The death of the American city, revisited

Renewables
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 16, 2010

Urban renewal is seldom discussed as anything but the great scourge of the American city — a disastrous post-World War II push to steamroll working-class neighborhoods and replace them with towering concrete buildings and cavernous plazas that sterilized once-vibrant places.

SamuelZipp_main
Samuel Zipp, an American Civilization professor at Brown University, is plenty critical of the phenomenon in his new book, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York. But he aims for a more nuanced view — one that acknowledges the nobler intentions of urban renewal’s practitioners; one that puts the effort in a Cold War context.

Zipp will discuss his book in a conversation with Brown history professor Robert Self at the Brown Bookstore on Thayer Street on Thursday, September 16 at 5:30 pm. The Phoenix caught up with him for a Q&A on urban renewal and the fate of Providence’s own cityscape. The interview is edited and condensed.

URBAN RENEWAL IS WIDELY DERIDED, BUT YOU TAKE A SYMPATHETIC VIEW OF ITS INTENT. My book is not intended as some kind of recovery of urban renewal. But I do think that the debate over urban renewal has become pretty stale and channeled into very expected patterns.

Before the middle of the 1940s and going up into the late 1940s, there was an idealistic idea behind urban renewal that paired urban renewal with public housing — low-income housing of various sorts — to try to rebuild the city for people of all incomes.

But public housing came to be seen as a kind of threat to American ideals in the culture of the Cold War. It came to be seen as a sort of socialist attack on American ideals, leading up to the 1949 Housing Act, which was the act that supplied money for both privately backed urban renewal and public housing.

The debates that swirled around that act were not actually about urban renewal, they were about public housing. And it became a big referendum on the role of public housing in American life. Public housing got through eventually, but in a very reduced reform — a kind of poor stepchild to privately backed urban renewal.

YOU’VE ALREADY REFERENCED THIS A BIT, BUT HOW DID THE URBAN RENEWAL PUSH FIT INTO OUR LARGER COLD WAR COMPETITION WITH THE SOVIET UNION? Ghettoes and segregation and all the problems of the cities were seen to be a kind of blot on the American image abroad.

This is very explicitly articulated by the folks who build Lincoln Center [in New York], for instance. They thought of the performing arts center they were creating as both a kind of urban intervention — a way to save a particular neighborhood, a model for how to save cities — and as a way to display America’s cultural resolve, [our] cultural fitness on the world stage. And they thought this was something that needed to be done in an era where democracy was competing with Communism.

People in public housing talked about this. They said, you know, we need to show that capitalism can keep up with both European social democracy and what the Soviet Union is doing in supplying housing to the least fortunate people in society.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: Jenny Holzer's projections remake buildings, Hearing voices, Review: Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, And Conversations, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , New York, Books, Manhattan,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY DAVID SCHARFENBERG
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   LIBERAL WARRIOR  |  April 10, 2013
    When it comes to his signature issues — climate change, campaign finance reform, tax fairness — Whitehouse makes little secret of his approach: marshal the facts, hammer the Republicans, and embarrass them into action.
  •   AT BROWN, A WIN FOR CLIMATE CHANGE ACTIVISTS  |  April 11, 2013
    A key Brown University oversight committee has voted to recommend the school divest from coal, delivering a significant victory to student climate change activists.
  •   HACKING POLITICS: A GUIDE  |  April 03, 2013
    Last year, the Internet briefly upended everything we know about American politics.
  •   BREAK ON THROUGH  |  March 28, 2013
    When I spoke with Treasurer Gina Raimondo this week, I opened with the obligatory question about whether she'll run for governor. "I'm seriously considering it," she said. "But I think as you know — we've talked about it before — I have little kids: a six-year-old, an eight-year-old. I'm a mother. It's a big deal."
  •   THE LIBERAL CASE FOR GUNS  |  March 27, 2013
    The school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut spurred hope not just for sensible gun regulation, but for a more nuanced discussion of America's gun culture. Neither wish has been realized.

 See all articles by: DAVID SCHARFENBERG