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.

These trends all augured ill for the future of urbanism, but the federal government's expansion into local affairs beginning under President Roosevelt vastly exacerbated the trend, as urban politics became hopelessly intertwined with social engineering. The landslide began in 1933 with the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, which refinanced homes with government loans as part of the government's response to widespread mortgage defaults in the previous year. The program quickly expanded and began conducting regional studies of housing markets that seventy years later continue to define the urban neighborhoods surveyed. These studies preferred WASPs over Catholics, Jews, or blacks. They liked new rather than old construction, incomplete development over finished neighborhoods, and single-purpose residential areas over mixed use--policies that guaranteed cities would receive lower ratings than suburbs. Bankers were reluctant to invest in areas that received lower grades from HOLC and charged higher interest for loans within them, ensuring that the difference between A grade and D grade neighborhoods would only widen over time.

THE HOUSING ACT OF 1937 made public housing a national policy, and by the early 1940s this meant the construction of huge new low-income housing projects, which were quickly diverted into use for war workers, many of them poor blacks newly arrived from the South to fill suddenly available manufacturing jobs. Federal ambitions only became more utopian after the war. The Housing Act of 1949 actually calls for "the elimination of substandard and otherwise inadequate housing through clearance of slums and blighted areas, and the realization as soon as is feasible of the goal of a decent home and living environment for every American family."

Rae rightly observes: "Renewal also invited extravagant environmental determinism," which imagined "bad neighborhoods that were given good built environments would function like good neighborhoods." It also meant the concentration and segregation of the urban poor in enclosed "projects" (the word itself announces the social engineering intentions of its adherents) cut off from the businesses and street life central to the Jane Jacobs vision of city life that Rae endorses.

These designations of blighted areas proved self-fulfilling. New Haven's urban renewal program of the 1950s follows the HOLC map almost exactly. To gain federal funds with which to "renew" these areas necessitated "the certification of a slum--one more signal that unsubsidized investment was risky, and that all roads to personal security ran away from such places."

Dick Lee took office in 1954 after defeating another sidewalk maintenance-type mayor, William Celentano, who dismissed Lee's ambitious redevelopment plans as "unrealistic," light years beyond the orbit of local government. Though Lee remained in office until 1970, serving eight terms and delivering his promised federally funded renewal, Celentano had the last laugh, as Lee left the city worse off than he'd inherited it. Lee remade the city by leaving core services and patronage in the hands of the Democratic party machine, while simultaneously creating a shadow government of Ivy League planning elites--known locally as the Kremlin--to mastermind New Haven's demolition and reconstruction.

Lee's mere promise of a "slumless city" was embraced as "the greatest success story in the history of the world" by Johnson's labor secretary Willard Wirtz. That's true if success is measured in the number of people displaced. Those who could afford it fled in droves, as more than a quarter of the city's white population left during Lee's sixteen years in office. In one particularly disruptive move that mirrored the changes being made across the city, Lee cleared out a white ethnic neighborhood of working-class homeowners on Oak Street (Rae estimates that more than a fifth of New Haven's population was involuntarily dislocated by Lee's various renewal projects) and replaced it with a housing project. To this day, the displaced Oak Street alumni hold an annual celebration of the neighborhood that was. A massive concrete mall downtown fared little better than the projects--where once small businesses created street life and a sense of place, now this megablock dwarfs its neighbors, while doing much less business than hoped.

These rigidly large and modern monuments of decline proved impenetrable to those without, inescapable to those within, and impervious to changes in the life of the surrounding city. The scale of Lee's renovations locked the city into decline. Other municipalities had neighborhoods and housing waiting to be rediscovered in the urban revival of the 1990s. New Haven has massive concrete blocks whose monolithic form dictated their equally monolithic function, the seventh highest poverty rate of any city, and a serious crime problem, all of this exacerbated by "a large cadre of professional service providers, many living in the suburbs [who] had become de facto spokespersons for the concentration of clinical facilities in the city."

Having chronicled Lee's sterilization of New Haven, Rae lets the mayor off the hook. Ignoring the urban revival of the 1990s accomplished under mayors like New York's Rudolph Giuliani, Rae argues that Lee failed because "he had set himself against history." But for all of Lee's brilliance and success in reshaping the city, New Haven would have been better off under a mayor who just maintained the sidewalks.

WHERE DOUGLAS RAE presents in "City" the end of urbanism as a natural phenomenon that even a mayor as ambitious and intelligent as Lee could do nothing to arrest, E. Michael Jones in "The Slaughter of Cities" argues that the old urban compact was sustainable and was undone only by the concerted efforts of a powerful WASP elite congenitally hostile to Catholicism. "The purpose of renewal," he claims, "was not construction but destruction, . . . ethnic cleansing based on the prejudices of the local elite."

The New Deal's housing policies were social engineering on a vast scale, but it took the Great Society to add race to the mix. Beginning with the industrial boom caused by the gear-up for World War II, roughly 150,000 southern blacks migrated northward annually straight through the mid-1970s. And these blacks began arriving just as the jobs they'd come to fill were leaving for greener suburban pastures.

Thanks to real-estate discrimination and government incentives, these blacks tended to end up in white ethnic inner city, often Catholic, factory neighborhoods, where their arrival triggered sell-offs by homeowners motivated by fear of crime, diminishing property values, and racial animus. The three were often conflated: "No matter how it seemed in the moment of confrontation when a black family moved into a white neighborhood," Jones writes, "this was never a simple black-and-white struggle. It was a three-way battle in which the WASP ruling class made use of the black underclass to bring about the destruction of neighborhoods where the ethnic working class lived."

The geographic and ethnic nature of the parish (and the ward, its political parallel) made Catholics the group most resistant to leaving their neighborhoods. As Gerald Gamm put it in his 1999 book "Urban Exodus," "Catholics live in another world. For them, it is the parish that names the neighborhood, and the church that names the street." But the razing of neighborhoods through eminent domain to construct housing projects and the threat of plummeting property values impelled even Catholics to flee the tightly knit neighborhoods they had maintained. Jones presents all this as a conspiracy. (I reached twenty-five before I stopped counting references in "The Slaughter of Cities" to the University of Chicago as a base of psychological warfare.)

IN THE MEANTIME, Catholics are merely innocent in this account. Jones's claim that "The defensive measures which the ethnics took against black migration were known as riots" is fantastically facile. Martin Luther King Jr.'s strategy of nonviolence was, Jones tells us, "a form of extortion." After sneeringly describing King's efforts to integrate Detroit's housing market, Jones informs us that "no one has the right to own a house in a particular neighborhood." When Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters were attacked in Cicero, just outside of Chicago, while protesting the community's housing discrimination, their cars burned behind them to cut off any escape, Jones's sympathy is with the arsonists and bottle-throwers. He treats Catholics like Dick Lee as assimilationist traitors.

This nastiness is unfortunate, because Jones is onto something significant. The destruction of the working class, homeowning urban neighborhoods was not, as Rae argues, just the necessary outcome of economic and demographic changes, but also the result of ill-considered government policies written by urban planners often contemptuous of Catholics and patronizing toward blacks. Jones vastly overstates the case: "the social compact involving the ethnic neighborhood lasted for roughly 100 years . . . [and] could have lasted longer, if the ruling class hadn't grown impatient with it and tried to replace it. Race was the excuse for replacing it." But even all the problems with Jones's sprawling, uneven, and often offensive book don't entirely wreck his thesis. The ethnic neighborhood genuinely did contribute stability to America's cities, and there really was something in the American elite in those days that wanted ethnic neighborhoods eliminated.

In pushing for the Great Society, President Johnson predicted that, "In the remainder of this century urban population will double, city land will double." But the urban population has remained flat since his prediction, and the cities were rebuilt only at the cost of demolishing stable neighborhoods and replacing them with government projects, driving white ethnics and middle-class blacks into the suburbs as cities became synonymous with stagnancy, crime, and decay. While decline was to some extent inevitable--Henry Ford once remarked, "We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city"--the ghettoization of the inner city and the cycle of multigenerational poverty and dysfunction were caused in significant measure by government intervention.

In formulating policy at the federal level, and creating tremendous financial incentives for local adherence to them, Washington put an end to much of what Rae calls cities' "useful inefficiencies" that are so central to urbanism. It was urban policies respectful of the idea of local public spaces that allowed for the revival of the 1990s. New York didn't have to create new neighborhoods--Harlem, Williamsburg, and a host of other areas have housing that drew new residents as soon as they felt the streets were safe to walk at night. New Haven, on the other hand, had torn its old neighborhoods down to make projects that didn't allow for alternate uses or new populations.

WHAT E. MICHAEL JONES in "The Slaughter of Cities" understands, though he vastly overstates it, is that the same stubbornness that kept the Catholics in cities--and made them so belligerent to blacks who threatened the stability of their neighborhoods--was key to rebuilding the cities. But now that systematic and legally accepted segregation and discrimination are no longer acceptable practices, we can again recognize the primacy of the neighborhood.

Douglas Rae's grand utopian vision in "City: Urbanism and Its End" of the city as a monolithic social (and housing) project proved far less successful than Giuliani's relatively prosaic goal of safe and civil streets, which allowed new residents to move into and revive long dilapidated neighborhoods. In that sense, what American cities need are good street-sweeping mayors.

Harry Siegel, editor of, is writing a book on gentrification in New York.

Next Page