Urban Renewal: A Rush to Clear

After World War II, the United States entered into a frenzied period of demolition and clearance in the name of “Urban Renewal.” The policy was to clear a district of all slums at once in order to present large sites which would attract private developers.

The term “urban renewal” originates from the Housing Act of 1954.  Its predecessor, the Housing Act of 1949, called the same policy “urban redevelopment.” Through this policy, the federal government gave cities the power of eminent domain and the money under the housing laws, to condemn and clear “slum” neighborhoods and then turn the land over at cheap rates to private developers for projects such as housing, shopping centers, and roads.

New York, New York. Demolition for slum clearance. Whole blocks of a slum area are torn down to make room for a housing project. Library of Congress. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

New York, N.Y. Demolition for slum clearance.  Library of Congress. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

With the Housing Act of 1949, the Housing Act of 1954, and later the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, cities condemned properties, relocated residents and used bulldozers to mow down buildings and clear the wreckage away.

Housing and Highways

The Housing Act of 1949 allowed the federal governent to cover two-thirds of the cost of acquiring and clearing land for new development.  Needed development projects which cities had long shelved such as roads and schools were now feasible with the infusion of federal funding.

The Housing Act of 1954 followed the 1949 law, extending funds to clear or rehabilitate. The practice of demolition remained widely embraced and continued until the close of funding in 1974, wrapping up a quarter century of postwar urban renewal.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which provided $25 billion for a system of interstate and defense highways with a whopping federal share of 90 percent, set off a similar process, displacing communities to make way for the construction of highways.

Diverse and Established Neighborhoods Obliterated

Urban renewal had become a national movement with almost 800 cities participating by 1965. One out of every 17 dwelling units, approximately 7.5 million altogether, had been demolished and cleared between 1950 and 1980.

While urban renewal addressed physical problems such as overcrowding, dilapidation and obsolescence, many argue that it was far from a noble remedy and created a cascade of social, economic and environmental problems.

Many believe the policy to be less about helping people find decent housing and more about clearing out the poor and filling city coffers through more lucrative land uses. In 1965, sociologist Herbert Gans referred to urban redevelopment as “a method for eliminating the slums in order to ‘renew’ the city, rather than a program for properly rehousing slum-dwellers.” Gans argued that the West End of Boston,  which was demolished by urban renewal after being deemed a “slum,” was actually a vibrant community spanning generations of families who viewed their neighborhood as a good place to live.

Social Problems

Post-war urban renewal took away the structure of social and emotional support provided by the old neighborhoods from many of the displaced inhabitants.  People who had lived there for decades were uprooted, their institutions were closed down, small businesses were destroyed, and families and friends were scattered. They were forced to reestablish their lives elsewhere and among strangers.

According to Marc Fried, a clinical psychologist who studied the West Enders after relocation, 46 percent of the women and 38 percent of the men gave “evidence of a fairly severe grief reaction or worse” in response to questions about leaving their tight-knit community. Twenty-six percent of the women were sad or depressed two years after relocation.

Environmental Implications

Urban renewal also created an unanticipated amount of refuse and rubble.  In New Haven, Conn., planners  first thought to burn a lot of it.  However, people protested all of the smoke it created so the city banned the practice of burning.

Planners were determined to clear the land as quickly as possible and city dumps were unable to handle the load.  Wreckers who typically paid for the opportunity to tear down a building for salvaging and reselling parts, were not part of the common practice in urban renewal so not much was being salvaged for reuse.

Economic Repercussions

Urban renewal created economic problems as well.  Tenants who were displaced in the process could not afford to move into the newly built apartments.  Renewal agencies were tasked with relocating them into “standard” housing within their means prior to the demolition.  However, such vacant housing was scarce to unavailable in most of the cities, and under haste to clear the land and get renewal projects underway, the relocation of the tenants widely mishandled.

While one study showed that 60 percent of the displaced tenants were actually relocated to other slums, those who found better housing typically had to pay more rent than they were able to afford. Relocated businesses such as grocery stores also suffered because of their dependence on neighborhood ties, making it  difficult to start up in another location, and many went out of business.

Desirable Locations

Officials, when certifying areas for clearance, often overstated the degree of blight, in an effort to make their case, according to Gans.  In his 1965 piece, “The Failure of Urban Renewal,” Gans wrote that many clearance areas, such as the West End, were chosen because they offered the best sites for luxury housing, and public funds were used to clear the slums, making the land available to private builders at lower costs. “The low-income population was in effect subsidizing its own removal for the benefit of the wealthy.”

The Federal-Aid Highway Acts

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