The death of the American city, revisited

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.

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.

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