism went by the names of “slum clearance” and, more blithely, “urban renewal.” The experience of major cities has permeated scholarship and entered popular culture — New York’s urban-renewer-in-chief, Robert Moses, inspired a character in Edward Norton’s movie Motherless Brooklyn and anchors an opera — but an exhibition at the Center for Architecture called “Fringe Cities” focuses on smaller, frailer places like Saginaw, Michigan, and Easton, Pennsylvania. Curated by the idealistic nonprofit firm MASS Design Group (best known for designing the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a.k.a. the lynching memorial, in Montgomery, Alabama), the show documents the way urban renewal swept across the country from the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest.

The exhibit is studiously dispassionate but also charged with rage. Using maps, charts, photographs, and hand-drawn master plans that recall the era’s visual language, MASS traces the march of insane rationalism. The slow-motion cataclysm began after the war, when the federal government, eager to modernize and high on industrial might, passed the Housing Act of 1949. Over the next 25 years, Washington handed cash to 1,700 municipalities. For this look back, MASS narrowed that group down to small cities that had seen population decline and are at least 30 miles (but no more than 150) from a big metropolitan center. Poughkeepsie sucked up nearly $600 per inhabitant and still lost 15 percent of its population in 50 years. Newburgh got only $427 per capita and lost fewer people. No matter how they crunched the numbers, MASS’s researchers could find no correlation between dollars and results. Through liberal and conservative administrations, the governments sowed an expensive theory and reaped a random harvest.

A poignant 2010 article by Lafayette College’s Andrea Smith and Rachel Scarpato describes the systematic elimination of Lebanese Town, a neighborhood in Easton that, with its mix of multigenerational homes and fragrant markets, its taverns and front-porch debates in Arabic lasting deep into the night, struck the city’s sages as a lost cause. Blind to the intricate network of social relations that the buildings contained, the pros saw only foreignness and dilapidation and wanted it gone. As in wartime, violence came wrapped in a pretense of objectivity. “Private consulting firms invariably attempted to quantify the amounts of ‘blight’ found across the city,” Smith and Scarpato write. “The use of numbers and percentages, and phrases such as ‘intensity of blight,’ added an air of scientific rationality to the city’s redevelopment efforts.”

A veneer of science masked a lot of randomness. In a 1969 review of The Citizen’s Guide to Urban Renewal in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Paul A. Pfretzschner points out that the combination of sweeping plans, expansive powers, and vague definitions left a lot of room for improvisation. “Here, then, is the epitome of pragmatism at work in the public-policy area … The purpose of planning is to help you do what you want to do without planning.”

It was a war waged with euphemisms — renewal, revitalization, congestion — a dehumanizing managerial vocabulary for an ostensibly humanitarian project. Urban doctors saw the challenge in medical terms: Blight, in the parlance of the time, was an infectious disease that, if left uneradicated, would spread, turning pleasant streets into veins of despair. Doors would swing open, windows smash, yards go shaggy, porches sag, and the inhabitants of those dilapidated zones would inevitably fall into addiction, unemployment, gambling, and crime. At this remove, it seems tragic that so many experts, in so many different parts of the country, could look at the complexity and variety of American cities and conclude that they all needed the same drastically intrusive treatment. How could they believe that poorly maintained homes made people poor? But we might ask ourselves whether we’ve grown any wiser.

“Fringe Cities” is a warning about the dangers of wanting city life to snap to an ideological grid. I’m not sure it’s a lesson we’ve learned well. In recent decades, new cohorts of experts have asserted that reenergizing downtowns depends on attracting artists, installing fiber-optic cable, expanding hospitals, organizing farmers’ markets, jazzing up public spaces, or building mass transit. These strategies can help — but they can also worsen the segregation they are supposed to repair. None is an urban-vigor lotion that can be applied anytime, anywhere. None makes up for an industrial giant that once employed the bulk of a city’s residents and later left only factories, bases, or mines rusting on the edge of town.

It’s no use waxing wistful about big employers like Grumman or GE. They shaped cities — divided, lifted, educated, exploited, controlled, polluted, and abandoned them. Their presence was never purely good or purely noxious, and in any case, they’re not coming back. Today’s giant companies, like Amazon, go where the prosperity is, not to cities that are hemorrhaging population. They have little interest in urban rescue.

MASS tries valiantly to end this demoralizing show on a note of optimism, spotlighting the work of tireless activists and grassroots organizers who are laboring to put their cities back together, a block here, a community garden there. Even in small cities, the scale of the task is immense. Saginaw, which once hummed with General Motors–induced prosperity, lost almost half its population in 50 years. By 2010, nearly one in six of its houses were empty. Repairing that fabric is like trying to reconstitute a tree out of mulch.

Yet with four current or former mayors (Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Michael Bloomberg) still in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination, even after two others (Julián Castro and Bill de Blasio) dropped out, there’s hope that Washington might stop treating cities as the enemy, as the Trump administration does, and approach them with more nuance. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is clamoring for more federal money for urban areas and for more local control over how it gets spent. The mayors are right on both counts. Even cities on the fringes of prosperity stand on the front lines of climate change, contain most of the nation’s population, and drive its economy. They still have generational ambitions. Instead of imposing a utopian protocol, Washington’s policy-makers need to listen to local officials, residents, employers, and activists, because they’re the ones who know how to reconcile grand plans with immediate reality, to be economically nimble while still protecting the physical heritage that can keep an old city strong.

*This article appears in the January 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

‘Slum Clearance’ Tore Down Much More Than Tenements