|Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco: The
Article: Urban Renewal
Urban Renewal: The Failure of an American Experiment in City Redevelopment
Urban development projects have been undertaken in the United States since the founding of its first cities. With the influx of new immigrant populations in the late 19th -- and early 20th -- centuries, the country's urban centers grew astronomically. New waves of migrants followed suit on the heels of the Great Depression when many farmers and rural residents sought to make a better life for themselves and their families. The burgeoning population of America's cities stretched the already strained infrastructures of these municipalities.
Already in the 1920s, progressive social planners were denouncing the poor state of America's cities and the conditions faced by the poor. For the next decade, a movement in urban planning envisioned the revitalization of America's cities, a return to the idea of town centers and garden cities, and a vision providing every American with equal access to light, green space, and adequate plumbing. Many urban planners imagined tearing down the decaying 19th-century inner cities altogether. But the Great Depression and World War II forestalled any serious efforts to improve American cities.
At the end of World War II, however, the situation turned to a crisis: returning soldiers displaced migrant war workers, who in turn swelled the unemployment lines; the post-war baby boom precipitated a housing crunch; and the flight to the suburbs drained money from more urbanized areas.
The federal government's response to the decline of its urban centers was launched as the Housing Act of 1949. The policies spawned from this legislation and successive acts throughout the 1950's have since become more commonly known as "urban renewal." The goals of the program were to eliminate substandard housing through private development enterprises while the government would be responsible for clearing the land for redevelopment. The fuel for this program was federal money; the drivers were such redevelopment titans as New York's Robert Moses, Boston's Edward Logue, and San Francisco's M. Justin Herman, many of whom were sparked by the original progressive goals of urban renewal, but who wielded enormous discretionary power over their cities' plans.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, cities across the country –- with the help of the federal government subsidies –- razed whole neighborhoods (labeled as "blighted") through the use of eminent domain. By and large, residents of these neighborhoods were neither consulted nor adequately compensated for being displaced. The results have been very different from the intended outcome, and the legacy of urban renewal is still felt in cities across the country.
The Fillmore, the fourth film in KQED's Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco series, highlights an example of such government policies gone awry. It showcases the mistakes of a city made decades ago, and serves as a warning for others not to make the same mistakes. However, what happened in the Fillmore was not unique to San Francisco, and similar stories could be told about many American cities large and small, such as Boston, New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Louisville and St. Louis. In many cases whole neighborhoods, mostly African-American, were uprooted and scattered about in whatever standard accommodations could be found, and finally, when residents were invited to move back to the "rehabilitated" neighborhoods, it was usually to live in one of the mega-housing projects which had replaced the smaller multi-family homes.
However, even today, as cities throughout the Unites States consider ways to rehabilitate the very areas which they had sought to develop decades ago, many run the risk of making similarly bad decisions as neighborhoods become more "gentrified" and once again communities are displaced.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was one of the first cities to undergo a major urban renewal plan in the Lower Hill district and East Liberty area. The Pittsburgh Urban Renewal Authority, in its efforts to develop these areas, demolished more than 3,700 buildings, relocated more than 1,500 businesses and displaced more than 5,000 families. In 1950, Lower Hill was a diverse neighborhood of Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans and African-Americans with a population of 17,334. By 1990, the population has dropped to less than 2,500. Today, much of the cleared land remains undeveloped and serves as a parking lot. footnote 1
Louisville, Kentucky, once was home to a vibrant African-American community centered around Walnut Street with an array of restaurants, churches and stores. It was also home to renowned nightclubs like the Top Hat, which during the Kentucky Derby week, would host top name performers such as Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Larry Darnell and Louis Armstrong. That way of life came to an end when the area was targeted for urban renewal and businesses and homes were relocated or destroyed. As one long-time resident said when interviewed by a reporter, "Look, you had a whole way of life on that street, a frame of mind," he said. "You can’t take up all that tradition and just move it to another street corner." footnote 2
Boston, Massachusetts, has also seen its share of renewal projects that have affected several areas of that city. The West End was a dynamic, diverse center of a multi-cultural neighborhood for more than 100 years, but was eventually displaced and bulldozed in only two years to make way for Charles River Park. Today the development is generally regarded as failure in its goal to attract suburbanites to return to the city. Roxbury, birthplace of Malcolm X, has never recovered from efforts to revitalize that area, which have included numerous housing projects. The Central Artery, which was designed to facilitate traffic in and out of the city, but also acted to further segregate communities which it severed, is now being demolished and will ultimately be replaced by the Boston Tunnel.
1. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "The Story of Urban Renewal" May 21, 2000.
2. Louisville Courier-Journal, "With Urban Renewal a Community Vanishes" December 31, 1999.