In 1977, President Jimmy Carter made a much-celebrated visit to the South Bronx to view for himself the urban destruction he and the world had heard so much about. He went to two sites, both of which drew wide attention in the press.
The first was Washington Avenue, where a group of local residents had cleaned up a block, created a park, forced the city to finish a six-story renovation project, organized a day-care program, and started a new cabinet-making shop to employ the unemployed. They took over one building and renovated it, and then did the same with another, adding a solar hot water system on the roof and establishing an income-producing recycling system.
They called themselves the People’s Development Corporation (PDC). No public program, no public money, no credentialed expert—no one had helped them do anything, except the advocacy planners at the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, under the leadership of Ron Shiffman. It was a marvel of self-help. The president and the accompanying press were flabbergasted and, needless to say, impressed. Sadly, the spotlight that followed shone so brightly on the group’s leadership (speaking gigs, press interviews, endless inquiries about how they did it) that it didn’t take long for public recognition to overwhelm and undercut the effort. Eventually, the group fell apart.
The potential lesson for wider urban rebirth was lost on the powers that be. No political leader tried to understand what had happened on Washington Avenue and how it could offer potential lessons for new, modest-scale programs. This effort didn’t fit into any urban professional’s area of expertise or even curiosity. But PDC was a failure with value. Fifteen blocks away, another local group learned the lessons and emulated the process, but didn’t fail. In fact, Banana Kelly succeeded in a major way. Its success averted the total collapse of the neighborhood and, eventually, helped it turn around. Others, similar efforts around the South Bronx and the larger city followed, and a grass-roots rebirth process was created without either government help or the input of experts.
On that same much-covered visit, President Carter also stopped at Charlotte Street, a large, debris-filled site a few blocks away. Here, the imagination of the government officials and experts took flight. Big, empty sites always appealed to top-down thinkers, and then, as now, there were plenty of lots around. First, a $1.5 billion city plan of new and renovated public housing emerged, centered on Charlotte Street, generating extensive controversy. After much debate, this project was defeated at the Board of Estimate. Nowhere in this plan was there mention of small funding assistance to spur the Banana Kelly–style community groups that were proliferating around the South Bronx.
Ed Logue, the big-thinking planner who had shepherded big urban renewal projects in New Haven, Connecticut, Boston, and New York State, was a consultant on this proposal, as noted by Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen in her comprehensive and recently released biography, Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). After that plan was defeated, New York Mayor Edward Koch appointed Logue to head the South Bronx Development Office, as Cohen writes, “to signal that something would still happen in the South Bronx.” It almost didn’t matter what that “something” was as long as “something” happened. This has always been the problem with official planning and development projects; “something” is better than nothing, regardless of the appropriateness of the “something.” Needless to say, what was happening on Kelly Street wasn’t considered “something.”
As Cohen writes: “Thus began the fourth and last major chapter of Ed Logue’s career in urban redevelopment. After remaking New Haven and Boston in the heyday of federal urban renewal and leading the New York Urban Development Corporation in a groundbreaking but ultimately imperfect experiment in public-private and federal-state collaboration, Logue was now taking on the South Bronx at the dawn of a new era of small-scale, neighborhood-oriented, market-based urban interventions.”
“Imperfect” is the understated operative word here.
Logue didn’t go to Washington Avenue to learn the roots of PDC’s success at restoring abandoned housing, getting the stalled small-scale city housing project finished, cleaning up the street, creating a park, and solidifying a community. In fact, he disdained both the PDC and Banana Kelly. When I interviewed him in the late 1970s for my book The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way, he was downright nasty, disparaging Banana Kelly as “insignificant” and claiming it was “absurd” to think there was anything happening here of significance. I was so shaken by that interview, I called Ron Shiffman right after to tell him what happened. Ron remembers that call today.
In the course of his multicity career, Logue eventually learned the importance of working with local communities, but he was very selective about which local groups he would work with. He clearly preferred the ones willing to play ball with him. Top-down authoritarian planning with a coating of community engagement thrown in eventually became his unique style.
Logue is celebrated by architects for his commitment to hiring good architects. Indeed, he did commission buildings by Paul Rudolph, Joseph Luis Sert, I.M.Pei, James Polshek, and Ulrich Franzen. Some of those buildings present city leaders with great challenges today. This is always the priority of the design profession. And, for sure, he did insist on hiring good architects. He also set a goal of an integrated residential mix, always an enormous challenge. But neither worthy move guaranteed an appropriate and successful project. Fundamentally, Logue was Robert Moses light; the main distinction was that he could focus on filling the endless empty spaces left by the Moses bulldozer era, the unbuilt, cleared sites representing failed promises for new developments.
Logue did not have to advocate bulldozer renewal because Moses had demolished so much and left so much undone. But that shouldn’t camouflage his basic instincts.
Logue did not have to advocate bulldozer renewal because Moses had demolished so much and left so much undone. But that shouldn’t camouflage his basic instincts. As he told Jane Jacobs in an earlier interview, “I learned everything I needed to know flying a bomber plane during World War II. What San Francisco needs is another fire and then what a beautiful city we would build.” This is the ultimate top-down planner’s view of urban redevelopment. As Cohen confirms, Logue “served as a bombardier in World War II with a bird’s eye view of European cities.”
Empty land is what the South Bronx had plenty of, the rubble of retrievable housing (comparable dwellings remaining command high prices today) burnt down mostly by landlords collecting the insurance and walking away. Blocks and blocks of small apartment houses were needlessly demolished, such as those on Kelly Street and in the nearby Longwood Historic District, with its distinctive mix of turn-of-the-century, semi-detached row houses.
Empty land is what Logue zeroed in on, eventually developing one of the most inappropriate renewal efforts built anywhere in the city: Charlotte Gardens: 90 single-family suburban, 1,152-square-foot ranch-style homes replete with picket fences and lawns to mow, on quarter-acre lots covering 14 acres. Here is where densely built, diversified urban buildings had once stood, mixed with small businesses and local stores.
Charlotte Gardens, emulating a suburb, was exactly the wrong thing for any city needing to rebuild. Every imaginable subsidy was employed to sell at half the $114,000 sticker price. Tax abatements were added. (Each of those homes should now be allowed to build an attached second dwelling to add at least a modicum of density to the neighborhood.) Imagine the number of existing deteriorated and abandoned units that could have been reclaimed while strengthening the urban fabric a successful city requires.
But Logue was an exaggerated example of his time. Big-idea planning was what the public had come to expect after World War II. People seemed persuaded that it was needed to remake cities when the federally subsidized suburbs with their federally subsidized highways were luring away the middle class. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of small cities today struggle to reknit the urban fabric that roads and other clearance projects destroyed, leaving divided neighborhoods and downtowns. In fact, New Haven today is transforming into an urban boulevard the Oak Street Connector (Rte 34 Expressway) that divided downtown from the Hill neighborhood and tore it apart (also, it has always been lightly used). Some years ago, then-Mayor John DeStefano told me, “I spend most of my energy undoing what Ed Logue did.” That seems to be the fate of too many American cities today: undoing the “big project” mistakes of the urban renewal era.
Cohen deftly details Logue’s career, touting what are officially considered successes and noting assorted failures. Born in Philadelphia, educated at Yale College and law school, worked as a labor organizer and then filled a few political positions before taking on redevelopment in New Haven under then-Mayor Richard Lee. Cohen also does a good job going into detail about Logue’s work and the thinking in the three cities on which his impact remains large, where he failed or succeeded, noting the neighborhoods he bulldozed or didn’t, or the downtowns he tried to rebuild.
What is also useful here is Cohen’s ability to put what was happening under Logue into the larger perspective of what was happening elsewhere. Logue was not a rogue operator; he both reflected and influenced his times. But what is most important today is not to mistake what he did as the appropriate way to revitalize cities. His was the big way. Politicians still love best the big projects with great ribbon-cutting opportunities. Stadiums, convention centers, big cultural malls, arenas, and, of course, the now-dying shopping malls. None of them ever live up to their promise to revitalize a city, yet they remain favorites of the powers that be. Politicians love, as well, the need here for big developers of big projects who are great campaign donors. As an aside, they may acknowledge some community-based work but, as with Logue, they fail to see the genuine revitalization value of citizen efforts. Logue may be long gone, but this all holds true today.
Featured image: Logue with Boston Mayor John Collins, 1965. Photo via Wikipedia Commons.