Urban renewal re-examined through an architectural / conservative perspective
A mansion – and a vast strip of neighborhood – erased to make way for a highway.
Architectural historian and curator Marisa Angell Brown kept stories like these alive as she explored the architectural history of New Haven after WWII at a lecture at the Yale Center for British Art , recalling some of New Haven’s most contested issues in the mid-20th century. century that continue to resonate today.
The lecture, hosted last Wednesday by Michael Crosbie, professor of architecture at the University of Hartford, was part of YCBA’s ongoing lecture series during the pandemic.
Angell Brown is currently Associate Director of Programs at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University. Angell Brown’s interest in “spatial justice”, demolished sites, and preservation politics led her to study the built environment of Elm City as a doctoral student in art history. a student at Yale about ten years ago.
“There’s a lot going on in… New Haven,” said Angell Brown, “which makes it such an interesting case study.”
Angell Brown began by summarizing the long and heavy history of the urban renewal of the city, as in the middle of the 20th century, urban planning has become the central arena for political discussions on capitalism, race and poverty. As white families moved to the suburbs – aided by cheap federal loans and mortgage guarantees – black families were largely relegated to urban areas due to redlining. The ubiquity of white flight meant that the number of city dwellers was steadily decreasing during this time. Between 1930 and 1980, New Haven’s population grew from 163,000 to 126,000. In a grandiose way, the future of the city was suddenly threatened.
In the 1960s, young mayor Richard C. Lee, who held the post from 1954 to 1970, embraced architecture as a vehicle for change in New Haven. It was so central to his campaign that one of his political posters is entirely devoted to his redevelopment plans. Lee promised the redevelopment would provide city dwellers with new amenities – playgrounds, senior homes, social housing – while also boosting the local economy.
According to Angell Brown, the redevelopment efforts resulted in good visuals and, more importantly, could “be done in one electoral cycle.” But the policy of reorganization was and still is much more complicated than a campaign tactic. In New Haven as elsewhere, the appeal of redevelopment projects in the mid-20th century was the promise to replace old structures below the market with new, more valuable ones. These projects have too often overshadowed the displacement of residents, the destruction of historic buildings and the dismantling of entire communities.
Angell Brown highlighted two redevelopment projects that severely damaged New Haven neighborhoods: the Oak Street Connector and the Crawford Manor.
These projects led the city to demolish entire neighborhoods. These lost communities – products of “the worst excesses of urban renewal,” as Angell Brown put it – have led to a serious housing crisis in New Haven. During the 1950s and 1960s, New Haven redevelopment projects displaced about 7,000 households and relocated about 40% of the city’s black residents.
The city decided to tackle this crisis – driven by the influx of modern architecture, planning and design projects – by creating another modernist development: the more than 700 low-to-moderate income housing units on Church Street South.
For Mayor Lee and the locals, the outcome was lackluster from the start. “This is probably the worst firm with one of the best, best, and decent architects I’ve ever known,” Lee wrote to Church Street South architect Charles Moore in 1969.
Surprisingly, Moore confirmed, writing, “I now see the same dreary concrete walls that you see. He added that the “architecturally quiet dwellings” would be improved once residents move in and occupy the site’s public spaces. The decades of experience of the residents living there, as buildings eroded around them, proved him wrong.
Perhaps part of the uninspiring reception at Church Street South was due to Moore knowing little about who would be moving in. “I do not know who will be the people who will live there,” he wrote. Angell Brown added that Church Street South was “engaged in a labor of love for an unspecified customer”. Moore may have wanted to reduce the overwhelming sense of “homelessness” he found in capitalist America, but he could hardly do so without historical references to the residents who would occupy Church Street South.
Where could Moore have looked to learn more about the residents’ former homes? Where could he have found their old quarters with grassy lawns and clapboard roofs? By the time he designed Church Street South, much of these neighborhoods had been buried under layers of concrete and asphalt.
The story of New Haven’s encounter with modern architecture and redevelopment can be a lesson for the architects, curators – and developers – who are shaping the urban streets of tomorrow today.
“We’re all starting to think a little more about demolished neighborhoods,” Angell Brown said. “Are there ways to create public art or public history projects,” Angell Brown continued, “that takes them back into the history of local towns and sort of into the larger history of America? ” (Read more about Artspace exhibitions that focus on here, here, and here, among others.)
The question is part of Angell Brown’s larger quest for space justice.
“I think we’re in a place with preservation – and with architecture and architectural history – where we recognize the deep type of structural racism in these areas,” she said. “The buildings and spaces that we … have worked the hardest to preserve tend to preserve a very small portion of those that make up this country.” Perhaps the best remedy for New Haven’s brutal redevelopment history is an intentional consideration of what urban spaces are preserved and who directs the city’s preservation and development efforts.
For more information on upcoming Yale Center for British Art conferences, visit his website.
Much of these developments serve as an edifying narrative for the current developments happening in the city. More black and brown and poor communities are being driven out by rising rents and being replaced with high-end new construction and residential renovations.
We need a city map for new developments and renovations that require a percentage of low income and affordable units under the market in each building. Require that buildings be constructed or renovated with quality materials and finish that will allow buildings to last 75 to 100 years like previous buildings constructed in the 1890s, not cheap lightweight constructions that will collapse and fall apart. will collapse in 20 to 30 years. Ask the city to have a master plan on how each neighborhood is used and developed and contributes to the overall livability of the city. The city needs to change zoning for smarter land use and reorient current market needs for property use and projected market needs for the next 30+ years. The city should plan and demand mitigation measures for global warming-related flooding, storm damage prevention, pollution reduction, green energy and public transportation needs. The city must make a significant effort to encourage development by converting abandoned and empty buildings and razed land from commercial and industrial uses to mixed uses, residential uses, reclaimed green spaces for recreational purposes for flood mitigation and green energy, and biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, medicine, science and technology industries. This will create vibrant livable neighborhoods with good jobs and help make the city greener environmentally and safer against the effects of global warming.
Sooo… ..Yale didn’t take advantage of their DC connections being used to flood money here… to justify impending domain foreclosures…. To make a roadway for the trucks away from their historic structures on Chapel St… then block the construction of the very connector they had planned (at least made some nice renderings.), To preserve their historic rowing course, then have waited half a century to acquire blocks of earth, which were just empty lots of overgrown 40-year-old weeds, for free, or pennies on dollars, whose value had increased incredibly in those 40 years? AND they will not write the history of corruption and abuse to residents. Does the nomenclature still have these secure rooms, with color maps, with 50-year plans of what they’re going to acquire in the next half-century, according to their plans? Please.