Book Reviews

Urban Legend

Ed Logue’s work rebuilding America’s cities shows us how, and how not, to do it.

By Jim McNeill

Tagged Citiesurban planning

Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age by Lizabeth Cohen • Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 2019 • 560 pages • $35

Ed Logue, like Donald Trump, was a builder. But he never built casinos to fleece the public. He was a public servant, a leader in the postwar effort to revive America’s ailing cities. A child of the New Deal, Logue believed government had the resources and the responsibility to tackle the nation’s problems. “[You] can’t trust the private sector to protect the public interest,” Logue often said during an urban renewal career that began in the 1950s. By the time he retired in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had flipped the script. It was the public sector that could no longer be trusted.

How did that happen—how had the government that pulled America out of the Great Depression been so thoroughly demonized that even Democrats stopped defending it, conceding that the era of Big Government was over? It’s a question that has haunted progressives for decades, and it’s at the heart of Lizabeth Cohen’s biography of Logue, Saving America’s Cities. Cohen, a professor of history at Harvard, has spent her career examining Americans’ fraught relationship with government: first showing how workers during the Depression came to demand more from the New Deal state; then how the citizen-consumers of the postwar era looked increasingly to the market to fulfill their needs.

In her life of Logue, Cohen has condensed the lessons of her broad social histories into a single story. But she doesn’t dumb down the story. She shows the complicated arc of Logue’s career, the “gains and losses, failed and successful experiments, times of breakthrough and moments of disgrace.” In doing so, she reveals how public officials like Logue faltered in the run-up to the Reagan years, but also how government was still a powerful force for good in people’s lives. As a close student of Logue’s work at the Boston Redevelopment Authority once said, he “took a city that was flat on its back and got it up on its feet.”

Today, America is flat on its back, laid low by the coronavirus and Donald Trump’s failure to fight it. Trump’s refusal to lead a federal response to the pandemic has done incalculable harm and shown the bankruptcy of his party’s anti-government ideology. To repair the wreckage of the Trump presidency, we’ll need a government that’s big and bold. We’ll need public officials who make no little plans and have the administrative ability to carry them out. For anyone wanting to get America up on its feet, Cohen’s study of Logue is an invaluable primer.

Cohen argues that our thinking about urban renewal has been dominated, and distorted, by an obsession with two figures: the “villainous” Robert Moses and the “saintly” Jane Jacobs. Moses, the Master Builder of New York, gave the city much-needed new infrastructure in the decades before and after World War II. But he ruthlessly remade New York, forcing almost half a million people from their homes as he constructed his highways, bridges, and parks. Jacobs, seeing all the neighborhoods he destroyed, condemned urban planners for imposing their sterile vision on once-vibrant cities. End these urban renewal boondoggles, she insisted, and let people remake their neighborhoods as they see fit.

For Cohen, Logue is the indispensable third figure who gets us beyond these two extremes. Logue called his work rebuilding cities “human renewal,” and he came to it with a personal history that made him much more than a technocrat. Logue was born in 1921 into a comfortably middle-class family in Philadelphia. But his father died when he was 13 and the family struggled, so Logue made his way to Yale as a scholarship student. He didn’t hang with the rich kids. He worked in the dining hall, bonded with the staff, and organized with their union when they went on strike his senior year. After graduating, Logue served in World War II as a bombardier, and then came back to Yale on the GI Bill to get a law degree.

Logue began his urban renewal career in New Haven in 1954, right after working as an aide to the American ambassador in India. He’d been intrigued by the U.S.-funded community development projects there. Staffed by left-leaning old hands from the New Deal, the projects combined new housing and infrastructure with expanded social services. Although Logue saw problems with the projects in India, especially a lack of local control, the approach would inspire his work in New Haven.

Since the end of the war, New Haven had been hemorrhaging factory jobs and losing its residents and retail trade to the suburbs. Dick Lee, a young reform-minded mayor, tapped Logue to take over and expand the city’s tiny redevelopment agency. Lee gave him so much power at the agency—and over the city’s planning, housing, and health departments—that locals called it the “Kremlin.” With this centralized control, Logue was able to cut through the red tape that slowed other renewal programs. He was also a genius at navigating the federal bureaucracies that doled out development funds. Under Logue, New Haven secured more federal development dollars per capita than any other U.S. city.

Our thinking about urban renewal has been distorted by an obsession with two figures: the “villainous” Robert Moses and the “saintly” Jane Jacobs.

That money, at first, was not wisely spent. Logue’s early projects were heavily influenced by Le Corbusier, the high priest of modernist architecture. Le Corbusier famously saw the home as a “machine for living in,” and he looked at cities the same way. Old cities, with their jumble of apartments and stores and factories, had to be chopped up into separate retail, residential, and industrial districts and connected by car. Following this logic, Logue bulldozed three square blocks downtown to make way for his first big project, a new shopping mall and parking garage. He also slashed through the largely African American Oak Street neighborhood to make room for a highway connector and two isolated apartment towers.

Logue later confessed to a friend that the towers were “the most God awful-looking things I ever laid eyes on.” The mall was no better—a boxy behemoth that deadened the blocks around it. Worst of all, the city struggled to relocate the African American residents who had been displaced. Had Logue’s work continued in this vein, he would’ve been just another urban renewal czar guilty of the “Negro removal” that scarred so many postwar cities.

But Logue learned from his mistakes. As he moved from downtown to the neighborhoods, he declared his intention to start working with “a scalpel not a bulldozer.” He renovated existing housing stock when possible, and an improved design process led to much better architecture in his new buildings. Logue also figured out how to funnel federal development funds into the construction of a dozen new schools. Much like the holistic projects he saw in India, one of these new schools included social service offices, a senior center, and a branch library. Another school was sited so it would enroll both Black and white students and helped realize Lee and Logue’s ambition to desegregate the city. It did help integrate the surrounding neighborhood, but their dream of further integration was mostly thwarted by pushback from white residents and resistance on the city council. Nevertheless, the new schools, the rehabilitated neighborhoods, and some striking architecture led The New York Times to hail New Haven as “a national showcase” for urban renewal done right.

Logue’s work in New Haven had national—and lasting—significance for another reason: It was the subject of one of the most influential studies of American democracy in the postwar era. In 1961’s Who Governs?, Yale political scientist Robert Dahl assessed, and attacked, C. Wright Mills’s claim that a narrow elite had come to dominate America and had hollowed out its democracy. Dahl used New Haven and its urban renewal process as a laboratory to test and disprove Mills’s theory. Dahl took particular interest in a nearly 600-person advisory board Lee and Logue had formed to help guide redevelopment decisions. The board was comprised of a wide variety of civic, business, and neighborhood leaders. To Dahl, they seemed anything but a narrow elite. He conducted lengthy interviews with dozens of them and concluded that their many voices were influencing the renewal effort. For Dahl and generations of political scientists, it was evidence that America had a “pluralist democracy” where representative voices of the people still shaped key decisions.

Plenty of historians would be content to note Dahl’s findings and move on. But Cohen, who won the Bancroft Prize for Saving America’s Cities, goes deeper. She went back and dug through Dahl’s old interviews. She found that he talked to no one from the obliterated Oak Street neighborhood. In fact, few if any poor or marginalized people were on the renewal agency’s advisory board, so their perspective didn’t make it into Dahl’s book. Even the board as it existed was less impressive than it seemed. It didn’t drive the renewal process—it mostly rubber-stamped plans Logue had already made. But Cohen isn’t playing a historical game of gotcha here. She doesn’t argue that these facts necessarily discredit Dahl’s work. Whether the board had real power, she notes that Logue believed he was a democratic actor responsible to and serving the public. In the 1950s, in the afterglow of the New Deal, Cohen accepts that the idea of pluralist democracy still made sense to many Americans. But in the 1960s, the decade Logue went to work in Boston, that understanding of democracy began to break down.

Boston was a divided and declining city as the 1960s began. For the first half of the twentieth century, Boston’s elite Yankee Brahmins ruled the business world, but James Michael Curley and his Irish machine controlled City Hall and its spoils. For years, frustrated Brahmins had been fleeing the city and taking their businesses with them. From 1930 to 1960, only two new office buildings were built downtown. In the 1950s alone, Boston lost 13 percent of its population, and the families that remained were far poorer than those in most major U.S. cities.

Logue feared the city was beyond saving when Mayor John Collins—a reformer like Lee—offered him the top slot at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) in 1960. Logue took it only after he was granted the same kind of sweeping powers he’d had in New Haven. Under Logue, the BRA staff grew from 16 to more than 500, and he increased Black employment at the BRA from 2 percent to 13 percent. Though enlightened on race, Logue had a blind spot on gender. Not until the 1980s, at the last agency he ran, did Logue finally fill a significant number of top jobs with women. Logue was that boss with a whiskey bottle in his desk, and he passed it around at the end of the day to the men who fully embraced his workaholic culture. Cohen is clear-eyed about the dysfunction of that culture, but she allows that some remarkable work got done during those 60- and 70-hour weeks.

The BRA’s first and biggest project was Government Center, a mammoth cluster of city, state, and federal buildings designed to jump-start development downtown. Its massive plaza and modernist buildings impressed many architecture critics at the time, but Government Center is little loved today. Opponents back in the day also complained about all the demolition required to make way for the sprawling complex. But because relatively few people lived there and the BRA saved and renovated many of the historic buildings around it, including Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, Logue eventually got the go ahead. The project also provided the economic boost he promised. Just 6,000 people worked in the area before Government Center was built. More than 25,000 worked there after its completion. Private businesses also came back, so even with all the public buildings, property tax values in the area grew by 60 percent.

Logue went through tortuous negotiations to get Government Center done. He’d had to placate countless politicians, businesspeople, and preservation advocates. It was basically a more contentious version of the pluralist planning process in New Haven. But the negotiations over Government Center were nothing compared to the wars awaiting Logue in Boston’s neighborhoods.

Those wars started out innocently enough. When Logue came to Boston, he pledged to do “planning with people.” In each of the BRA’s neighborhood renewal projects, it sponsored a community group to be its negotiating partner in the planning process. But in one neighborhood after another, those community partners proved to be much more independent than expected. In Madison Park, a lower-income African American neighborhood, the BRA wanted to build a badly needed new high school, but its original plan would have displaced hundreds of families. The community fought that plan and wound up winning both the high school as well as 400 new units of housing. Similar fights played out in other Boston neighborhoods, and they helped spur intense and lasting community organizing.

Logue went through tortuous negotiations over Government Center, but they were nothing compared to the wars awaiting him in Boston’s neighborhoods.

Out in the neighborhoods, as the 1960s progressed, Cohen argues that Dahl’s top-down pluralist democracy was giving way to a grassroots-based “participatory democracy.” People no longer wanted designated officials speaking for them, they wanted to speak for themselves. Cohen makes the crucial point that this participatory dynamic was initiated by the BRA itself. By starting the neighborhood-based negotiating process, the BRA—the government—created the structure in which people could build the communities they wanted. And this is very similar to the dynamic Cohen described in Making a New Deal, her revelatory book about Chicago industrial workers navigating the 1920s and ’30s. The real difference the New Deal made wasn’t putting people on the dole; it was creating the laws and institutions that let people realize and exercise their own power. In the 1920s, downtrodden workers had to fall back on the charity of churches. In the 1930s, new labor laws allowed them to help themselves by building unions. In both the steel mills of Chicago and the community centers of Madison Park, the government empowered people to improve their own lives.

Of course, Cohen is too good a historian to leave us with this simple and uplifting story. A few miles north and a world away from Madison Park was Charlestown, the notoriously clannish Irish Catholic neighborhood. If Boston was declining, the Town was in freefall. Its Navy Yard was dying, and its three-decker tenements were falling apart. The Town desperately needed redevelopment, but the Townies wanted to keep their white ethnic enclave monochromatic. Using their participatory power, they beat down the BRA’s first renewal plan, which included some new public housing that might have increased the Town’s minuscule Black population. After two more years of talks, the BRA gave in and accepted a plan that stripped out the new public housing.

Such outcomes deeply frustrated Logue, who was “woke” before the idea even existed. Back in the 1940s, he wrote an article for The Progressive demanding justice for African Americans “now, not soon.” He went into urban renewal believing it could be a powerful tool for ending discrimination. But in both New Haven and Boston, his authority ended at the city limits. He was stuck crafting imperfect fixes in the city while the suburbs kept sucking out people and resources and doing nothing for those left behind. Somehow, Logue knew, he had to break out of that urban box and start making change in the suburbs and beyond. In 1968, his breakout moment finally arrived.

In January 1968, New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller called Logue and told him to come to his office immediately. Rockefeller, famed for his “edifice complex,” had already spent billions supersizing New York’s university system and transforming the state capital. Now he wanted to spend billions more on affordable housing and infrastructure. Rockefeller had been trying for years to raise the money to get it done, but five times New York voters had rejected the bonds he needed. Rockefeller gave up on the voters and decided to create a new quasi-public authority, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), that could issue its own bonds. Now he needed someone to run it.

Logue wasn’t entirely comfortable with the financing. The UDC’s bonds were weaker than ordinary state bonds, and they made him beholden to private financiers he loathed. But with the Vietnam War siphoning away federal development funds, he felt it was the only way to build on the scale that was necessary. When Rockefeller gave him remarkably broad powers to plan, finance, and construct projects all across the state—in both city and suburb—Logue took the job and started building with astonishing speed. In less than a decade, the UDC launched 117 residential developments housing 100,000 people. The agency also built 69 commercial centers, industrial parks, and other civic projects. Most ambitiously, Logue constructed three entirely new towns, among them the car-free community on the patch of land in the East River once called Welfare Island but redubbed Roosevelt Island in 1973.

From the outset, Logue promised that the UDC would build integrated housing, but his track record in New York City was spotty. In one Harlem apartment building, the UDC couldn’t find enough white tenants willing to move in. In the Bronx, another UDC development won plaudits for its architecture, but gang wars broke out in the courtyards, and it never did attract the integrated mix of residents Logue was seeking. In 1972, he decided to bring his desegregation efforts directly to the suburbs and unveil a Fair Share Housing proposal for Westchester County. Not wanting to stir up opposition, Logue planned to build modest 100-unit developments scattered across nine towns. Minorities would fill only 20 percent of the units, and priority would be given to local residents. The modest plan provoked massive opposition. “In town after town,” Cohen writes, “something like a civil war broke out.” Logue received death threats. Before one town meeting he attended, a caller told him he’d be assassinated if he showed up.

Logue lived, but the Fair Share program died, and a key power of the UDC went with it. When Logue took the UDC job, he’d insisted that the agency have the right to override local zoning laws used to exclude African Americans. The UDC almost never used the power, but suburban backlash against the Fair Share program was so intense that the state legislature passed a law in 1973 stripping the UDC of its override power in villages and towns. The law doomed even token efforts at integrating the suburbs.

While the UDC was dealing with the fallout from Westchester County, it suffered a hammer blow from Washington. President Nixon, who’d turned hard right after his landslide re-election in 1972, froze all congressionally appropriated housing funds. It put Logue in a terrible bind. The UDC had 58 projects underway, and suddenly it had no access to federal funds. Rockefeller interceded with Nixon and eventually got the funding restored, but Logue had to cut 10 percent of his staff. After that, the hits to the UDC just kept coming. In December 1973, Rockefeller announced his resignation as governor. His ironclad support for the agency had reassured investors that its bonds were sound. But now that he was gone and the U.S. economy was softening, the agency was struggling to sell new bonds. Nelson’s brother, Chase Manhattan CEO David Rockefeller, briefly rallied support for the UDC in the summer of 1974. But that November, when the New York governor’s race went to Democrat Hugh Carey, a critic of the UDC’s big budgets and shaky bonds, the agency’s fate, and Logue’s, was sealed. In early 1975, Carey demanded Logue’s resignation, and soon after that, the UDC defaulted on its bond obligations. It was one of the biggest defaults by a public agency since the 1930s. The UDC’s reputation, and Logue’s, was thoroughly tarnished.

Logue’s career ended, and was resurrected, in the ruins of the South Bronx. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter briefly toured the borough and was stunned by the post-apocalyptic landscape. Staring at the devastation on Charlotte Street, Carter said something had to be done. The city turned to Logue. In 1979, he cobbled together funding for a tiny planning staff, and then grew it into a 70-person development and social service agency. It helped create two new industrial parks employing more than 1,000 people. But the agency’s highest profile project was Charlotte Gardens, a small subdivision built on the rubble that the President had surveyed. When the media flooded its ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1983, Charlotte Gardens was seen as a sign that the South Bronx was finally rising from the ashes.

In the mid-1980s, around the time Logue was finishing his work in the Bronx, he was asked about his role in spurring Boston’s revival and how the city should move forward. “The public sector created the New Boston,” he said, “and the public sector must control it.” Unfortunately, the private sector had other ideas. For decades now, the private sector has driven development in Boston and just about everywhere else in America. In this new nation that the private sector created, half a million people spend each night without a home. Today, almost half of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent; in the 1960s, barely one-fifth did. It’s become increasingly clear that the unchecked market hasn’t made America great. As Saving America’s Cities and all of Cohen’s books have shown, government must create the space within which people can improve their lives.
So how does Cohen recommend that we fix our housing crisis? Like Logue, she calls for a massive increase in federal spending. “Only policy and program at that scale can counteract the inequalities” in America, she writes. But she doesn’t tell us to look for an exact model in Logue’s work. He overcame problems through improvisation and flexibility, and so should we. Of course, there was one overriding problem Logue never did overcome: the racism that has disfigured our democracy since its founding. Even after Logue died in 2000, it seemed like we’d never summon the will to confront it. However, in the astonishing moment we’re in—when people in cities and suburbs and small towns are all coming together to protest systemic racism—it seems possible, finally, that we shall overcome. If we do, perhaps we can go beyond saving America’s cities and work to redeem the entire nation.

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Jim McNeill is a writer and campaign communicator for unions based in Washington, D.C.

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