Urban Renewal and Its Discontents

Unless inequality and segregation are broken, wealthy white communities can always abandon everyone else.

I once met a man who had been in “relocations.” His job, he explained, had been to find apartments for tenants slated for removal from the Lincoln Square urban renewal site, the future home of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. This man—whom I met at a conference on Robert Moses, New York’s infamous urban renewal czar—was sensitive and thoughtful, eager to reflect on his role in relocating tenants. It was a thankless task, he remembered, working out front of a machine designed to uproot people’s lives in the name of the greater good. But they had a job to do and they had tried to do it well. They had done their level best to find homes for all the displaced.

But their troubles doing so—as I had learned in my own research on the Lincoln Square project—were systemic, not interpersonal. Few people at the time recognized that many more tenants were being displaced by highway and renewal projects across the city than there were available affordable apartments, whether in private or public housing. Most galling for the tenants, however, was the air of removed sympathy and businesslike concern for getting relocation done that ran roughshod over tenants’ senses of having their whole worlds disrupted. The project sponsors and relocation experts just assumed that tenants should be willing, even eager, to do their part for the greater civic glory of urban rejuvenation. They would welcome the chance to sacrifice their homes for the cause of seeing Lincoln Center built. That blithe assurance was a form of blindness, the relocation man now realized. “We just didn’t know,” he said, ruefully. “We just didn’t know.” 1

I was reminded of this encounter as I read Lizabeth Cohen’s Saving America’s Cities, her vivid and discerning new biography of Ed Logue. Once heralded and now mostly forgotten, Logue was the urban-renewal chief who led the charge to remake New Haven, Boston, and New York between the 1950s and 1970s. The man from relocations stepped out of history in much the same way that Logue does under the careful pressure of Cohen’s trenchant telling. Both were eager administrators, full of faith in the advance of progress and their own capacity for managing and directing change. Both felt they’d done some good. But both had also seen their ambitions undermined by their failures to come to grips with the greater injustices that structured, limited, and determined these very ambitions. And both also failed to recognize the damage that shadowed the good they had each imagined.

Logue is a particularly apt figure for this story. A lifelong progressive, a labor organizer in his youth, a vocal supporter of civil rights, a builder of mixed-income housing, and an advocate for integration in the whites-only suburbs, Logue believed he could bend the course of postwar US urban history toward social justice. And yet Cohen might have called her book “The Education of Ed Logue,” for the way that it chronicles his disappointments and realizations in the face of the entrenched inequality and racial disparity that have shaped the modern metropolis.

Without the political will to break the stranglehold of inequality and segregation, white, well-to-do communities can always go their own way.

The Logue story begins with him directing the urban renewal bulldozers in New Haven and comes to a close in an arson-scarred South Bronx three decades later, where he worked to channel resources toward community development efforts. Cohen follows him from one era to another, up and down Route 95. By the 1970s, Logue stood as a bellwether for the fate of redevelopment policy. Chastened by the failure of his faith in social engineering and the vicious limits of American racial tolerance, he is also renewed by the experience of working with people to win resources for their own self-directed campaigns of urban development.

Cohen’s Saving America’s Cities is remarkable, unique even, among the many chronicles of urban renewal’s failures. By taking readers into the 1970s, Cohen expands the frame for the much-maligned mid-century policy, and argues that urban renewal’s failures and (rare) successes led to an era of planning with rather than for communities. Still, it’s hard not to recognize Logue’s story in the persistent dilemmas of our own times.  When cities and states fund “development” by delivering resources to private developers rather than people, it’s hard enough to argue that communities need to be supported, not simply administered. Win that battle, however, and the real war remains.

Without the political will to break the stranglehold of inequality and segregation, white, well-to-do communities can always go their own way, leaving everyone else to their separate fates. Unless a full reckoning with this reality arrives, the truly shared urban community that Logue hoped to create will remain forever out of reach.


New Haven

Logue’s early life put him at the heart of a national contradiction. The postwar liberalism he came to embody simultaneously celebrated the rights of working people and sought to rule them from above, for their own good. Logue grew up in an Irish Catholic home in Philadelphia, as the son of a homemaker and a city bureaucrat. His father died when Logue was only 13. He went to Yale University on scholarship at the tail end of the Depression, where he worked in the dining hall, became an avid New Dealer in a school full of blue-blood Republicans, and gravitated toward New Haven’s union movement. After graduation he became an organizer for Local 142 of the United Construction Workers. Having just won a contract for Yale’s maintenance, janitorial, and physical plant staff, the Congress of Industrial Organizationsbacked local cemented Logue’s faith in the combined power of workers and a supportive government to deliver social benefits: good jobs, decent public housing, and the other provisions of a modern welfare state.

When the war intervened, Logue enlisted in the Army Air Forces and found himself looking down on the cities of Europe from the glass bubble under a B-17 bomber. This lofty vantage point offered his first view of how cities were put together and, one imagines, of how they might be rearranged. As a bombardier he could see “how a city’s functions separated themselves and how they worked together.” It was, he remembered, “the best possible city planning training.”

Over the next half decade, Logue worked as a union lawyer in Philadelphia, returned to Connecticut to serve as Labor Secretary for Governor Chester Bowles, and followed Bowles to India as a special assistant when Truman appointed the governor as his Ambassador to Jawaharlal Nehru’s new nationalist government. In New Delhi, he was inspired by Nehru’s efforts to bring modernizing community-development programs to poverty-stricken rural villages. When Logue returned to the US in 1953, Richard Lee, a newly elected mayor and John F. Kennedy acolyte, was looking for someone to head New Haven’s urban redevelopment efforts. Logue jumped at the chance.

Anyone who has visited the Connecticut city in the half century since the early 50s has seen and felt the effects of the ambitious, if ultimately fruitless, campaign to turn back the city’s postwar decline. Like officials in many other American cities, Lee and Logue used federal funds (over $130 million across Lee’s several terms in office) and powers of eminent domain to clear away many acres of apartments, stores, and light industry in and around downtown. In their places, they erected new modern housing, parking structures, a downtown shopping mall, and the infamous Oak Street Connector that tried to link the downtown to the new Interstate 95 along the coast, but mostly succeeded in deep-sixing a working-class neighborhood and scything the city in half.


See How The City Divides Us

By Sam Holleran

None of this was easy. In New Haven in the 50s, local business leaders were complacent in the face of the city’s loss of capital and people to the surrounding suburbs.2 They tended to pursue their own self-interest, giving little thought to the city at large. Lee and Logue had to cajole them to risk money on the city. “The public interest,” Logue lamented, “is a lonely, unattended, silent spinster.”

Still, Lee and Logue made the most of federal subsidies, and by the late 1950s all their activity was attracting national attention. “I think New Haven is coming closest to our dream of a slumless city,” exclaimed Robert Weaver, the first federal Housing and Urban Development secretary, echoing a host of glowing accounts in national magazines.

Lee and Logue pursued what they called “human renewal.” They tried to coordinate the delivery of social services and infrastructure improvements, and established a Citizens Action Commission—featuring handpicked representatives from established and respectable neighborhood institutions—to participate in the redevelopment process. Their embrace of what Cohen calls “pluralist democracy” earned urban renewal wide public support for much of the 1950s.

Soon, however, the scale of their rebuilding outpaced these efforts. Projects displaced too many people and chased small businesses out of the city. They failed to slow white suburbanization, accelerating it instead. Meanwhile, slum clearance uprooted communities of color and dropped people into overtaxed public housing or into other deteriorating neighborhoods. Logue’s early promises, to rejuvenate and integrate neighborhoods, turned dead on the vine. Unheard voices began to surface, claiming that urban renewal was destroying, not saving New Haven. Many of these were working-class people, largely black, whose interests were rarely heard by the established leaders who claimed to speak for them. “Man, there used to be people—thousands of real, live, people living on Oak Street,” one displaced resident said angrily at a late-1960s community meeting. “It wasn’t the classiest place in town, but it was home. Today you can’t see a poor face on Oak Street, or a black face either.”



By the time this resistance reached full flower in New Haven, however, Logue was already gone, wooed north up Interstate 95 in 1960 to head a newly revamped Boston Redevelopment Authority. As he arrived in Boston, Logue vowed to move past the era of “bulldozer urban renewal that removed one population and replaced it with another.”

New Haven may have taught him a lesson, but Logue found that including community representatives in his development projects was more unpredictable than he could have imagined. More and more they wanted “community control,” demanding what Cohen calls “participatory democracy,” not simply consultation with experts who sought to determine their fates (as in a “pluralist democracy”).

The Boston that Logue discovered was old and graying, parochial and fractious. It was divided between downtown WASPs and neighborhood Catholic power bases, both of which were threatened and befuddled by the influx of African American migrants to the city’s southern neighborhoods. Boston’s financial and business elite bested New Haven in their support for downtown renewal, however, and Logue rallied the support of the Catholic Church, the Boston Globe, and local modern architects, too.

He succeeded in transforming Scollay Square, the old red-light district, into the great behemoth of Government Center, an ungainly array of huge brutalist office buildings connected by an expansive sheet of concrete plaza. Acclaimed at the time for its of-the-moment architecture, it was soon recognized as a place to endure rather than enjoy, a monument to urban renewal’s penchant for creating isolated, city-killing spaces.

The networks created to fight urban renewal would later pivot to resist the desegregation of schools and court-ordered “busing.”

Boston’s neighborhoods offered further challenges. As in New Haven, Logue once again looked for neighborhood representatives who were willing to collaborate on some combination of housing clearance and rehabilitation. In African American Roxbury he found ministers and middle-class civil rights figures keen to bring jobs and new integrated housing. More radical alternatives soon emerged, however, as activists claiming the mantle of black power and community control sought to displace establishment power brokers and force Logue to ante up with more subsidized housing. In the polyglot South End, experiencing the first waves of gentrification spilling over from nearby Back Bay, tenant activists seized the initiative and won more affordable housing.

Irish, working-class Charlestown proved hardest to wrestle into line. There, a volatile batch of community groups defended white turf, looking to resist rather than win public housing. Public meetings erupted into screaming and fistfights, and Logue eventually gave the neighborhood almost everything it wanted.

Participatory democracy and community control, Logue learned, could break left or right. Local community decision-making could open cracks in the walls around the exclusionary city or defend the battlements of metropolitan inequality. Indeed, in Charlestown and South Boston, the networks created to fight urban renewal would later pivot to resist the desegregation of schools and court-ordered “busing,” and work to protect their neighborhoods against threats to their existing order.


New York State

Boston left an indelible mark on Logue’s approach. Downtown development went forward when elite interests aligned, but neighborhood struggles embroiled him in painful fights that could undermine his mission. New York’s new state-level rebuilding agency, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), seemed to offer a solution. Empowered to enact urban change from above, the UDC could grant tax exemptions, wield eminent domain, and, most importantly in an era of dwindling federal support for urban planning and public housing, raise its own tax-exempt financing on the bond market.

Logue took over the UDC in 1968, at the invitation of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and got to work plowing UDC money into low- and middle-income housing developments on open land (to avoid controversial slum clearance), downtown revitalization projects, and subsidies for industry.3 The most attractive aspect of the UDC for Logue was the mandate he had to override local exclusionary zoning. With that power he could challenge the biggest obstacle to revitalizing American cities: resistance to low-income housing in the defended turf of the suburbs, where vast public subsidy for the mortgage market underwrote a largely middle-class and whites-only landscape.

Without an open door to the suburbs, Logue felt, the American metropolis would rot from the inside. This closed door had bedeviled Logue in New Haven, where slum clearance had redoubled poverty and exclusion in black working-class neighborhoods. And the same was true of Boston, where he’d had a hand in creating a fledgling school-desegregation program that brought a small handful of low-income city students to suburban schools.

Indeed, breaking the wall around the suburbs was the ultimate goal of Logue’s lifelong commitment to equality—and of his expectation that his fellow whites and the institutions they ran should shoulder the burden of racial and economic justice. “We have to face directly, in any way we can,” he said in 1968, “the proposition that until the nation decides that low-income black people can have a place to live that they can afford, a place to send their children to school, outside Cleveland, outside Boston, we are just kidding ourselves.”


Cities Run by Real Estate

By Gordon Douglas

The UDC initiative he created to attack metropolitan injustice, called the Fair Share Housing Program, was not as ambitious as his rhetoric. Hoping to minimize resistance, Logue aimed to build just 100 units of low-income housing in each of nine towns in Westchester County, north of New York City.

As modest as it was—approximately 20 percent of this housing was earmarked for “minority occupancy”—the plan kicked up the greatest firestorm of Logue’s career. Mobs surged into public meetings. Screaming and stomping residents drowned out UDC officials. Logue was threatened with assassination. Community groups jumped up to push for historic preservation and open space laws to further restrict development. Formerly supportive politicians reversed course, and Rockefeller, taken aback by the ferocity of white resistance, called a moratorium. Eventually he had to curtail the UDC’s ability to override local zoning altogether.

The white middle-class residents of Westchester had taken a page from the book of “self-determination” written in Roxbury, Harlem, and Charlestown. Logue’s “planning with people” came apart at the hands of his own people, the very people he had charged with responsibility for social change.

Not long after this the UDC found itself insolvent, hamstrung by escalating debt, the economic downturn of the mid-1970s, and President Nixon’s pullback from federal funding for low-income housing. The bankers who held the UDC’s notes stopped the flow of funds and Logue, tarred as fiscally irresponsible, was let go, while the UDC was restructured as a more cautious and conventional economic development agency.

A new era had arrived.


The Bronx

The irony, for Ed Logue, was that this rising age of privatization and government retreat offered his ultimate chance to plan with people, rather than for them. In 1978, Mayor Ed Koch—responding to President Jimmy Carter’s desperate attempt to do something about disinvestment, arson, and poverty in the South Bronx—pulled Logue from semiretirement and put him in charge of a new organization: the South Bronx Development Office (SBDO). The once-proud chief of the UDC found himself in charge of a tiny organization with a feeble budget in what Cohen calls “a new era of small-scale, neighborhood-oriented, market-based urban interventions.”

With Logue at the helm, SBDO marshaled scattered pots of money from state, federal, foundation, and nonprofit sources to pursue a host of limited initiatives in economic development, social services, and land reclamation. The group partnered with longstanding community groups like the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, the South East Bronx Community Organization, and Banana Kelly to do what they could to arrest the Bronx’s decline.

Most notable was Charlotte Gardens, a plan to harness federal subsidies for homeownership and drop 90 prefabricated split-level single-family houses down on land cleared of burned and abandoned buildings. It was an odd scene. Logue had made his name building modern mass housing by name architects, but now he presided over a cluster of little boxes circled by white picket fences, spreading among the aging apartment blocks and rubble lots.

Charlotte Gardens attracted both scorn and acclaim, but most of all it drew buyers. The houses filled as quickly as they could be assembled and trucked to the site. Two thousand people put their names on a waiting list—most of them working-class, Bronx-born, and black or Puerto Rican, just like the 90 families who ultimately did secure a house. Charlotte Gardens was a bright spot in an era in which many attempts to harness the private mortgage market for low-income housing led to corruption, predatory lending, and exploitation.

In the Bronx, at least, Charlotte Gardens inaugurated an era in which communities themselves managed to turn back the borough’s decline. By the turn of the century, nonprofit community development corporations had built close to 67,000 new units of housing across the Bronx. It was neither enough, nor free of corruption, and often didn’t reach the neediest families, but the Bronx experience suggested what might be accomplished if extensive federal support for community-based housing and development initiatives were to ever materialize.


Were America’s Cities Saved?

Logue left New York in 1985 and returned to semiretirement in Boston, where he lived until his death, in 2000.

But how should he, and urban renewal more generally, be remembered? Get in close, as Cohen does, and you can see the debates and compromises, the unexpected alliances and shifting allegiances that blur the usual top-down versus bottom-up, planners versus community organizers story. The “policies and practices of urban renewal,” she writes, “evolved and improved over time.” Full-on clearance gave way to experiments in rehabilitation and infill, while community groups pioneered their own versions of grassroots development. Pull out, though, and urban renewal appears as a misbegotten episode in a longer history of metropolitan inequality. Urban renewal tried to attack the symptoms of urban injustice, but it often perpetuated and deepened the underlying causes of those injustices, even while it contributed to the rebirth of some cities. Few urban renewal administrators shared Logue’s commitment to racial and economic justice. Most sought simply to restore value to urban real estate, not harness the power of the state and private capital to redress urban inequality.

However one chooses to view urban renewal and its discontents, the story of Ed Logue remains telling for the way that it reveals a lost worldview. “To be able to do things that we knew were right without the constraints,” one of Logue’s UDC acolytes remarked of their attempts to override local zoning, “was just very heady stuff.” This is the romance of untrammeled power, a familiar trope in tales of urban renewal tragedy, but it floats on a more basic assumption: a self-assured, imperious faith in the idea that the world, in all its variety, could be seized, wrestled into line, and arranged just so. The world, Logue and so many like him believed, could be administered.

Whether that faith went to work tearing down neighborhoods and arranging “relocations,” or knocking chinks in the walls of segregation, we now live in the wake of its retreat, a time when its blind spots are all too apparent, its accomplishments left untended, and its ill effects linger on.

It’s up to all of us to find another way forward. Perhaps we might look to Logue’s South Bronx experience, where “planning with people” became a matter of evolving practice rather than unquestioned faith. Otherwise we’ll never build the political will necessary to confront the segmented metropolis that confounded Logue and bedevils us still.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

  1. Many residents, I discovered, complained of the subtle “psychological warfare” campaign designed to get them to move, as well as the marked drop-off in repairs to their utilities once the project sponsors had taken over their buildings.
  2. Urban renewal’s public-private deals—federal monies to entice private capital to invest in cities—have sometimes been seen as a land grab on behalf of corporations: a “business welfare state,” the urbanist Charles Abrams called it in the late 1940s. This was often true, and cities were known to plow tax breaks to those businesses, thinning out municipal coffers and fueling the race to the bottom that frequently drives local attempts to attract investment capital to this day. But that wasn’t the case in New Haven.
  3. By 1975, when fiscal crisis and accumulated debt sunk the agency, Logue had overseen over two hundred projects across the state, including the construction of several integrated “New Towns,” the most famous of which was Roosevelt Island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens.
Featured image: Cranes (detail) (2014). Photograph by Sean MacEntee / Flickr