75 YEARS AND COUNT­ING

New Haven re­shap­ing the scars of ‘ur­ban re­newal’

New Haven Register (Sunday) (New Haven, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Zaret­sky

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.

Dis­placed

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.

Busi­ness de­ci­sions

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.”

Iden­tity

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.”

Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file photo

The area along Route 34 in down­town New Haven in 2010.

Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file photo

Then-Mayor Richard C. Lee on the New Haven Green in an un­dated file photo.

Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file photo

New Haven politi­cians un­veil a new sign des­ig­nat­ing North Frontage Road as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boule­vard in 2011.

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