For many American cities, the road to decline was paved with good intentions.
During the mid 20th century, urban renewal swept the U.S. with promises of progress, revitalization, and revival. Instead, it became one of the country’s greatest policy and planning failures, plunging many of the cities and communities most in need of assistance deeper into poverty and decline. Under urban renewal, cities would demolish impoverished areas—known as “slum clearance” which really meant removing poor people of color—and redeveloping the land to have supposedly higher quality buildings and neighborhoods. These cities are still grappling with the scars wrought by urban renewal—neighborhoods razed, people displaced, communities fragmented, and declining economies—and some of the areas where these scars are most visible today are urban areas with smaller populations.
Fringe Cities, a new exhibition curated by MASS Design Group at the Center for Architecture in New York City, dissects the harmful legacy of urban renewal and explores how some small cities most affected by its policies are trying to bounce back. In the context of today’s political landscape—where development is front and center through programs like Opportunity Zones, where housing policy is a major focus for 2020 candidates, and where calls for new infrastructure under a Green New Deal are amplifying—revisiting these places and understanding them as cautionary tales for the impact of federal policy is urgent and necessary.
“Fifty years [after urban renewal]...we face the problem of the same mistakes unless we recalibrate, unless we think about what was happening with good intentions and terrible outcomes,” said Michael Murphy, founding principal and executive director of MASS Design Group, at the opening of Fringe Cities. “[The exhibition] is a deep dive into how some small cities are finding ways to emerge, through careful thinking of what’s left, new strategies for development. We hope this is a beginning project for thinking about the paralysis we find ourselves in the design profession between development or no development. Between the stasis of the current condition and the fear of gentrification. That somewhere between, there’s an ethical approach.”
A “fringe city,” as defined by MASS, is small city that has been severely impacted by urban renewal. It’s a city that has experienced population decline since the 1960s, that is between 30 and 150 miles from a city with a population over 200,000, and that has less than 75 square miles of land area. Of the 1,700 municipalities that received urban renewal dollars from the Housing Act between 1949 and 1974, 100 could be considered “fringe cities.” For their exhibition, MASS focused on four of them that are still working to undo the damage of urban renewal and the decades of disinvestment that followed: Poughkeepsie, New York; Saginaw, Michigan; Spartanburg, South Carolina; and Easton, Pennsylvania.
Poughkeepsie, New York, received more federal money for urban renewal than any other city in the country—about $22.5 million dollars, or nearly $600 per person. This money and the redevelopment plans it funded were supposed to help turn around the fortunes of the struggling city. But in the end, it didn’t progress as intended. The money was spent building highways through the city, which made it easier for businesses to move further away from the city and for shoppers to go elsewhere. Widespread demolition was required to make way for the highways, and out went neighborhoods with historic architecture. In came parking lots and much-needed public housing. Meanwhile, the school districts were redrawn in the 1950s to accommodate IBM’s employees in a suburb, which drew families away from the city. Poughkeepsie slid deeper into its problems. Urban renewal led to isolated neighborhoods, land devaluation, and loss of businesses—conditions that exacerbate poverty.
A quote from an anonymous resident of Poughkeepsie is printed on the exhibition’s walls, and explains how policies intended to provide better quality housing were weaponized against communities in poverty:
The thing that no one tells you is that both the left and the right came together to demolish our city. The lefties wanted to improve housing for the poor and give them better conditions, and the conservatives wanted to get rid of all the people of color. The two came together to destroy our hometown under the aspiration of blight removal. How do we not repeat that same mistake?
Dozens of cities across the country could tell a similar story. In order to receive money earmarked for urban renewal, cities needed to provide comprehensive redevelopment plans.
Housing advocates lobbied for sanitary, updated, and publicly funded housing for the poor. “But the first step was to eliminate the ‘slum,’ and other political interests could see value in that as well—most notably the commercial real estate lobby, which was eager to displace the optics of poverty from urban centers and didn’t quite care to invest energy in where or how the people themselves would be displaced to,” explains Morgan O’Hara, an urban historian, social researcher, and associate at MASS.
“Design fields were some of the best funded sectors in this era, but they were hired to serve local policy agendas which were most often disconnected from communities themselves,” O’Hara says. “Particularly in these smaller cities who did not have the capacity, design services were imported from elsewhere and their scope of practice did not include long-term engagement with the communities they were helping to transform.”
The exhibition includes graphics of the downtowns of some fringe cities with overlays of the broad swathes of city impacted by urban renewal. In many cases, it’s a significant proportion.
With urban renewal, the voices of federal policy, local governments, competing real estate interests, and disconnected designers were loud. But the voices of communities weren’t heard.
Today, small community groups are some of the only actors working to reverse the effects of urban renewal, with varying degrees of success. (Of course, a small non-profit alone can’t reverse decades of economic decline.)
In Easton, Pennsylvania, The Greater Easton Development Partnership has been working to draw more people into the city’s downtown by tapping into food culture through farmers markets, food vendors, and a community kitchen. In Saginaw, Michigan—which is struggling with vacancy—the Saginaw County Land Bank is purchasing foreclosed properties and redeveloping them or demolishing them to strategically re-densify the city. In Spartanburg, South Carolina—which experienced more segregation and environmental injustice from hazardous waste post-urban renewal—community development programs like ReGenesis have been spearheading brownfield remediation, establishing job training programs, and opening community health centers.
The needs of these groups—which are rooted in their communities and have limited resources and organizational capacities—could potentially guide governmental action going forward.
“These nonprofits and public-private partnerships emerged to address community needs in development markets that, while they may not be entirely abandoned, they are radically under-saturated,” O’Hara says. “Federal, state, and local actors can empower these groups by supporting their projects, if not financially, then at least politically and also administratively...and also, most importantly, by moving through their established local networks to understand community needs, to put community members in a position of power in decision-making thresholds, and to stay in touch with those needs over time.”
Today, cities across the country are experiencing tensions of all stripes: cost of living in coastal cities is skyrocketing, mid-size cities are growing, hyper-vacancy is still destabilizing many smaller cities. Affordability remains a problem across many housing markets. Inevitably, designers, architects, and planners will ultimately be called upon to create redevelopment plans for the future. The onus is on everyone to make sure that these plans don’t fall into the urban renewal trap.
“Designers must maintain a balance between serving their clients and being critical of the intended audience or future users of redevelopment plans,” O’Hara says. “The goal of redevelopment designs must be to bolster community systems and build community wealth, above all else. This requires a longer period of engagement and a bigger, more diverse group of decision-makers. This can sound expensive to funding bodies, but designers must advocate for this more robust practice in order to guarantee that interventions will be exceptionally more meaningful and longer-lasting than those undertaken at mid-century.”
Fringe Cities: Legacies of Renewal in the Small American City is on view at the Center for Architecture in New York City until January 2020.