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Urban Renewal Pros and Cons in ‘Manhattan Projects’

Samuel Zipp documents the conflict over saving New York City

Dec. 20, 2010
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For much of her life, architectural critic Jane Jacobs was seen as the leading figure in the movement to stop urban renewal efforts in cities around the world. Her classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is often seen as ground zero for the public campaign that soon emerged against the efforts of New York City master planner Robert Moses. To Moses and his allies, mid-20th-century New York needed a radical face-lift, and by the late 1940s Moses had begun to remake the city into a model of modernity. In light of such efforts, Jacobs emerged as the face of another understanding of the city, one rooted in preservation, small-scale planning and the power of neighborhoods. By the late ’60s it seemed as if Jacobs had “won” this battle, as seen in the successful campaign to defeat Moses’ planned Lower Manhattan Expressway—a campaign that Jacobs spearheaded.

When revisiting this history, it is tempting to see the story as one of good versus evil, of the activist versus the inhumane bureaucracy. But, as Samuel Zipp’s excellent work Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (Oxford University Press) reminds us, history is rarely this straightforward. To Zipp, historical actors such as Moses and Jacobs have become “fixed and frozen outside of history,” a reality that obscures what actually happened during the campaign to remake New York City. Zipp’s work gives us a new way to view both advocates of urban renewal and those who fought stridently against it. Manhattan Projects is a book that will cause many readers to rethink their assumptions on the history of urban renewal.

Usefully, Zipp takes seriously the language and efforts of urban renewal advocates in post-World War II New York. To Moses and others, the city had become a dangerous and dirty place, one that threatened the health and well-being of all residents. Such a reality had led the Big Apple—long a global capital of politics, wealth and culture—to lose much of its luster. Urban renewal projects could answer both of these concerns: They could rid the city of dangerous, outdated buildings and provide the poor with new housing and provide the city with new political and cultural assets.

One such cultural asset was Lincoln Center, a component of the broader plan to renew the city’s Lincoln Square during the late 1950s. Zipp masterfully illustrates how this project was meant to represent “the fulfillment of the project of urban rebirth and international visibility, confirming New York’s status as the so-called capital of the world.” But such an endeavor led to the displacement of more than 7,000 families, families who had come to have their own understanding of what their neighborhood should look like.

“It was wonderful to hear those gentlemen speak about culture and music and education,” Lincoln Square resident Mary Aitken noted after listening to a 1957 City Planning Commission report on renewal efforts in her community. “But what about our homes? Aren’t our homes beauty and culture?”

Here one begins to truly see what Zipp labels the “Roots of the Resistance,” a response to urban renewal that emerged years before Jacobs would offer her critique of such projects. Groups like the United Committee to Save Our Homes began to organize potential evictees from across northern Manhattan in the early 1950s, while activists such as Ellen Lurie, a volunteer social worker at East Harlem’s Union Settlement House, began organizing public housing residents (often those pushed out of renewal sites) as early as 1955. It is in his recovery of such stories that Zipp’s work is most groundbreaking. Opposition to urban renewal was not developed and led by one person; it was, as Zipp helpfully reminds us, a much more democratic affair.


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