I recently followed the recommendation of a bunch of folks on Twitter and picked up Lizabeth Cohen’s Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age. It’s fairly weeds-y, and I’ll admit that I skimmed a few sections here and there.  But overall I was glad to read a book about urban renewal that goes beyond the simple Jane Jacobs / Robert Moses dichotomy to which we’ve become so accustomed.

The book follows Ed Logue, a New Deal-era labor organizer and lawyer who, after World War II, leads redevelopment efforts in New Haven, Boston, and New York between the 1960s and 1980s, successively.  The book tells the story of urban renewal through Logue’s career, as he learns from his mistakes in one city and makes new ones in the next one, all fueled by Great-Society-era federal largesse and modernist hubris. 

In New Haven, he tries to bring the suburbs to the city with the Chapel Square Mall, a bog-standard renewal project that raises the ire of local merchants and bulldozes mostly low-income minority neighborhoods.  While you can understand the city’s plight — tax bases and federal dollars are fleeing to the suburbs, while the remaining businesses like Yale are tax exempt — the approach here is more machete than scalpel.

Then, in Boston, as head of the Boston Redevelopment Association, he tries to weave the existing city fabric into his plans for the controversial, brutalist Government Center, rehabbing Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market.  Later he turns his attention to Boston’s residential neighborhoods and things get dicey. Logue is far more racially progressive than, say, Moses, yet finds himself stymied by neighborhood NIMBYs when he tries to integrate neighborhoods and school districts, while gaining support among African-American communities who want their share of the federal dollars that are going to build the suburbs.

Logue comes to understand that the problems are bigger than a single city, and he simply can’t save the cities while so much wealth is being expropriated to the suburbs.  In New York, he gets the chance to work State-wide, but again he’s thwarted, this time in suburban Westchester County when he tries to build affordable housing.  It’s Show Me a Hero times 10.  He does have some success, however, in the greenfield development of Roosevelt Island. By the end of his career, he’s learned a lot about community engagement, but President Reagan has all but shut off the federal funding spigot, and Logue is left building small projects in the South Bronx.  

Cohen does a fantastic job of showing how urban renewal changed over the decades, and how Logue’s skill at securing federal cash helped transform the urban fabric.  She, and Logue, correctly identify the problem of regionalism and the flash point of housing and integration, issues that are very much alive today.  

On the other hand, today America’s cities are suffering from a diverse array of issues: coastal NIMBYism, Sun Belt sprawl, Rust Belt jobs bust.  All might require very different interventions to fix, and in an era where leading presidential candidates are all releasing ambitious housing plans, Cohen’s book is a reminder that when the federal government gets involved in urban issues, the results can be uneven and unexpected.

If you want to nerd out a little more on the subject, Twitter threads from Sandy Johnson and Streetsblog’s Noah Kazis are informative:

2 Replies to “Book Review: Saving America’s Cities”

  1. For anyone, absolutely anyone interested in these issues:

    strongtowns.org

    Every paragraph (no – sentence!) of this book review I was nodding and going “Yep, Strong Towns talked about this… and about this… and about this…” I feel for Ed Logue, he tried hacking urban renewal without first reading Jane Jacobs and Nassim Taleb. Born too soon!

    I can’t recommend this non-profit enough. It has hippie urbanists, libertarians, Republicans and Democrats as regular contributors – the only truly bipartisan organisation I’ve ever seen online. Posts new content every day, so get ready for the rabbit hole. Enjoy!

    1. While Strong Towns is a useful contribution to the urbanist discussion, their adherence to incrementalism borders on fetishism. There are times when you need to build a big project, engage in long-term planning, and challenge the short-term interests of capital. While I also don’t agree with everything on Pedestrian Observations, this is a pretty good rebuttal to the Strong Towns worldview: https://pedestrianobservations.com/2019/03/27/quick-note-the-importance-of-long-term-planning/

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