A Conversation With Lizabeth Cohen
Urban renewal has received a bad rap over the last few decades. The phrase often brings to mind population displacement, the destruction of historic neighborhoods, and a general failure of the public sphere. But this is far from the whole story.
Lizabeth Cohen’s book “Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age” examines the history of urban renewal in the decades following World War II through the career of influential urban planner Ed Logue. The evolution of Logue’s work neatly follows the trajectory of urban policy over this time, tracing the changing balance between public government programs and private interests. What emerges is a story about the nature of American democracy, and the relationship of different levels of government to each other and to their communities. Ultimately, Cohen illuminates not only how America’s cities became what they are today, but also what they could become in the future.
BackStory recently spoke with Lizabeth Cohen about “Saving America’s Cities,” which was just announced as a winner of the 2020 Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy.
BackStory: How did you decide on Ed Logue as the subject for this book? What were some advantages of telling this history through an individual, and did you face any major limitations from this approach?
Cohen: I knew that I wanted to investigate the fate of post-World War II American cities as they faced the explosion of suburbanization. My previous books (Making a New Deal and A Consumers’ Republic) had both been set in cities, the former focused on Chicago, the latter in the metropolitan New York area, particularly Northern New Jersey. But the city itself was not the problematic, the real subject of inquiry, in those books. Moreover, other historians, including me in A Consumers’ Republic, had written extensively on how the federal government incentivized the boom in postwar suburbia through mortgage lending and highway building. But little attention had been paid to how cities coped with the huge exit of residents, employers, and capital more broadly from the 1940s onward. Most American cities were truly in trouble after a decade of depression followed by the deprivations of wartime. I also wanted to make sure that I was attentive to the changing physical built environment as postwar cities met these challenges.
My next question was how to go about framing this book. My previous work had been social history, where I investigated the life experiences of various groups of ordinary Americans—first- and second-generation immigrants, workers, middle-class homeowners and consumers, African Americans who had had recently moved from the South to the North, and so forth. For this new book, I felt it was more appropriate to put an individual with great influence at the center of my story, while still being attentive to the social identities that matter so much to social historians, such as class, gender, race, ethnicity, profession and the like. A biographical focus, I hoped, might also appeal to general readers, making my book more accessible. So I searched for a protagonist whose life and work would allow me to tell two intertwined stories: how both a person and a nation went about trying to revitalize American cities over a substantial period of time.
I knew about Ed Logue from a course I had taught at Harvard on Boston’s history, as he was generally credited with turning around a deteriorating city and moving it towards a “New Boston.” What I learned over time convinced me that Logue was an ideal vehicle for my book. Logue had a long, influential career working in many cities–New Haven in the 1950s, Boston in the 1960s, New York State in the 1970s, and the South Bronx in the 1980s. (He died in 2000.) Over that half-century, Logue responded to shifts in government policies towards cities as well as lessons he learned on the job. It helped me as well that he had left a huge cache of papers at his alma mater of Yale. Over his lifetime, Logue had given many interviews, so although he was no longer living, I would still “hear his voice.” Also, many of his colleagues and family members were still alive, and were very willing and eager to talk to me. There was even a website, “The Friends of Edward J. Logue.” So I began my research in voluminous archives and printed sources and undertook almost one hundred interviews with people who had known and worked with Ed Logue.
The biggest challenge I faced in putting Logue at the center of my book was figuring out what aspects of his life and career were relevant to my historical project to understand the evolution of postwar cities and what were not. I decided that I would only discuss aspects of his life that had a bearing on his public work. I made occasional exceptions to keep the reader interested and informed, but generally this was a book about a powerful person’s public career, not his private life. Another difficulty was calibrating my own relationship to my subject. I tried very hard to treat Logue and his work with even handedness, to acknowledge the costs and achievements of urban renewal, as it was often called. And I wanted to convey that Logue was a complicated figure who was loved and admired by some and greatly resented and feared by others. Sometimes I would catch myself becoming too empathetic and need to pull back. Other times I felt I was being too tough on Logue, applying today’s knowledge and expectations ahistorically to him at an earlier moment in time. Finally, I worried that the many people still around who knew Logue or worked in related fields might contradict my interpretation. That is less of a problem when you write about an earlier period of history, or when your subject is a broad social group. In the end, however, I have been challenged very little by Logue’s colleagues. Most of them, in fact, are happy to see the work that he and they did be treated seriously as history.
BackStory: Ed Logue’s career saw a shift in the balance of the roles of the expert and the community in urban renewal projects. What does this trajectory tell us about the nature of democracy and role of government in the 20th century?
Cohen: This question identifies an important theme of Saving America’s Cities, a shift in how communities responded to urban renewal and what urban redevelopers like Ed Logue had to adjust to in carrying out their projects. I argue that in the first phase of urban renewal during the 1950s—in New Haven for Logue but in many cities all over the country—community consultation operated as what I call “pluralist democracy,” a term I borrowed from a classic study of New Haven’s urban renewal by Yale political scientist Robert Dahl entitled Who Governs? Leaders of established organizations and interest groups were tapped to advise urban renewers but there was very little broad, grassroots participation. Rather, Logue considered himself and his staff to be experts who would carry on in the tradition of FDR’s New Deal and bring the resources and talent of the federal government to bear on the next problem to solve—failing cities.
By the mid-1960s, in New Haven, Boston, and elsewhere, neighborhoods had learned to be much less accepting and most importantly, how to negotiate with city redevelopment agencies and planners to get more of what they wanted, such as more subsidized housing. I label that new era one of “participatory democracy.” In Boston, those skills would help citizens defeat two major highway projects in the 1970s, the Southwest Expressway and the Inner Belt.
I watch how over the course of his career Logue learned to work within an urban redevelopment regime where he must engage more and more with communities. That partnering did not come easily to Logue, but by his work in the South Bronx in the 1980s he had come to recognize how crucial it was to any success. There he collaborated closely with community planning boards and local CDCs on projects to build much needed affordable housing.
At the end of the book I acknowledge the necessity of engaging communities in the important decisions that will affect them. But I also raise some concerns about how we can do that while also avoiding excessive NIMBYism or planning that is so narrowly defined by neighborhood that the future of the city as a whole is not adequately considered.
BackStory: One thing that I found fascinating about the book is how it illustrated a cross-section of different levels of government, and how these levels interacted in complex ways over the second half of the 20th century. Was the process of urban renewal a driving factor in the reshaping of these relationships, or merely a reflection of these changes?
Cohen: That’s a very interesting question. Logue had many opportunities over his career to work at the federal level—for Senator Hubert Humphrey, for what became the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and more—but he always chose other opportunities at the municipal and state levels where he felt he could have more direct impact. At the same time, he felt the federal government’s resources were absolutely necessary to revitalize struggling cities and build subsidized housing. In fact, he watched in dismay as those federal dollars declined, first with the costs of the Vietnam War under President Lyndon Johnson and then with an ideological shift, initiated by President Richard Nixon, away from federal programs towards his “New Federalism.” Ronald Reagan would take it all a big step further and argue that the private sector, not the public realm, should be solving these urban problems.
Logue’s major engagement with state government was his seven-year stint as President of the powerful New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC). Readers of the book watch as this idealistic organization falls apart for many reasons. But while it lasted, the UDC marked a significant effort on Logue’s part to search for alternatives to fading federal financing of what he felt were greatly needed interventions to provide housing and support cities more generally.
In terms of whether urban renewal led or was swept up in these shifts from federal to lower levels of government and from the public to private sector, I would say that transformation took place in many policy areas but that housing and urban projects were particularly affected because there were alternatives imaginable in this realm, where there weren’t always in others.
BackStory: Your book wrestles with many forces that have shaped the role and power of the federal government, and the limitations of private interests in shaping the public sphere. What provoked your exploration of these questions?
Cohen: Another of my motives for writing this book that I should mention here was my alarm at the current nationwide crisis in affordable housing and the deterioration of so much urban infrastructure throughout the country. I felt that the failure over many decades to invest public resources in these basic social needs required further investigation. I was also affected by watching how the nation rebuilt after the catastrophe of Katrina and the foreclosure crisis of the Great Recession. Private sector interests seized opportunities and further undermined how people perceived the effectiveness and importance of government. I am watching closely how the nation deals with the COVID-19 pandemic and worry greatly that we will see further eroding of the public sector’s capacity and authority. And we should stay alert to possible corruption that might accompany the greater empowerment of the private sector to deal with the crisis.
BackStory: You describe how both American conservatives and progressives cast the history of federal urban development as an “abject failure.” What has motivated this characterization? Does it tell us anything about how history is actually created and interpreted?
Cohen: It had become accepted wisdom on all political fronts that everything about the urban renewal era was bad. I don’t dispute that there is much truth in that assertion. I show very clearly that almost all efforts undertaken in the 1950s were deeply flawed. But I try to make the case that urban renewal was not one unshifting disaster over many decades that should be fully written off. Rather, I show that urban redevelopers like Logue evolved over time, learned from their mistakes, and in some cases even promoted some progressive goals. Logue, for example, was deeply committed to creating mixed-income, mixed-race, and mixed age communities, aspirations we still hold today. And he worked hard to make the case that whole metropolitan areas need to be involved in solving the housing and other problems facing low-income residents of cities. For example, readers follow Logue’s ultimately failed effort at the UDC to build modest amounts of what he called “Fair Share Housing” in nine well-off Westchester County towns.
When ideologically-based assumptions that are under-investigated prevail, important goals and even successes can easily get forgotten. We “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” so to speak. By assuming that there was nothing redeemable about the federal government playing a significant role in revitalizing cities, particularly financially, we abandon the opportunity to fight for that possibility once again. I despair at the current moment where cities find themselves almost totally dependent on squeezing resources out of private developers to solve the crisis of affordable housing and much more. And cities compete with each other to win an Amazon or GE headquarters and investment dollars, at the cost of sacrificing future tax revenues and putting more uncompensated burdens on already shaky services. Creating a more nuanced history of a controversial subject like urban renewal not only makes for a more accurate historical record, but it can provide a more useable past and suggest alternatives for the future that we might not otherwise have considered. In a capitalist society like ours, the private sector will always play a significant role. It did in the heyday of federal urban renewal and it certainly does today. But it matters greatly which sector—public or private—is in the driver’s seat. Logue believed deeply that it was the responsibility of government to represent the public interest and, flaws and all, he fought to make it so for over half a century.
Lizabeth Cohen is the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard University and the former dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is the author of Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Bancroft Prize, and of A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.