Cityscape: Justin Davidson
New York magazine|January 6–19, 2020
Bad Planning The mid-century misfire that was “slum clearance” tore down much more than tenements.

DURING WORLD WAR II, a coterie of American men, secure in the righteousness of their cause, the necessity of their means, and the efficacy of their tactics, methodically destroyed Germany’s cities. A decade later, some of the same men, still just as confident of their purpose and certain of their methods, demolished their own cities, too. They used bulldozers instead of bombs and promised prosperity instead of victory, but the effect was the same: a landscape of empty lots and traumatized people.

The goal, in America, was a mix of righteousness and prejudice: to uplift the poor, eliminate the unsanitary, stimulate commerce, and bring order to the messiness of urban life. In the period’s ideological framework, this required radical strokes rather than patience, sensitivity, and grassroots labor. If that meant that immigrants and people of color would absorb most of the shock, well, the bureaucrats could live with that. In Germany, the same U.S. government that had ordered the obliteration also helped pay for the reconstruction. In this country, the market was supposed to take care of rebuilding; often, it never showed up. Today, when a few American cities are getting loved to death and converted into luxury enclaves, many more still struggle with emptiness. Blocks that were once crammed with brick houses and that thrummed with bakeries, taverns, tailors, butchers, and general stores now contain a drive-through ATM and a parking lot.

The constellation of good intentions and bad ideas that dominated mid-century urbanism went by the names of “slum clearance” and, more blithely, “urban renewal.” The experience of major cities has permeated scholarship and entered popular culture—New York’s urban-renewer-in-chief, Robert Moses, inspired a character in Edward Norton’s movie Motherless Brooklyn and anchors an opera—but an exhibition at the Center for Architecture called “Fringe Cities” focuses on smaller, frailer places like Saginaw, Michigan, and Easton, Pennsylvania. Curated by the idealistic nonprofit firm MASS Design Group (best known for designing the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a.k.a. the lynching memorial, in Montgomery, Alabama), the show documents the way urban renewal swept across the country from the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest.

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