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Boston Society of Architects

Renew Feature

Reversal of fortune?

Despite its complicated legacy, urban renewal’s success stories could help forge vibrant paths for Boston’s future

RENEW Jan-March 2020

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Madison Place, Urban Redevelopment Division, Boston Housing Authority, circa 1952-1958

Urban Redevelopment Division, Boston Housing Authority photographs in Boston Redevelopment Authority photographs, Collection # 4010.001, City of Boston Archives, Boston

Boston is booming. Its population is swelling, jobs have grown steadily for the past decade, millions of square feet of residential and office space have refashioned the skyline, and real estate values have soared in many of its neighborhoods. This city’s rise has been so dramatic that it now suffers from growing pains: income inequality, a shortage of affordable housing, and a strained transit system.

In many ways, the Boston we see today bears little resemblance to the Boston of the middle of the last century, when the city’s fate was completely reversed. At that time, the population was dropping. The city was practically bankrupt; it had never recovered from losing its economic base in manufacturing, and a burgeoning technology industry was located largely in the suburbs, where the city’s middle-class population and retail business sector were also fleeing to. Almost no major buildings had been constructed in the city during the previous few decades.

BRA Promotion for The New Boston, circa 1960
Courtesy of the Boston City Archives

A new book by Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen argues that we can learn something today by looking more closely at the urban renewal period that followed, in which planners tried to turn cities such as Boston around. For many people, the story of urban renewal in Boston begins and ends in the late 1950s. That’s when Boston mayor John Hynes, in an effort to jump-start a “New Boston,” used federal urban renewal funds to raze two lower-income, ethnically diverse neighborhoods: the so-called New York streets (Seneca, Oneida, Oswego, Genesee, Rochester, and Troy) in the South End and the West End. Thousands of residents were displaced with little attempt to relocate them. The West End experience was immortalized in sociologist Herbert Gans’ work The Urban Villagers (The Free Press, 1982), and it became a textbook example of planning done wrong.

But Cohen argues that the notorious urban renewal projects of the 1950s have cast too long a shadow over the whole era. Saving America’s Cities (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) is a biography of prominent and controversial urban planner Ed Logue, who led the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA, now the Boston Planning & Development Agency) during the 1960s between stints in New Haven, Connecticut, and New York State. It offers a deep dive into the work of one of the country’s most effective leaders of urban renewal. In the months since last October, when her book was released, Cohen has found a surprisingly receptive audience to her reevaluation of that time. “One of the things I’ve learned is how engaged people still are in these questions,” she says.

Cohen doesn’t gloss over urban renewal’s mistakes and inequities, but she presents it as a time when public investment in cities was substantial, and planners were thinking big and experimenting with strategies to revive cities. It was also a time that witnessed a rise in citizen empowerment. “The fact that this was public money meant that there was a public process that the community could influence,” Cohen says, “and that needs to be contrasted with the process today with private development.” Those contrasts, she says, offer insights that are still relevant to Boston’s current challenges.

A new Boston

Cohen says that Boston’s first urban renewal projects followed a pattern that was already taking place across the country. The Federal Housing Act of 1949 brought millions of federal dollars for urban renewal in ailing cities, with policies that explicitly favored projects that demolished “blighted areas” and replaced them with new construction. Cities willingly sacrificed older buildings and neighborhoods in order to win federal money and a chance to reinvigorate their struggling economies. The strategy, Cohen says, was “let’s tear down what were considered ‘slums’ by the planners . . . and let’s put up housing that will attract the middle class back into the city or keep them there.” And in Boston, “it was not handled well at all,” she says. “There was no process. It was very top down.”

Government Center MTA Rapid Transit Station, Boston Redevelopment Authority, circa 1964-1968
Boston Redevelopment Authority photographs, Collection # 4010.001, City of Boston Archives, Boston

But over the next couple of decades—until federal funding for urban redevelopment dried up during the Nixon administration—renewal in Boston evolved. When John Collins became mayor in 1960, he hired Logue to take urban renewal in a new direction. Leading a newly empowered BRA, Logue enacted a renewal effort that was comprehensive and transformative, and he developed an ambitious masterplan for the city. Although the city was still beset with problems, by the 1970s there was finally tangible evidence of a new Boston emerging.

Many factors led to that renaissance—particularly Boston’s ability to take advantage of burgeoning economies in the service and financial sectors, technology, and healthcare. But the efforts to channel investment into redevelopment certainly helped, and their effects are clear in Boston’s built environment today. The buildings of Government Center—made possible by the destruction of Scollay Square—helped to bring a critical mass of workers downtown to patronize restaurants and retail at a time when the area was suffering. The construction of the Prudential Tower, which had stalled until the BRA used its urban renewal powers to create favorable conditions to convince the insurance giant to finally construct its headquarters, helped anchor a business and retail center in the Back Bay.

The trauma of urban renewal has been well documented; in some ways, it’s more challenging to recognize the positive. “I think without what happened during the urban renewal period, the city of Boston would not be what it is today,” says Chris Grimley, an architect at Boston firm Over,Under and coauthor of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (The Monacelli Press, 2015). The city needed investment at the time, he says, and “I think we’re really seeing the results of that investment in the 21st century.”

Planning changes

In addition to these high-profile projects in the city core, redevelopment brought physical transformation to many of Boston’s neighborhoods. The challenge of replacing or rehabilitating the city’s aging housing and civic buildings was formidable. Characterizing urban renewal as a simple David-versus-Goliath story of planners imposing visions on citizens overlooks the complex and sophisticated negotiations that took place. Logue’s BRA was given unprecedented power and resources, but it also had a mandate to make amends for past mistakes. “Because of the huge negative response to the West End, Boston communities were more prepared to go to battle,” says Cohen.

Paradoxically, urban renewal left a legacy of community empowerment and control. Boston was an early adopter of a community-oriented planning process, in which neighborhood-level planning teams at the BRA work with community groups to hammer out a redevelopment plan. “Over the course of the ’60s, one of the outcomes of there being an increasingly public process around urban renewal was that communities really got their act together,” says Cohen, “and the BRA learned that it had to negotiate with them.” Although Logue adopted the slogan “Planning With People,” he initially envisioned that neighborhoods would simply register preferences among expert-led plans. In reality, Boston’s neighborhoods mobilized in lasting ways. The era witnessed the formation of neighborhood organizations and community-development corporations that have shaped redevelopment ever since.

South End: Backyard model, Boston Redevelopment Authority, May 1965
Boston Redevelopment Authority photographs, Collection # 4010.001, City of Boston Archives, Boston

This dynamic ultimately created in Boston what Cohen calls a “negotiated cityscape.” Urban renewal is often decried for targeting low-income neighborhoods dominated by minorities and immigrants with the explicit goal of attracting white middle-class taxpayers who might otherwise move to the suburbs.It was really more complicated than that,” says Cohen. “And every neighborhood story is somewhat different.” City planners such as Logue fought to create racially and economically integrated neighborhoods—and residents sometimes pushed back. In Charlestown, residents battled redevelopment plans not only for whom it might displace but also whom it might bring in. Many people who feared urban renewal were fearing that blacks were going to move into their community,” says Cohen. “Part of that negotiation with the BRA meant that there would be some limit; they would not put in more public housing.” In the Washington Park area of Roxbury, some neighborhood leaders also fought a BRA plan to build additional low-income housing as rents began to rise because it clashed with their hopes for a middle-class black neighborhood.

In spite of its power, the BRA had limited tools to ensure that people displaced by urban renewal could find and afford new homes in their existing neighborhoods, and plenty of residents suffered because of revitalization plans that left them out. But Logue pushed for low-income housing as part of redevelopment projects, such as in Castle Square in the South End, which might otherwise have become industrial space. Tunney Lee, former head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, who worked with the BRA in the 1960s on its plan for Chinatown and South Cove, says that earlier plans would have given much of the area to Tufts University for its medical center, but the BRA instead negotiated an agreement between Chinatown residents and Tufts that allowed for 2,000 affordable housing units, which Lee believes have been critical for allowing residents to remain even in the midst of gentrification. “There would be no residential Chinatown today if it [weren’t] for urban renewal,” he says.

A piecemeal city

The unpopularity of urban renewal’s top-down planning approach meant that even liberals and progressives didn’t fight much when federal funding for urban revitalization was dismantled. But Cohen says that many problems cities such as Boston face today—a lack of affordable housing, decrepit public housing, and aging infrastructure—stem from “a premise that somehow the private sector can solve these problems,” she says. “I think we are foolhardy to think that the private sector, which understandably is motivated by profit, can take on larger social problems that don’t lend themselves to the profit motive.”

Photo by Dirk Ahlgrim

On the one hand, she says, “We’ve come a long way from [the] ’50s period of not really understanding that being part of a community is very important to people and that wrenching them out of it is terribly disorienting and damaging to their lives. On the other hand, we have a society where the quality of services that you have available to you—whether those are schools or transit access or other kinds of services—depends on where you live.” By keeping people in communities with unequal access to services, she argues, “you only reproduce the inequality in our society and the lack of opportunity.”

The privatization of urban development results in a more piecemeal, block-by-block system of planning, which makes it hard to shape the city as a whole. That poses problems for addressing current housing and infrastructure problems, as well as future challenges such as adapting the city to climate change, which would involve planning and financing projects that stretch beyond neighborhood boundaries. “Even if there was a will to recognize the problem of climate change and the danger that a city like Boston is in,” Cohen says, “in our current funding structure, I don’t see where the resources would come from.” To solve these problems, she believes, it might be time to rethink the role of government investment in cities. No one wants to replicate the trauma of urban renewal, but society must find a way to give cities the power to renew themselves again.