75 YEARS AND COUNTING
New Haven reshaping the scars of ‘urban renewal’
Editor’s note: This is the 47th story in the Register’s Top 50 series.
NEW HAVEN — If you just moved to New Haven during the past few years, you may not think what went on during the “urban renewal” years that began in the late ’40s and continued for a half century or so has anything to do with you.
But it does — whether you know it or not.
New Haven was shaped and changed — some would say improved, many would say scarred — by the sweeping redevelopment that took place as part of efforts to “save” a city seen as being in decline.
For decades, New Haven was a laboratory and proving ground for ambitious urban planning ideas, many spawned at Yale University, which subsequently were put to use in the nation’s largest cities.
The city was described in some texts as “a national leader ... for its efforts in pioneering urban renewal” — although not by the people who were pushed out of their homes or businesses.
Like giants bowling down whole neighborhoods in the name of “slum clearance,” the city officials of the time remade New Haven.
Some of those demolished neighborhoods never were replaced.
Most notably, the late Democratic Mayor Richard C. Lee led the charge. Lee, New Haven’s 44th mayor, served for a then-record eight terms, from 1954 to 1969, the Register has previously reported.
Lee, who took office on New Year’s Day 1954 as the youngest mayor in the city’s history, recast New Haven in broad strokes in the 1950s and 1960s — for better and, in the minds of many present and former New Haveners, for worse.
Under Lee, New Haven became a blueprint upon which much of the national war on poverty was modeled.
New Haven received more federal money per capita than any other city in the country during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, when $180 million was sent to the Elm City, the Register reported.
Lee and his administration, led early on by Development Administrator Edward Logue, were responsible for huge chunks of the city’s modern landscape: the Chapel Square Mall, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the Knights of Columbus building, Dixwell Plaza and the Dixwell Community “Q’’ House, schools, fire houses, a revived Wooster Square and the Long Wharf commercial strip.
But redevelopment, including much of the early planning, began under Lee’s predecessor, the late Mayor William C. Celentano, a Republican who served four terms from 1945 to 1953 — and the seeds were planted well before Lee was elected in late 1953, said Matthew Nemerson, the city’s economic development administrator.
Enabled by the expertise of Yale urban planners such as Maurice Rotival and vast amounts of federal money funneled to the city, those in power did things here that in some cases had never been tried.
While they were heralded at the time, those dramatic solutions didn’t always work.
Even the one ones that worked didn’t always last.
Some of the biggest initially successful projects ran out of steam over time and, like the Chapel Square Mall and the Macy’s and Malley’s department store buildings that once stood where Gateway Community College stands now, became problems that had to be replaced.
In the case of the Oak Street and Legion Avenue neighborhoods, the city cleared block after block of coldwater flats and other substandard housing — described as the worst slums in the city at that time — for a Route 34 highway extension that ultimately never happened, the Register reported.
More than 600 families and businesses were displaced.
Only now — more than half a century later — is the city finally building things along the area between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard/North Frontage Road and South Frontage Road/Legion Avenue that once was a vibrant, if decayed, neighborhood.
The land between the two Route 34 frontage roads sat for decades before it was put back into use for biotech space and other amenities for Yale and Yale New Haven Hospital’s vast medical complex.
What we now know as downtown New Haven is vastly different from what was here in the late 1940s — and even from what was here in the 1980s, when the Edw. Malley Co. and later Macy’s department stores closed and were demolished between Church and Temple streets.
The former Chapel Square Mall, which faced the New Haven Green, held on for a few years, but closed, as well, only to be carved into apartments, with some first-floor stores facing the street, years later.
But New Haven ultimately began pursuing different, more modest forms of redevelopment — with an emphasis on historic preservation and blending the new with the best parts of what already was there — as times and urban planning styles changed.
“On balance, I think urban renewal was disastrous for New Haven,” said former Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who finally broke Lee’s record for longevity decades later, serving 10 terms from 1994 to 2013.
“I think it’s fair to say it was admirable in its ambition — and it did have its successes,” he said. “But overall, I think it undermined the city,” as an estimated 25 percent of the city’s residents and many of its businesses were relocated.
Among other things, urban renewal “just tore the guts out of the business district,” said DeStefano, who chose to make his administration’s lasting mark with a huge $1.6 billion project — still underway — to rebuild the city’s schools.
“The fallacy was that if you got rid of low-quality housing full of poor people, something good would happen in its place ...” said Yale University political scientist Doug Rae, who was the city’s chief administrative officer in 1990 and 1991, during the administration of DeStefano’s predecessor, the late Mayor John Daniels Jr.
“But that whole thing was a fiasco — for the poor people who were displaced and for hundreds, maybe thousands of small retailers,” said Rae, the Richard Ely professor of political science and management at Yale.
“And the tragedy of the small retailers was this: They were predominantly renters and they had been there for quite a while — and the rules for condemnation were that the government owes the property owner for his losses,” Rae said.
“But the big loser is the retailer who loses his place of businesses but also loses the good grace of his clientele,” said Rae, author of “City: Urbanism and its End,” a 2003 book critical of the changes urban renewal brought to New Haven.
“I think” urban renewal “was a mixed bag, in all honesty,” said Mayor Toni N. Harp, who has been in office since 2014.
“For at least 20 or 30 years, 40 years even, we experienced neighborhoods cut off from the city, and nobody can think that was a good thing,” Harp said.
“I think that one of the things that I can see in my administration is ... a number of parking lots have been there for a generation — and have been used as parking lots — and they were once places where people lived,” she said. But, there are upsides to that. “They are now being rebuilt for a new population of millennials who want to live downtown, who appreciate having a cityscape where people live and work and play, ...” she said.
“The fact that we now have space for them ... has made all the difference in the world for us, in terms of attracting developers,” Harp said. “So the fact that we have the land resources ... to accommodate that need is positive and has been helpful.”
One thing Harp has learned as mayor is that “it takes a long time to get things done,” she said. “Some of the things that John DeStefano started got done during my tenure. Some of the things that started during my tenure will get done during my successor’s tenure . ...
“We’ve got to give ourselves room to do great things ... and if we’re going to fail, fail fast — and fix it,” she said.
Yale’s Rae said under urban renewal, which grew out of the U.S. Housing Act of 1949, “The big idea was, you’re in the suburbs where you can buy a cornfield for very little and start fresh, doing malls” and new schools.
“Well, the Housing Act of 1949 says, ‘Cities can play that game,’ ” he said.
Using redevelopment laws, cities like New Haven would identify “a few hundred small properties and combine them into large parcels,” and developers would then come and build on the much larger sites that would result, Rae said.
Meanwhile, “These places, the places we’re condemning, are inhabited by poor people and often poor people of color ... and they’re getting poorer ... because the factories” they used to work at had closed, he said.
But as it turned out, “Where you rolled up the fabric of small properties, you got dead space,” Rae said, “and that was happening everywhere, but nowhere more than New Haven.
“If there was a lesson from urban renewal in New Haven, it’s that that strategy was a colossally bad idea,” he said.
Lee “really did think he was going to make the city better,” Rae said. “He was mistaken.”
But even one of the most vociferous critics of the changes brought to New Haven during the Lee years, the late Vincent J. Scully Jr., an internationally respected architectural historian, didn’t blame Lee directly for that.
‘‘He followed the very best advice that he could get from the very best architects and planners of the time,’’ Scully told the New Haven Register in 1998. ‘‘They were the ones who were wrong.’’
The centerpiece of Lee’s redevelopment effort, a gargantuan, $80 million Church Street project that knocked down dozens of businesses to build the Chapel Square Mall, Macy’s, Malley’s and what was then the Park Plaza Hotel (now the Omni) “failed,” DeStefano said.
Well, that wasn’t immediately true.
“It succeeded for 20 years,” and then, “it took 10 years of dealing with it,” DeStefano said.
One big widely acknowledged problem today was the way in which the Church Street project was configured, with the mall up front facing the Green, Macy’s behind it, with a pedestrian bridge connecting across Crown Street, and Malley’s one huge block further.
So, anyone wanting to shop at Malley’s had to go all the way through Macy’s to get to it.
“I think it’s ... interesting that having put together this mall with one of the most amazing parking garages in the country” in the Temple Street Garage, “that they couldn’t do it in such a way” that it would be successful, said Nemerson, the economic development administrator.
Nemerson, who was president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce in the 1990s, said he finds the urban renewal years interesting in that “there’s a whole alternative history.
“At a local and national level, it was engineered by Yale for the purpose of cleaning up New Haven for their campus,” he said.
Born “out of the master planning that was done by Maurice Rotival ... his plans for the early ’40s were the blueprints,” Nemerson said.
He said it was “not surprising Yale ended up being one of the leading beneficiaries in the whole country” of the results of urban renewal.
Two goals were “to build a city that could compete with the suburbs and to build a city that could compete with Harvard and MIT” and the areas around them, Nemerson said.
Not that improvement wasn’t needed, he said.
“At the time, Oak Street was a complete mess,” Nemerson said.
Lee’s giant remaking of the city, coupled with the work that followed, did have some positive effects, he said.
“New Haven was maybe more successful than other cities for 10 or 20 years ...,” Nemerson said. “It was not like Boston. But it wasn’t Elizabeth,” N.J. “It wasn’t Patterson.”
As a result of urban renewal, “walls of concrete highways separated neighborhoods, disrupted communities” and the large-scale projects that replaced them followed “built space that was thoughtless and largely unconnected to how people lived their lives, at work, in their homes and in their neighborhoods,” DeStefano said.
DeStefano, who came up as a staffer for the now late Mayor Biagio “Ben” DiLieto, one of Lee’s successors, said not all of New Haven’s problems were the result of bad housing.
“I think there were lots of other things going on in the ‘60s that affected the city,” including “school desegregation, fleeing for the suburbs” and “people aware of social injustice,” DeStefano said. “So a transition was going to occur in New Haven . ... ”
But while “I think (redevelopment) had some success in some neighborhoods ... I think one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city is Grand Avenue,” DeStefano said, “and one of the reasons why I would argue” that’s the case “is because it was largely unscathed by urban renewal.
“To me, it was, ‘What does it mean when you destroy the social capital of a place?’ ” DeStefano said. “When people don’t feel ownership of a place, bad things happen” and there is a “loss of a cohesive identity.”
In DeStefano’s estimation, good things that came out of urban renewal were some of the “human renewal” programs, such as Head Start. “But fundamentally, this idea that you can rewrite people’s lives solely by investment in the built space” is just wrong, he said.
While it was clear the city had big problems that needed to be dealt with, “I just think ... that the cure made the patient sicker,” he said.
The best approach “was more gardening ... pulling some weeds and putting in new plants ... where you retain some strong sense of ownership of the neighborhood,” DeStefano said.
In that regard, the redevelopment strategy in Wooster Square — where, in large part as a result of the strong efforts of residents, the city took a different, less overwhelming approach and chose to operate with a “scalpel” instead of a hammer, worked better, he said.
Despite the failures of urban renewal, former state Treasurer Henry E. “Hank” Parker, who came to New Haven from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1957 to be program director for Winchester Community School as part one of Lee’s “human renewal” programs, has called Lee “a great mayor.”
During the Lee years, New Haven was one of six cities to initiate “human renewal” programs using Ford Foundation grants that fostered programs that were precursors to the national “Model Cities” legislation.
Parker, a longtime resident of that Wooster Square neighborhood who has been in poor health, was unavailable to speak for this story. But he told the New Haven Register in a story that ran on Feb. 3, 2003, after Lee’s death, that Lee “opened the door to a city that needed the urban renewal that he indeed pioneered.
“Without that, we would have been even further behind,” said Parker, who became the first president of the New Haven Black Coalition in 1968 and ran for mayor in 1969, the year Lee bowed out.
Lee managed the tumultuous changes New Haven and all cities were going through in that era “better than anyone else of his time,” said Parker, who made history of his own when he became the first black state treasurer in 1974.
Lee used his Community Progress Inc. and other programs to blend urban and human renewal “like nobody else,” Parker said.
Many years before his death, Lee came to terms with the fact that some of his grandest plans either didn’t work or had faded.
“Well, we still have the hotel,” he said with a laugh, throwing up his arms in a shrug as he referred to the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale when asked about the state of downtown in 1998.
Lee outlived some of the huge public works projects intended to be his memorials: The Richard C. Lee High School closed in 1986. The Oak Street/Route 34 connector, which later was named for him, was never finished.
At the 1994 dedication of the four-block connector, one of his greatest disappointments, as the “Richard C. Lee Highway,” he joked privately, “Let’s just say it’s an awfully short highway.”
In 1998, the federal government renamed the federal courthouse on Church Street after Lee — a memorial likely to remain standing for some time. Appropriately, it was a building he once sought to knock down.
Lee recognized the contradictions of his legacy long ago and commented on it in a speech in 1980, when the U.S. Conference of Mayors gave him a public service award.
“We would dream, and we did; we would try, and we did,” he said. “When we failed, we failed magnificently, and, when we succeeded, we succeeded sometime beyond our fondest expectations, and, after all, what’s wrong with a record like that?”
He recognized monumental plans have a limited shelf life.
“You know, we were swimming against the tide,” Lee once said, referring to the social and economic forces, led by the federal highway system, that literally took people and commerce to the suburbs in the second half of the 20th century.
One lesson New Haven and many other cities have learned from urban renewal is to no longer seek to implement the kind of sweeping changes that urban renewal brought without bringing the community on board, Nemerson said.
“There are so many checks and balances now, that we’re all humbled ... and I think that what we’re working for now” is to build broad-based relationships with the community “so that you don’t move forward in a way that’s going to fail,” Nemerson said.
That means moving forward “with more voices,” he said.
“I think it’s made things more complicated,” Nemerson said, but it has “built that most amazing infrastructure to avoid the problems that we had in the ’50s and ’60s.”
The area along Route 34 in downtown New Haven in 2010.
Then-Mayor Richard C. Lee on the New Haven Green in an undated file photo.
New Haven politicians unveil a new sign designating North Frontage Road as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2011.