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Urban renewal is a cooperative effort by public officials and private interests to improve a city’s structural, economic, and social quality. Major American cities were economically and socially devastated by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s. Most cities had narrow tax bases that relied excessively on property tax revenues, which sharply declined because of widespread business failures and mortgage foreclosures. High rates of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness overwhelmed scarce local resources and contributed to a decline in essential local services, such as public schools and police protection.
The urban-centered New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933-1945) addressed the immediate economic crisis of American cities instead of their long-term improvement. In particular, New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Public Works Administration (PWA) used public-works jobs to reduce unemployment, stimulate local economies, and subsidize state and local relief for the unemployable poor. The Social Security Act of 1935 included unemployment insurance and Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). Nonetheless, these New Deal programs did cause some major long-term changes in the structure and design of major cities, such as the construction of the Triborough Bridge in New York City and a new city hall for Houston, Texas.
The Housing Act of 1934 created the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), and the U.S. Housing Authority was established in 1937. These federal agencies eventually became the major bureaucratic components of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), created in 1965. Influenced by the perspectives of local banking, real estate, and construction interests, the FHA encouraged and solidified the practice of redlining, in which poor African Americans and Latinos were segregated in federally subsidized public housing projects and experienced discrimination in the sale and rental of private housing in white neighborhoods.
During World War II (1938-1945), major cities experienced severe housing shortages and strains on local public services and infrastructure. There was a sharp increase in the number of poor and working-class residents, especially African Americans from the South and whites from rural areas, who moved there to work in defense industries. There also existed a scarcity of materials and labor for civilian construction needs.
The Housing Act of 1949 was the first act of Congress that included federal funds and guidance for urban renewal in addition to providing federal funds and regulations for building more affordable private and public housing and clearing slums. This law also had the effect of continuing and expanding the practice of redlining as more whites, assisted by federally subsidized home mortgages for veterans, moved from cities to suburbs and a larger percentage of urban populations consisted of low-income African Americans and Latinos.
During the 1950s, other federal policies, especially the interstate highway program, accelerated the economic and social decline of major cities, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, as more middle-class homeowners lived in suburbs and commuted to cities for work or moved to growing metropolitan areas of the South and West. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (served 1953-1961), the federal government financed a limited number of competitive block grants to help cities revitalize their downtown business districts and clear slums. Led by Mayor Richard Lee, the ambitious urban renewal project of New Haven, Connecticut, was a prominent beneficiary of this federal aid. Toward the end of his presidency, however, Eisenhower vetoed Democratic legislation intended to economically revitalize chronically depressed cities and rural areas on a more expensive, comprehensive basis.
By the 1960s, major urban renewal projects had been completed in Pittsburgh, Boston, and New Haven. Under the leadership of parks commissioner Robert Moses, New York City continued to construct new highways, expressways, bridges, tunnels, office buildings, and public housing and to force the migration and dispersal of residents and small businesses from working-class and poor neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs’s 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, galvanized greater public opposition to urban renewal policies, especially in New York City. Jacobs argued that comprehensive, aggressive urban renewal policies, like those of Moses, often destroyed the social cohesion and quality of life of urban neighborhoods. Critics of urban renewal referred to it as “Negro removal” for adversely affecting urban black neighborhoods in particular. Poor and elderly blacks were forced to move to public housing projects while middle-class black professionals and business owners often moved to suburbs.
Partially influenced by Jacobs, some of the Great Society programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson (served 1963-1969) tried to ameliorate the social problems caused or worsened by urban renewal. Programs such as Model Cities, Head Start, Community Action, Legal Services, and Job Corps were intended to help urban residents, especially low-income African Americans and Latinos, to improve their social, economic, and educational conditions and redress their grievances against local officials and businesses. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 addressed the increasing residential segregation of poor African Americans and Latinos in major cities by prohibiting racial discrimination in the sale and rental of both public and private housing. Nonetheless, major race-related urban riots occurred during the 1960s.
The Republican administrations of presidents Richard M. Nixon (served 1969-1974) and Gerald R. Ford (served 1974-1977) eliminated or reduced funding for the most urban-oriented Great Society programs. However, they increased total federal aid to cities by introducing General Revenue Sharing (GRS) and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). GRS and CDBG increased federal aid to cities while reducing federal control, and CDBG gave local business interests greater discretion in using CDBG funds for urban renewal. By the 1980s, the percentage of local government budgets consisting of federal aid peaked at 30 percent.
Determined to reduce federal spending and intervention in urban affairs, President Ronald W. Reagan (served 1981-1989) eliminated GRS by 1987 and reduced the number of block grants. Instead, the Republican administrations of Reagan and President George H. W. Bush (served 1989-1993) emphasized the use of tax credits and other market-based incentives to encourage the ownership of public housing units by their residents and to subsidize the construction of affordable private housing through HUD grants. By 1990 the percentage of local government budgets derived from federal aid declined to 17 percent.
With a Republican-controlled Congress during most of his administration, Democratic president William J. Clinton (served 1993-2001) did not introduce a major new role for the federal government in urban renewal. Instead, Clinton’s policies sought to improve the quality of life for the urban working poor, especially racial and ethnic minorities, through earned income tax credits, the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, greater access to Head Start and public health services for poor, urban children, and more federal aid for law enforcement and public safety. By 2000 federal aid as a percentage of local government budgets had modestly increased to 20 percent. With steady economic growth during most of the 1990s and early twenty-first century, “gentrification” became the primary objective of urban renewal as local officials and business interests sought to attract young, affluent professionals as new residents and more tourists, conventions, and cultural activities to downtown areas.
- Banfield, Edward C. 1970. The Unheavenly City. Boston: Little, Brown.
- Caro, Robert A. 1975. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Random House.
- Harrigan, John J., and Ronald K. Vogel. 2006. Political Change in the Metropolis, 8th ed. New York: Longman.
- Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.
- Judd, Dennis R., and Todd Swanson. 2002. City Politics: Private Power and Public Policy, 3rd ed. New York: Longman.
- Mollenkopf, John H. 1983. The Contested City. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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