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Urban Renewal and the Destruction of American Cities

Hat tip to Raven Warrior. Raven has some additional comments of his own at the American Indian/Alaskan Native Attack the System blog.
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Many of the ‘blighted’ neighborhoods targeted by urban renewal were in fact quite liveable places, safer and better-maintained than the average inner-city district today. The planners provide the proof of this themselves. Federal guidelines that mandated city planning fostered a common approach in survey techniques. Search the libraries, or the planning records of almost any city for the 40’s and 50’s, and you will find a set of look-alike maps divided by census tract, showing such statistics as density and housing deterioration. The worst areas, those doomed by the programs to come, will often show only 10% or 20% of buildings rated as ‘substandard’ or ‘deteriorated’; even where the percentages were higher, under the definitions of the time, this could have meant only the lack of fresh paint or up-to-date plumbing.

Nevertheless, at the time they were perceived as a threat to downtown real estate values. In urban renewal, as in housing, the new caste of experts would finally get a chance to show what they could do. When they were out of the government and back at the university for a spell, some of them wrote books, and a quick look at any of them is enough to grasp the juvenile utopianism that fueled the whole business of ‘conscious planning for better living’. We are shown (above) an air photo of downtown Milwaukee in the 40’s—the grand old City Hall, Wisconsin Avenue alive with shoppers, plenty of neon roof signs; little old buildings and big new ones peacefully coexisting, close-in residential neighborhoods all around. The caption beneath it reads: ‘…insufficient or obsolete traffic ways, parking facilities, spaces for recreation…A typical example of downtown building congestion.’ (the book is Miles Colean, Renewing Our Cities, 1954; the author, a certified ‘expert’ of the day, had been one of the drafters of the 1937 Housing Act)

This was the enemy, and the planners went after it with gusto. The first phase of federal urban renewal covered some 1,400 projects in 700 cities. Often, no developers had been lined up for any of the cleared land, and urban renewal became simply a pretext for demolition, especially in black areas. Nationwide, thousands of acres cleared in the 50’s and 60’s remain vacant to this day. As many as one million people were chased from their homes, and despite all the disclaimers, the hidden agenda of the planners and politicians was clear- 80% of the displaced were black. The ink was hardly dry on the first-phase plans before protesters started calling them ‘Negro removal’ projects. Local authorities consistently selected black areas for flattening over central white neighborhoods comparable in population and housing condition.

In all, urban renewal destroyed an estimated 383,000 units of housing from 1949 to 1967, and replaced them with only 107,000 new ones; of these, only 10,000 were low-income. Typically of federal programs, nobody knows for sure what the real figures are; some estimates put the number of the destroyed units as 425,000, which would mean about a million and a half refugees. Demolition also meant losses to people’s livelihoods; by 1971 some 100,000 businesses had been evicted, most of them small independent shops and services. Various estimates of the number that subsequently failed range from a third to half.

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1 reply »

  1. A great demonstration of how the state systematically destroys opportunity for the poor and working class. One can only imagine what happens when a small, independently owned business is forced out of the neighborhood the proprietor grew up in, their customers likewise displaced. Years of building up clientele, trust and good will in a community is destroyed and they find themselves competing with Wal-Mart and McDonald’s in a souless neighborhood built with their very own tax dollars. Soon, they and their children are taking french fry orders, gathering carts in a parking lot, and blamed for their own poverty.

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