City Lit: The War on Cities

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Anyone who has a hand in shaping New York’s future should read Robert Fogelson’s meticulously researched Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950, which could easily have been titled How to Screw up Downtown, Accelerate Decentralization, and Engineer the Collapse of the American City.

Fogelson, an urban historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, certainly didn’t intend to draw any parallels between New York’s current crisis and the dire straits confronting American cities over half a century ago. His book was completed before the World Trade Center disaster, and his subject is the quintessential downtown that gave rise to urban America.

Nonetheless, the lessons are there. As Fogelson recounts, decentralization and depopulation were the two primary forces that began eroding cities a hundred years ago. And those who were most desperate to halt them, in cities from Boston to Seattle, were downtown business owners and urban leaders. At the time, downtown-or the central business district–had emerged as an economic monolith, the kingmaker of the city. But as Fogelson lays bare, its very composition–the strict separation of business and residential neighborhoods–ultimately led to its undoing, and the American city’s demise.

Fogelson vividly recreates the long-forgotten political battles and public-policy debates that shaped this outcome, carrying his narrative through department store magnates, transit planners, office-building owners, and highway engineers “and the elected officials to whom they answered.”

Readers will wince at the missed opportunities (failing to fund nationwide rapid transit in the 1920s, when popular enthusiasm was there) and misguided schemes (building urban freeways, several decades later, that fed into downtowns, in the hope of enhancing access for suburban residents). “Urban redevelopment,” or “slum clearance,” as it was otherwise known in the mid-20th century, was their final masterstroke. By the book’s end, it’s clear that downtown business owners joined with policymakers and urban advocates to unwittingly sabotage downtown and insure the city’s demise.

The idea of Downtown took off in the mid-1800s, aided by the rapid spread of railways. This improvement in transportation, however, proved a double-edged sword: railways enabled businesses to become geographically concentrated and made downtown more accessible, but they also allowed people to disperse over a wide area, a popular trend that urban leaders and downtown business owners did not fully appreciate before it was too far underway.

While the actual geographical location of downtown varied from city to city, what mattered most was that it became known as the place where buyers and sellers converged, a bustling commercial and entertainment area comprised of shops, banks, theaters, restaurants, saloons, factories, and hotels. “By the end of the [19th] century, if not earlier,” Fogelson says, “downtown was synonymous with the business district virtually everywhere in urban America.”

It was also producing the nation’s first traffic jams and quality of life concerns. Hundreds of thousands made the daily trip downtown in Boston, Chicago, and other cities. In New York, a London Times correspondent reported that “half a million or more rush ‘down-town’ every morning and back ‘up-town’ at night.”

The streets were clogged with railways and all kinds of vehicles, some carrying people, and others cargo. “On one day in the mid 1880s,” Fogelson writes, “more than twenty-two thousand of these vehicles, or one every two seconds, passed the intersection of Broadway and Fulton Street between seven a.m. and six p.m.” Sidewalks were just as bad. American Architect and Building News complained in the early 1890s that downtown Boston’s sidewalks were “jammed to suffocation with pedestrians,” many of whom were “elbowing each other off the sidewalk into the gutter.”

Over the next several decades, downtown’s explosive growth prompted a range of mixed feelings and contradictory responses. To ease congestion, city officials, traffic engineers, and business groups jousted over how to best serve downtown’s needs. Rapid transit was the preferred mode, but most cities got bogged down in finance problems and political infighting; as a result, few cities wound up with subways.

At the same time, automobile use was on the rise, triggering debates over street widening, parking restrictions and highway construction. As all of this was playing out, what Fogelson terms “the specter of decentralization” began to loom large. Continuing residential dispersal to the suburbs, combined with worsening traffic downtown, spawned outlying business districts. Things went from bad to worse when the Great Depression and World War II deflated downtown land values and retail revenue.

By the 1940s, desperate business owners and city officials, eager to win back suburbanites and egged on by the powerful highway lobby, won federal funding for the building of urban freeways that opened up driving arteries into downtown. Fogelson, who maintains a scrupulously objective tone throughout, sardonically titles this chapter “Wishful Thinking.” He also captures the prescient warnings from critics, such as Lewis Mumford, who famously quipped: “Instead of planning motor cars and motorways to fit our life, we are rapidly planning our life to fit the motor car.”

By making the central business district more accessible, the new travel corridors eviscerated it. People suddenly found it easier to move out of the city, and existing suburban residents were not lured back. “In one city after another,” writes Fogelson, “[the freeways] displaced many of the stores, offices, and other enterprises that were its lifeblood.”

When highways failed to be downtown’s savior, business owners, realtors, and municipal officials next turned their eye to the gritty residential areas surrounding the central business 0district. Later known as the inner city, these were the poor and low-income minority communities where people lived if they couldn’t afford to move to the suburbs.

Come the 1940s, these “run-down” working class neighborhoods were deemed the cause of downtown’s deterioration. Downtown business owners, civic leaders, planners, and even some urban reformers labeled these urban neighborhoods “blighted districts,” and blamed them for depressing land values and keeping white suburbanites from trekking into the city.

“If the cities are to live,” said Joseph L. Kun, a Philadelphia judge, “they must remove the blighted areas, which like a cancerous growth would eventually destroy them.” The solution was to remove and rehabilitate them, wrote the Boston City Planning Board, before they “sapped the vitality of the city’s existence.”

Such was the bedrock that “urban redevelopment” (later known as “urban renewal”) was built on. In 1949, after a long and heated public debate over the merits of “slum clearance,” and how it should be funded, President Harry Truman signed the Housing Act of 1949, which provided federal aid for the effort, into law. Specifically, the Act “authorized the federal government to help the cities acquire and clear slum and blighted property in designated redevelopment areas and sell or lease it to private developers (or the public agencies) at below market value.”

Never mind that the money to relocate the displaced residents never actually materialized. As Fogelson remarks near the book’s conclusion, urban redevelopment’s “overriding objective was not to wipe out the slums in order to build decent housing and pleasant neighborhoods for low-income families. Rather it was to curb decentralization–to induce the well-to-do to move back to the center by turning slums and blighted areas into attractive residential communities–and, by so doing, to revitalize the central business district to ease the cities’ fiscal plight.”

But as with their earlier miscalculations over highway building, urban officials and downtown power brokers misread evolving business needs, public sentiment and the countervailing trend of suburban flight. During the 1940s and 1950s, many firms needed relief from exorbitant city rents or they needed more space–and could readily find both in the suburbs. They were also seeking a more bucolic setting, which they believed would help attract and retain workers.

All this was occurring amid new Cold War fears, right after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The belief that the central business district had outlived its usefulness was heightened by the growing fear of atomic warfare,” writes Fogelson. One planner even suggested that the only defense against atomic weapons was dispersal of the cities.

Is any of this beginning to sound familiar? Today, amid fears of terrorist attacks on urban centers, New York’s business, political, and civic leaders are placing all their chips on downtown Manhattan’s economic recovery. New York City’s future and even the nation’s fiscal health, we are often told, rely on its revitalization. It is a refrain that, as Fogelson amply shows, was made again and again by the country’s urban business leaders and mayors over 50 years ago. But in promoting only the well-being of downtown, to the exclusion of other parts of the city, they brought both to their knees.

Keith Kloor is a senior editor for Audubon magazine.