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Urban Renewal

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centralartery-boston

I’m not sure how many museum exhibits have dealt with the disaster that is urban renewal honestly, especially in the affected neighborhood. So I really want to see this exhibit. In part so I can figure out what this is about:

“What happened in the West End is not something we’re necessarily proud of, but urban renewal by and large has had very positive effects for the city of Boston,” Corey Zehngebot, a senior urban designer and architect for the BRA, told Boston.com. “[Urban renewal] is definitely a phrase that people hear and have a visceral negative response to. We knew it would be challenging to go out and talk to people about a topic that has a lot of historical baggage.”

So what were the benefits of urban renewal again? I guess since the exhibit’s focus is the Housing Act of 1949, that’s probably what the answer is–a lot of federally funded housing, at least for white people. And I’m not going to romanticize the slums and the state of the nation’s housing stock at the end of World War II–there were a lot of problems!–but I’m not sure it was by and large very positive for Boston. Except for the North End which miraculously avoided it.

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  • efgoldman

    And I’m not going to romanticize the slums and the state of the nation’s housing stock at the end of World War II–there were a lot of problems!–but I’m not sure it was by and large very positive for Boston. Except for the North End which miraculously avoided it.

    Nothing romantic about it, but the West end, while almost completely tenements (just like the North End, in fact) was not a slum. It was almost all immigrants, and all working people. My father and all his siblings were born and brought up there; I’m old enough to remember some of it. As the oldest son of the oldest son (the first of 17 grandchildren) I was coddled and spoiled rotten by my grandparents and would stay with them on weekends. I remember visiting Abie the (Kosher) butcher, who always game me a slice of (store made) salami, and who’s cat would bite small children – including me – that got too close. I remember my grandmother’s icebox, and how happy she was to get an actual electric refrigerator. She had a big, iron, claw foot stove that ran on “coal oil” (kerosene).
    Urban renewal as it was practiced in the 50s was no better for Boston than Robert Moses’ depredations (Cross-Bronx Expressway) were for New York.
    Chambers Street, where my grandparents lived, doesn’t even exist any more. I think it’s mostly under the back of Mass General now.
    The North End avoided the same fate because it had a much stronger political constituency.
    Of course the Jewish community, having been forced from the West End, moved to the area of Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester between Franklin Field and Mattapan Square. There were, I think, five synagogues on Woodrow Avenue off of Blue Hill, and kosher businesses all along the avenue – until the late 1960s. Then they were forced out again by blockbusting.
    If you haven’t already, you should read The Jews of Boston. It’s an excellent history.
    http://www.amazon.com/Jews-Boston-Combined-Jewish-Philanthropies/dp/0300107870
    http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300107876

    • Yeah, to be clear, I know nothing about the history of the West End, so I don’t mean to insinuate that it was a slum. Just talking generally about American housing stock in the 40s.

    • altofront

      As I understand it, mostly from reading Jane Jacobs, “slum” was also a bureaucratic term of art relating solely to population density. Jacobs recounts a conversation with a government urban planner who descibes the North End as a terrible slum that needs to be “renewed,” despite agreeing with her that it’s a vibrant, lively, and safe part of town that he likes to spend time in.

      In the context of Boston, we did get the Southwest Corridor Park out of the urban carnage left by the abandoned Southwest Expressway, so that’s something of a consolation prize. Not sure that’s urban renewal, exactly. Plus, the desolation and gentrification of the West End did produce an iconic advertising phrase: “If you lived here, you’d be home by now.”

      Of course, the real benefit of urban renewal, as always, is that some people made a lot of mney.

      • efgoldman

        we did get the Southwest Corridor Park out of the urban carnage left by the abandoned Southwest Expressway

        Also the relocated Orange Line, so they could pull down that end of the Washington Street El from Dover Street to Forest Hills.
        The worst project, by far, would have been the inner belt – a circumferential highway running from approximately the Boston-Cambridge line near the gravel yard. through parts of Cambridge, Somerville, Boston and Brookline. It would have devastated whole swaths of neighborhoods. There used to be ramps to nowhere from the Northern approaches to the city, that would have connected with it.
        Frank Sargent – a Republican well to the left of most modern Democrats – cancelled it, along with all the other planned highway construction inside 128, in the early 70s.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_695_%28Massachusetts%29

        • Rugosa

          My community garden is on land that was cleared for the Southeast Expressway. The MBTA owns the land. A few years ago, we fought them and won, thanks largely to Tom Menino. We now have a long-term agreement between the city and the T that the land will remain open space. Given the ever-increasing density of housing, having this piece of green space is a great asset to the community.

      • joe from Lowell

        Here, from Mass. General Laws, is the relevant section:

        ”Decadent area”, an area which is detrimental to safety, health, morals, welfare or sound growth of a community because of the existence of buildings which are out of repair, physically deteriorated, unfit for human habitation, or obsolete, or in need of major maintenance or repair, or because much of the real estate in recent years has been sold or taken for nonpayment of taxes or upon foreclosure of mortgages, or because buildings have been torn down and not replaced and under existing conditions it is improbable that the buildings will be replaced, or because of a substantial change in business or economic conditions, or because of inadequate light, air, or open space, or because of excessive land coverage or because diversity of ownership,irregular lot sizes or obsolete street patterns make it improbable that the area will be redeveloped by the ordinary operations of private enterprise, or by reason of any combination of the foregoing conditions.

        Notice the way the features which are recognized as important elements of walkable urbanism are, here, lumped in which characteristics like abandonment and dilapidation.

        What’s very ironic is to see this determination applied to some abandoned auto-centric land use and parking lot, in order to allow the construction of a neighborhood of the sort targeted in the original language. That takes some sleight of hand in the paperwork, but the DHCD is happy to overlook it because they know the law is obsolete, too.

        • efgoldman

          Notice the way the features which are recognized as important elements of walkable urbanism are, here, lumped in which characteristics like abandonment and dilapidation.

          Under these criteria, most of the working-class neighborhoods in Boston would have been leveled decades ago.
          Of course, now, many of them are gentrified anyway,

          • joe from Lowell

            Have you ever read Jane Jacobs’ book? She relates a conversation with a planner who declares the North End to be a horrible slum, next on the list after the West End.

            Can you imagine?

  • encephalopath

    Urban renewal ==> Developers with the right connections make money.

    That’s the whole point, right?

    • DocAmazing

      That, and moving Those People out of potentially desirable areas.

      It’s an ongoing process, but developers are smart enough not to use phrases like “urban renewal” these days.

  • efgoldman

    Boston Public Library Photo Archive of the West End. These pictures are all long before my time, I think.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/sets/72157625848981497/

    Chambers Street, where my father’s family lived and where he and all his siblings were raised.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/5415295367/in/album-72157625848981497/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/5415295635/in/album-72157625848981497/

    • efgoldman

      In moderation. Too many links?

  • KadeKo

    As a Yankee whose Dad grew up in New Haven, I must say something about New Haven’s Oak Street Connector, a four-lane to, basically, nowhere.

    It went nowhere because the folks there saw what happened to other, bigger places and raised enough of a stink to stop the proposed parkway which was going to go up to the Naugatuck Valley.

    The proposal really punches above its weight in stupid, considering the population and square miles in the Elm City.

  • Unlearner

    If you can get to the Bronx by tomorrow, you can see an exhibit on redevelopment, in the affected neighborhood, before it happens!

    Celebrating the People at the Heart of the Bronx’s Lively Jerome Avenue

  • LisRiba

    Just noticed the museum’s also hosting a talk related to the exhibit. According to the site, the BRA’s Urban Renewal Plan should’ve expired after 40 years, but they’re now asking for a (second) 10-year extension. Why, and what’s the impact?

    • joe from Lowell

      There was a story about the BRA’s effort in the Globe a few Sundays ago that goes into a little more depth.

  • joe from Lowell

    So what were the benefits of urban renewal again?

    I saw the longer version of that quote in a story in the Boston Globe. He’s not saying urban renewal projects like the West End were positive for Boston. He’s talking about the urban renewal power in Massachusetts state law, which was useful for some very different sorts of redevelopment efforts in the 90s through the present.

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