Urban Renewal: Tragedies and Ironies Yesterday and Today

Tamika Camille Gauvin's picture

One of the most interesting things that I have learned in school thus far is the history of the urban renewal program.  As a budding urban planner, I have often used the term "urban renewal" interchangeably with "urban revitalization" to describe the process of neighborhood improvement via economic and housing development.  Regardless of the term I used, I was very clear that revitalization – or renewal – was a catch-22.  The implementation of business and housing developments would jumpstart a neighborhood deemed blighted and consequently, only affluent residents could afford to enjoy the amenities of the revitalized neighborhood.

In my Introduction to Urban Design and Development class, we discussed the destruction of the West End neighborhood in Boston.  The destruction and the displacement of the residents are exemplary of what urban renewal meant when it was introduced as a slum clearance tool in the 1950s.  In Boston, in the 1970s, the local government declared Roxbury an obsolete community and slated it for obliteration – oh no, I mean renewal.  The outcome was different for Roxbury, however.  After witnessing the tragedy of the West End, residents in Roxbury aggressively challenged and resisted urban renewal in their community.  

Until recently, I thought urban revitalization was a new phenomenon born in the 1990s when money was flowing and everyone was parking his or her money into real estate.  It is fascinating that the revitalization efforts today are descendants of the urban renewal programs of the 1950s. 

The programs introduced in the 1950s were crude in their implementation and the injustices of the programs were conspicuous.  The perpetrators of these injustices were also very apparent.  A one-line caption to describe the 1950s urban renewal programs could read, "City governments declare neighborhoods of low-income residents ‘slums' and force these residents to move, leveling and clearing their homes to make way for housing that those residents could not afford" (Okay, captions are usually shorter but you get my drift).  I am not certain that one could create such a caption today for many reasons.  One is that while urban revitalization today causes displacement, it generally does not cause a mass exodus like the one that occurred in the West End.  Today, revitalization is done within the existing community as opposed to tearing down the entire community.  Also, it seems that market forces cause displacement more often than forced eviction.  Tenants might not be forced to leave, but landlords might contribute to this outcome by raising rents to stay competitive as new, more expensive, housing is developed.  This issue might allow many players in revitalization to avoid the responsibility of providing affordable housing – just blame it on the market.

Regardless of the shift in perpetrator or force, the end result of urban renewal in the 1950s and today is that low-income people are displaced.  This will likely always happen because few developers want to build for low-income individuals, and fewer want to live with them.  So, urban renewal, which should have benefited and should benefit those who typically inhabited urban areas, has been used to excise these very same people from the urban fabric.  How ironic is that?!

Tamika Camille Gauvin is a candidate for the Master of City Planning from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at M.I.T.



urban renewal forgotten

This is why it kills me when people blame food stamps and section 8 for creating entrenched urban poverty. The sad story of urban "renewal", and how it destroyed neighborhoods to make way for highways and high-rises, rarely gets acknowledged in social policy debates.

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