Urban Renewal in the United States

3 Urban Renewal in the United States

Urban renewal was a government program started in the 1940s that aimed to revitalize American cities by demolishing and rebuilding blighted areas. The program was controversial, with critics arguing that it displaced low-income residents and destroyed historic neighborhoods. It was often done with no community involvement during the decision-making process.  

Objectives

  1. Understand the term Urban Renewal and why cities did it
  2. Recognize the controversies surrounding urban renewal
  3. Learn about the long-term impacts of urban renewal

Lectures

 

Key Takeaway:

  • Urban renewal was intended to address issues such as slum clearance and overcrowding in cities.
  • Urban renewal often involved the demolition of existing buildings and the construction of new ones. 
  • Many urban renewal projects displaced low-income residents and communities of color.
  • The process of urban renewal was often criticized for being top-down and not involving community input.
  • The decline of urban renewal in the 1970s was due in part to the negative impacts it had on communities

The Rise of Urban Renewal in the 1950s

 

Urban renewal initiatives in the United States had several main goals. One of the primary objectives was to address the issue of urban decay and blight in cities. Many urban areas had become run-down and dilapidated, with crumbling infrastructure and inadequate housing. Urban renewal aimed to revitalize these areas and make them more livable for residents.

Another goal of urban renewal was to promote economic growth and development in cities. By investing in urban renewal projects, policymakers hoped to attract new businesses and industries to urban areas, creating jobs and stimulating economic activity. This was seen as a way to counter the trend of suburbanization, which had drawn many businesses and residents away from cities in the post-war period.

A third goal of urban renewal was to improve public health and safety in cities. Many urban areas had high rates of crime and disease, and urban renewal aimed to address these issues by improving housing conditions, upgrading infrastructure, and creating new public spaces. By making cities safer and healthier, policymakers hoped to improve the quality of life for urban residents.

Finally, urban renewal initiatives in the United States during the 1950s were driven by a desire to modernize cities and make them more efficient. This involved tearing down old buildings and replacing them with new, modern structures, as well as reorganizing urban spaces to make them more functional and accessible. The goal was to create a more streamlined and efficient urban environment that would be better suited to the needs of modern society. [You don’t need to watch the whole video below (although I think it is fascinating) but starting at 11 minutes it talks about the “architectural obsolescence” and the need for demolition].  

Funding for Urban Renewal

Housing Act of 1949 

The Housing Act of 1949 was a landmark piece of legislation that established the goal of “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” The act authorized the federal government to provide financial assistance to cities for slum clearance and redevelopment, as well as to build public housing. The act also created the Housing and Home Finance Agency, which was later renamed the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). [We’ll discuss more in Housing module]

Housing Act of 1954

The Housing Act of 1954 was a landmark piece of legislation that amended the National Housing Act of 1934. The act provided funding for 140,000 units of public housing, gave preferential treatment to families that would be relocated for slum eradication or revitalization, and authorized the use of federal funds for urban renewal projects. [We’ll discuss more in Housing module]

Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the use of federal funds for urban renewal projects. The act stipulated that 10% of the funds appropriated for the construction of the interstate highway system could be used for urban renewal. This provision was intended to help cities acquire land for redevelopment and to finance the construction of new housing and commercial development. [We’ll discuss more in Transportation Module]

Method

During urban renewal, governments used eminent domain as a tool to acquire private property for public use. This power was granted to the government by the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states that private property cannot be taken for public use without just compensation. Eminent domain allows the government to take private property for public use, such as building roads, schools, or parks.

However, during urban renewal, eminent domain was often used to acquire land for private development projects, such as shopping centers or office buildings. This had been a controversial issue, as some argue that it infringed on property rights and benefits private developers at the expense of the community. Others argued that it was necessary for economic development and revitalization of blighted areas.

In the 1950s, urban renewal projects often targeted low-income and minority neighborhoods, leading to displacement of residents and destruction of communities. Eminent domain was used to acquire land for new housing developments, highways, and other infrastructure projects. This led to a backlash against urban renewal and the use of eminent domain for private development.

In response to these concerns, the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in Berman v. Parker that the use of eminent domain for urban renewal was constitutional, as long as it served a public purpose.

The Impact on Urban Neighborhoods

Between 1949 and 1973, the federal government spent $13 billion on urban renewal projects. Over that time, projects displaced over 300,000 families and 1 million people, mostly low-income and minority residents. It led to the demolition of over 2,500 schools, 1,000 churches, and 250,000 housing units. As we saw in the above video, urban renewal projects often destroyed historic neighborhoods and replaced them with modernist buildings and highways.

The loss of a community due to Urban Renewal had an immense impact on the residents’ emotional well-being. The sense of belonging and attachment to one’s neighborhood was severed, leading to feelings of isolation, disorientation, and depression. Moreover, there was often a lack of acknowledgment and commemoration of these communities’ cultural significance, contributing further to the loss and emotional distress.

 

Examples

Officials used federal urban renewal funds for many types of projects 

  • Modern housing complexes
  • Public housing
  • Shopping malls
  • Office buildings
  • Civic centers
  • Sports arenas
  • Parking lots
  • College campuses (including part of Georgia Tech

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh converted a large section of downtown into parks, office buildings, and a sports area.  Other neighborhoods were also demolished an replaced by highways.  The neighborhood of Lower Hill District was completely replaced by the Civic Area which displaced 8000 residents.  

 

Boston

Nearly a third of Boston was demolished, including the historic West End.  

2 pictures of the same city, from the same aerial angle. On the top is labeled 1955 and below is 1959.  In 1959, a large swath of buildings has been removed.

New York

Robert Moses We’ll talk more about Robert Moses in the Transportation Module led the redevelopment of the West Side of Manhattan in New York City which involved the demolition of thousands of buildings and the displacement of tens of thousands of residents. 

Black and white aerial photo showing land that formerly had buildings on it, now flattened.

 

Atlanta

In Atlanta, Urban Renewal transformed many parts of the city. It started with Charles Palmer [The following passage is from my dissertation]

In Atlanta, Charles Palmer, President of the National Association of Building Owners and Managers, owned office buildings near the city’s central business district. At the time, he was not involved in housing, but the real estate aspect piqued his interest. As a businessman, Palmer saw the funds (made available as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act) as an economic benefit to himself and the central business district. He described risk and reward regarding personal gains when he stated, “The whole matter was new and untried, and there undoubtedly would be many complications. But the man who assembled the property for clearance and rebuilding could expect to earn reasonable commissions” (Palmer, 1955, p. 9). As he “examined municipal maps and records, looking for a suitable slum,” (Palmer, 1955, pp. 8–9) Palmer started to recognize the proximity of slums to the city and saw, “that wiping out the slum area would enhance the value of our central business properties” (Palmer, 1955, p. 9).

Palmer started with an economic focus, but his wife suggested looking beyond the financials and thinking about the people. She asked, “Have you ever seen a slum?” and reminded him that people call the slums home (Palmer, 1955, p. 9). This conversation pushed Palmer to stop in the slums adjacent to the Georgia Institute of Technology. Around him, he saw “ragged children” that should have been in school, “pools of stagnant water near an open privy,” and “a chamber pot hung beside a water dipper” (Palmer, 1955, p. 10).

Sepia tone photo of 2 story wood structures.  The structure in the foreground is a store.

Using medical language to describe the problem, Palmer asked himself, “why such an untended abscess should fester between the lovely campus of our proudest school and the office buildings in the heart of our city” (Palmer, 1955, p. 7). Seeing the people firsthand, he saw slum removal as a way for them to have access to “decent, safe, and sanitary homes” (Palmer, 1955, p. 13). For Palmer, his personal narrative shifted from purely economic to one that recognized the slums as unhealthy for both the residents and the city of Atlanta. Palmer set his sights on redeveloping a 10-block area known as the “Tech Flats.” In October 1933, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution outlined the new development and addressed health and economic implications. It described the Techwood development as a “project which will rebuild the unsightly district … into one of the most beautiful and modern up-to-date residential section of the city … with special attention being given to light, air and ventilation.” The newspaper anticipated employment of more than 1,000 men, and the final project would increase the value of Georgia Tech (Garrett, 1968, p. 82).

….

Over the next decade, Atlanta continued to clear slums to make way for public housing. During this time, the media supported the city’s endeavors by printing articles that highlighted the problems with blight. For example, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article from February 24, 1952, entitled, “Shantytown Shackles; Areas in Heart of City Studied for Redevelopment” made the case to the public for why Atlanta must redevelop with an emphasis on the health of the city. The article began by stating, “Modern cities represent man at his worst. By and large they are ugly and unhealthy. In this environment which he has made himself, man can deteriorate…. Cities can breed sickness and death for the body and spirit” (Spalding, 1952).  The article described the blighted areas as “wormy” and “cannibalistic substandard areas living on the healthy tissues of new development.” It went on to say, “as the prosperous and productive moved out” of the city, they left behind a “ring of decay” around downtown Atlanta.  The described decay was said to sit near “the heart and nerve center of the district … If left alone, it will gradually eat into the city’s vitals and spread like ringworm into clean areas. The heart will be stilled, and Atlanta will be through.” To demonstrate the proximity of blight to the heart of Atlanta, the article included a photo of blighted buildings near the Capital with the circled capital building in the background with a pile of tires in the foreground (Figure 4). The article concluded that only “a cleansing of the rotting sections can save Atlanta, renew it, and guarantee its prosperous future” (Spalding, 1952).

Black and white photo with wooden houses in the foreground.  A pile of trash to the side and the capital building in the distance.

 

….

In 1959, the Atlanta-Fulton County Joint Planning Board (AFCJPB) completed a Neighborhood Analysis Study entitled “Shall we Rebuild Again? Atlanta Faces the Problem of Central Area Blight” as required under the Workable Program provision. It focused on a 13 square mile area around the “heart” of Atlanta’s downtown business district (Figure 5). The Planning Board saw as “some of the most valuable land in the city” (Atlanta-Fulton County Joint Planning Board, 1959, p. 12) and worried about the “veritable ring of blight which threatens to encircle the critical downtown area” (Atlanta-Fulton County Joint Planning Board, 1959, p. 13). It is important to note, the AFCJPB saw deteriorating houses as only one cause of blight. Other reasons included “poor platting, mixed land uses, poor zoning, congested streets, narrow lots, inadequate community facilities, poor drainage, excessive noise or odors, and/or social organization which might encourage low morals or crimes” (Atlanta-Fulton County Joint Planning Board, 1959, p. 16). The language of the study was bleak and often invoked the imagery of war. The title, “Shall we Rebuild Again,” referenced the Civil War, stating in the Forward “Before in its history, [Atlantans] have rebuilt the City in the wake of war and fire … Thus, once more, history confronts Atlantans with the same question: “SHALL WE REBUILD AGAIN?” [emphasis from the original document] (Atlanta-Fulton County Joint Planning Board, 1959, p. Forward). Other language included in the Forward to build the urgent case for urban renewal was “This large area is undergoing rapid … sometimes violent … changes in character” and “great damage being inflicted upon large portions of the area.” Throughout the study, the authors described urban renewal as a defensive force against Atlanta’s challenges. In the Forward, urban renewal was described as a “powerful weapon as a means of attacking” Atlanta’s problems (Atlanta-Fulton County Joint Planning Board, 1959, p. Forward). Later in the study, the Planning Board stated it was “one of the most powerful… weapons available to cities today to combat and conquer slums and blight” (Atlanta-Fulton County Joint Planning Board, 1959, p. 4).

 After the “Shall We Rebuild Again” report, Atlanta completed massive urban renewal projects across the city. In Mechanicsville and Peoplestown, on the southeastern side of Atlanta, the city leveled 600 acres and demolished 3,261 dwellings. Most families relocated to nearby Summerhill. Some of the land in question became interstates, while the rest became a baseball stadium and associated parking lots. Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of the central business district, the city cleared the community of Buttermilk Bottom. The Atlanta Housing Authority offered to house displaced residents in the Bowen Homes public housing on the west side of the city (Holliman, 2009, p. 374). Between 1950 and the late 1960s, the city displaced approximately 4,077 families, of which 89 percent were Black families (Digital Scholarship Lab, n.d.).

 Below is a before and after photo of Summerhill and Mechanicsville.  

Besides public housing We’ll discuss in the Housing Module, much of what Atlanta created through urban renewal funds were stadiums and the Atlanta civic center.  

 

Buttermilk Bottom

 

Black and white photo of large building under construction
Image: Atlanta civic center under construction. Site of the former Buttermilk Bottom community

 

 Before and after map showing an aerial view of neighborhoods.  The top map is a grid pattern with small streets.  The bottom map has curved highways, large parking lots, and a stadium.

Image: Aerial view of Mechanicsville and Summerhill before and after urban renewal

Tampa

Criticism

Minority communities were disproportionately impacted by urban renewal initiatives in the 1950s. Many of these communities were located in areas deemed blighted and in need of redevelopment, leading to the demolition of existing housing and displacement of residents. However, unlike their white counterparts, many minority families were not able to relocate to other areas due to racial discrimination and limited housing options. This resulted in the destruction of many minority communities and the loss of cultural heritage and identity. Because of the ways that Urban Renewal project targeted Black neighborhoods, James Baldwin renamed Urban Renewal to “Negro Removal.”

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James Baldwin’s works helped to raise public awareness of racial and sexual oppression. His honest portrayal of his personal experiences in a national context challenged America to uphold the values it promised on equality and justice.Black and white photo of a Black man looking into the camera with a smile on his face.  He is wearing a white collared shirt, with a black neck time, and a silver locket.

Another criticism of urban renewal initiatives was that they often prioritized the interests of developers and businesses over those of the local community. This led to the demolition of historic buildings and neighborhoods, which were replaced with modern structures that lacked character and charm.

Urban renewal initiatives were also criticized for their lack of transparency and community involvement. The process of urban renewal was often criticized for being top-down approach and many residents felt that their voices were not being heard and that decisions were being made without their input. This led to a sense of disempowerment and frustration among those affected by the initiatives.

Finally, urban renewal initiatives were criticized for their failure to address the root causes of urban blight and decay. Rather than investing in education, job training, and other social programs, urban renewal initiatives focused on physical infrastructure and redevelopment. This approach did little to address the underlying social and economic issues that contributed to urban decay.

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For example, in the Vine City neighborhood of Atlanta, the National Domestic Workers of America surveyed residents about their living conditions and described the streets as “poor physical condition” and “poorly maintained.” In the survey focused on community recreation facilities, the authors noted Vine City contained no parks and described recreation facilities as “very poor” and used “inadequate” three times. The report also noted, “inadequate to describe bus services.” What this survey shows, is that rather than need for total removal of the community, residents saw the city at fault for not maintaining and/or building infrastructure.  

Read this article – The Failure of Urban Renewal by Herbert J. Gans (1965)

Community Protest

Communities across the country protested against urban renewal projects

Black and white photo of protestors

Image: Boston residents protest urban renewal project that demolished homes for luxury apartments

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Image: Urban renewal protest poster (1971)

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs (May 4, 1916 – April 25, 2006) was a US-Canadian journalist, author, theorist, and activist who influenced urban studies, sociology, and economics. Her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) argued that “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” did not respect the needs of city-dwellers. She promoted the importance of neighborhoods, mixed use, and walkability in cities.

In the early 1950s, Jacobs became involved in the fight against urban renewal in Greenwich Village, where she lived. She argued that urban renewal was destroying the vitality of cities by displacing residents and businesses, and she helped to organize residents to fight against these plans. Jacobs’s activism helped to raise awareness of the negative effects of urban renewal, and she is credited with helping to change the course of urban planning in the United States.

Jacobs’s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961. The book was a critical and commercial success, and it is considered to be one of the most influential books on urban planning ever written. In the book, Jacobs argued that cities are complex and dynamic systems, and that they work best when they are allowed to evolve organically. She also argued that cities are essential to the economic and cultural vitality of a nation.

Jacobs’s ideas have had a profound impact on urban planning around the world. Her work has helped to shape the development of cities in the United States and Canada, and it has also been influential in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan. Jacobs is considered to be one of the most important urban thinkers of the 20th century, and her work continues to be relevant today.

Protest on city street with a woman in the foreground wearing a sign that say "Conscience the Ultimate Weapon!"

 

Backlash Against Urban Renewal Pushes for Citizen Participation

President Johnson’s War on Poverty created a significant new lexicon and attitude to participation in urban planning, in large part in response to the legacy of urban renewal. The 1964 Economic Opportunity Act allocated major federal cash to a variety of anti-poverty initiatives in the United States. It established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and over 1,000 Community Action Agencies (CAA) that may receive funding for a variety of social activities. neighborhood Action Agencies included neighborhood groups, NGOs, and city agencies, but all were required by law to be “developed and conducted with the maximum feasible participation of the residents of the area.”

[We’ll discuss this more in Participatory Planning Module]

Five Facts About Urban Renewal:

  • ✅ Urban renewal, is a process of revitalizing and redeveloping inner-city areas. 
  • ✅ The urban renewal movement gained momentum in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, aiming to address urban decay and blight. 
  • ✅ Urban renewal took place in cities across the United States
  • ✅ Critics of urban renewal argue that it often leads to displacement of low-income residents and loss of historic architecture. 
  • ✅ Backlash against the top-down approach of urban renewal led to the requirement of citizen participation in the planning process.

FAQs about Urban Renewal

What were the goals of urban renewal in the United States?

During the 1950s, urban renewal initiatives in the United States had multiple goals. First, they aimed to combat urban decay and blight by revitalizing “slum” areas and improving housing conditions. Second, policymakers sought to stimulate economic growth by attracting businesses and industries back to cities. Third, the initiatives aimed to address public health and safety concerns through upgrading infrastructure and creating new public spaces. Finally, the goal was to modernize cities by replacing old structures, reorganizing urban spaces, and creating a more efficient and functional urban environment.

What was the impact of urban renewal on Black communities in the United States in the 1950s?

Urban renewal in the United States during the 1950s had a significant impact on Black communities. The federal government provided funding to cities to demolish blighted neighborhoods and replace them with new housing and commercial developments. However, this often resulted in the displacement of Black residents who were not given adequate compensation for their homes and unable to purchase new housing.  At the same time, displacement severed community connections and support systems.  

What were some of the long-term effects of urban renewal in the United States?

Urban renewal initiatives in the United States had a significant impact on downtown areas, transforming them through the construction of expansive public housing projects, commercial centers, and public spaces. Unfortunately, this process often involved the demolition of historic buildings, leading to the loss of architectural heritage. Moreover, eminent domain, a controversial practice, was utilized, allowing the government to forcibly acquire private land from one owner and transfer it to private real estate developers. The lack of resident input in decision-making sparked a strong backlash. Consequently, the federal government intervened by mandating public participation in projects that received federal funding, aiming to ensure that community voices were heard and considered in urban renewal endeavors.

Quick Check

Who funded urban renewal projects?

Enter Answer A Here

Local Government

Enter Answer B Here

Federal Government

Answer

State Government

Check Answer

 

 

 

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