The Magazine

Urban Legends

The decline and fall of the American city.

Mar 15, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 26 • By HARRY SIEGEL
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Urbanism and Its End

by Douglas Rae

Yale Univ. Press, 516 pp., $30

The Slaughter of Cities

Urban Renewal as Ethnic Cleansing

by E. Michael Jones

St. Augustine's, 668 pp., $40

LYNDON JOHNSON, the story goes, once delivered a speech in New York on the Great Society. Just as he declared America was engaged "in nothing less than an all-out war on poverty," a voice from the crowd replied, "Mr. President, we surrender."

More than forty years after the Great Society started in on its plan to abolish urban poverty--more than seventy years after the New Deal began to alter the relations between cities and the federal government--America's cities and their neighborhoods are only at the first steps of recovery. And the wounds are still raw.

Two new books offer starkly different but in some ways complementary chronicles of this long period of urban decline. In "City: Urbanism and Its End," Douglas Rae, a Yale University political science professor who served in the early 1990s as New Haven's chief administrative officer, places the brunt of the blame for his city's fall--from a working-class manufacturing center to a cluster of dilapidated housing projects--on technological, demographic, and economic changes that diminished the need for and utility of cities. Federal planning, he argues, accelerated and exacerbated the decline of cities, but hardly caused it.

In "The Slaughter of Cities," E. Michael Jones argues that a WASP elite that ran the federal government used southern blacks as its unwitting pawns in a vast "psychological warfare campaign" against unassimilated white ethnics, particularly urban Catholics and their parishes. It is a paranoid and disturbing perspective, but one that occasionally gains him intriguing insights into the effect of the planning elite and their patrons in Washington imposed on urban neighborhoods.

The story the two books tell is the destruction of the white ethnic working class urban neighborhood and the effect this has had on urban life. Both Jones and Rae place much of the blame for the creation of the modern ghetto on federally coordinated social engineering. And both shortchange the urban revival of the 1990s, which cuts against their claims.

Rae's "City" chronicles the rise and fall of New Haven, and his account hinges on the mayoralty of Dick Lee, a Catholic politician who straddled the gap between Boston's legendary Irish mayor Michael Curley and Gotham's WASP reformer John Lindsay. Lee mastered ethnic and ward politics--stopping his Cadillac to give children a ride to school, attending two or three wakes on his way home from work--even as he oversaw the flagship city of the Great Society's "Model Cities" program. New Haven received far more federal dollars per capita than any other city. But even with a blank federal check at his disposal and a team of the nation's best and brightest to oversee his plans, Lee in his last years in office lamented, "If New Haven is a model city, God help America's cities."

In an earlier era, New Haven had prospered while expecting little from its elected officials. The city boomed between 1840 and 1920, as manufacturing industries gathered in cities to take advantage of proximity to rail lines, a ready force of cheap labor, and a supply of steam power. Local government's role in New Haven was mostly limited to policing and the maintenance of streets and sewers. Planning was, for the most part, outside the scope of local government, instead contingent on where factories, businesses, and their workers chose to locate. In 1910, Cass Gilbert and Frederick Law Olmsted issued an ambitious plan for New Haven's future, complete with new avenues, parks, and rail facilities as part of a comprehensive reenvisioning of the city. Mayor Frank Rice showed both his contempt for the plan and his quotidian vision of the office's responsibilities that year when he proudly declared, "The best work of this administration . . . has been in the improvement of the city sidewalks."

And with such hands-off government as the norm, New Haven's population increased more than five-fold between 1850 and 1920. But this swell began to ebb in the 1920s. As the automobile and the AC power grid dispersed industry, the upwardly mobile began to head for the suburbs, and immigration restrictions disrupted the flow of new urban arrivals.