The Tragedy of Urban Renewal: The destruction and survival of a New York City neighborhood

In 1949, President Harry Truman signed the Housing Act, which gave federal, state, and local governments unprecedented power to shape residential life. One of the Housing Act's main initiatives - "urban renewal" -  destroyed about 2,000 communities in the 1950s and '60s and forced more than 300,000 families from their homes. Overall, about half of urban renewal's victims were black, a reality that led to James Baldwin's famous quip that "urban renewal means Negro removal."

New York City's Manhattantown (1951) was one of the first projects authorized under urban renewal and it set the model not only for hundreds of urban renewal projects but for the next 60 years of eminent domain abuse at places such as Poletown, New London, and Atlantic Yards. The Manhattantown project destroyed six blocks on New York City's Upper West Side, including an African-American community that dated to the turn of the century. The city sold the land for a token sum to a group of well-connected Democratic pols to build a middle-class housing development. Then came the often repeated bulldoze-and-abandon phenomenon: With little financial skin in the game, the developers let the demolished land sit vacant for years.

The community destroyed at Manhattantown was a model for the tight-knit, interconnected neighborhoods later celebrated by Jane Jacobs and other critics of top-down redevelopment. In the early 20th century, Manhattantown was briefly the center of New York's black music scene. A startling roster of musicians, writers, and artists resided there: the composer Will Marion Cook, vaudeville star Bert Williams, opera singer Abbie Mitchell, James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosemond, muralist Charles Alston, writer and historian Arturo Schomburg, Billie Holiday (whose mother also owned a restaurant on 99th Street), Butterfly McQueen of "Gone with the Wind" fame, and the actor Robert Earl Jones.

Designating West 99th and 98th Streets a "slum" was bitterly ironic. The community was founded when the great black real estate entrepreneur Philip Payton Jr. broke the color line on 99th Street in 1905. Payton, also credited with first bringing African Americans to Harlem, wanted to make it possible for a black man to rent an apartment, in his words, "wherever his means will permit him to live."

A couple years after Payton moved his first tenants into West 99th and 98th Streets, the black orator Roscoe Conkling Simmon marveled that African Americans for the first time were living in "the most beautiful and cultured neighborhood in New York City...because back of them stands organized and sympathetic capital."

Fifty years later, the federal bulldozer tore that neighborhood apart.

Written, produced, shot, and edited by Jim Epstein. Narrated by Nick Gillespie.

Approximately 6.30 minutes.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    With little financial skin in the game...

    That phrase could be applied to so many societal problems.

  • tarran||

    Eminent domain has long been used to keep Negros out. Reference the destruction of Senecca village to make central park.

  • progressive soup||

    An article in the New York Times reported, "The policemen find it difficult to persuade them out of the idea which has possessed their simple minds, that the sole object of the authorities in making the Park is to procure their expulsion from the homes which they occupy."

    and somehow 'property rights' is synonymous with racism.

  • ||

    http://www.pbs.org/independent.....ne/cr.html

    Out west they use urban renewal to move the Mexicans out. Chavez Ravine was a very old Mexican community before they bulldozed it to build Dodger Stadium.

  • Matt Welch||

    John, you ever see the book "Chavez Ravine, 1949"? I highly recommend it.

  • ||

    Yes I have. I saw it one time at a book store and bought it. I had no idea about the story until I read the book. Just tragic.

  • Dan||

    If you need to build something who ya gonna bulldoze? Donald Trump? How about the government not building anything ? Why? Look at what government builds.

    On a related note expect to shuttered wind and solar power farms soon just like what happened in the '70s. Google abandoned solar farms or power plants and enjoy the YouTube.

  • The Central Scrutinizer||

    Falsehoods, all of it. Move along, and ignore the filthy lies being perpetrated against your faithful, loving government....Falsehoods, all of it. Move along, and ignore the filthy lies being perpetrated against your faithful, loving government....Falsehoods, all of it. Move along, and ignore the filthy lies being perpetrated against your faithful, loving government....

  • fish||

    Tony that is a really lame handle! Scrutinzer....(snicker)!

  • ||

    Zappa, Joe's Garage?

  • fish||

    The city sold the land for a token sum to a group of well-connected Democratic pols....

    I'm shocked I tell you!

  • Warty||

    Challenge: name an act of Truman that wasn't horrifying. I'm drawing a blank.

  • JD the elder||

    Berlin Airlift? Founding of NATO? Defense of South Korea? (Arguably, also: declining to escalate the Korean War.) Recognizing the state of Israel? I don't think you can categorize all of his acts as "horrifying".

  • DJF||

    Berlin Airlift. Why do I care if a bunch of Germans don't eat? Sounds like their problem.

    Founding of NATO? Defense socialism for Europeans, sounds like a waste of US taxp payer money.

    Defense of South Korea? South Korea was not worth one American life.

    Recognizing the state of Israel? And how did this helped the USA?

  • ||

    Truman saved Berlin and Western Europe for 40 years of Soviet slavery. That is worth a lot.

    And South Korea is now one of out biggest trading partners. We would be a lot poorer if it had been turned into the hell hole that is North Korea. And allowing that would have also threatened Japan. We are much more wealthy and better off with a free productive Japan and South Korea.

    And recognizing Israel was the morally right thing to do.

    The problem with know nothing isolationism is that it denies reality. We live in the world and are better off when that world is free.

  • DJF||

    """""Truman saved Berlin and Western Europe for 40 years of Soviet slavery. That is worth a lot."""'

    Not to me. And certainly not at the cost of trillions of dollars wasted on NATO while the Euopeans spend far less for their own defense.

    """"And South Korea is now one of out biggest trading partners.""'

    A trade partner which we have a huge trade deficit and who only spends around 2% GDP on defense while the US gets stuck with a bill of over 4% GDP. And South Korea trades with North Korea, they have a deal to use sweat shop North Koreans to make their goods. If the South Koreans don't mind a poor police state called North Korea why do I care?

    """"And recognizing Israel was the morally right thing to do"""

    Not my morals. Getting involved there has wasted billions of dollars and took up the time of the US leadership who should be worrying about the USA, not some foreigners

    """"The problem with know nothing isolationism is that it denies reality. We live in the world and are better off when that world is free."""'

    Free, so drafting people against their will to fight in wars in freedom? Taking the wealth of the people of the USA and giving it to foreigners is freedom?

  • ||

    If you think trade deficits are themselves a bad thing, you understand nothing about trade or economics. Who cares that we have a deficit with them? They make all of this great stuff cheaper than we can. And we get to buy it. It is a win for everyone.

    And saving Europe from communism was a very good thing. You are just too dumb to realize it. I happen to like my Mercedes Benz and my Bose stereo. A communist Western Europe would never have produced such things.

    People being free and productive is always a good thing for everyone.

  • DJF||

    “”””It is a win for everyone.””’

    It was not a win for the 30,000 Americans who died in Korea. Nor a win for the taxpayers of the USA who pays billions every year to defend South Korea. Nor a win for the USA if the crazy guys in North Korea decide that they want another war.

    “””’And saving Europe from communism was a very good thing. You are just too dumb to realize it. I happen to like my Mercedes Benz and my Bose stereo. A communist Western Europe would never have produced such things.””””’

    And did you factor in the trillions of dollars that the US has wasted in the defense of Europe, while the Europeans spent their money on building Mercedes Benz. (Boze speakers are American)

    “””’People being free and productive is always a good thing for everyone.””’

    Not if you are talking the lives and money of one group of people to get the freedom for another group. If the Europeans, South Korans, Israelis, or any other group want freedom they should fight for it and pay for it.

    You are just a military socialist who want to take from the US to build your globalist system.

  • ||

    "Nor a win for the USA if the crazy guys in North Korea decide that they want another war."

    Yeah because if they had owned all of Korea they would have never been a threat to anyone. What planet do you live on?

    And that money we spent defending Europe was also defending ourselves. Had communism been allowed to spread unchecked, Latin America would have gone communist and it would have been on our doorstep. Better to fight it by proxies far away than fight directly where you live.

    And sorry but we have enemies and benefit from and need most of the rest of the world to be free. There is a reason why the paleo cons like you were run out of polite society. It is because they were objectively pro fucking communist and if it had been up to them we would have lost the cold war and most of the world would still be a communist hell hole including the United States if we were not lucky.

  • DJF||

    “”’Yeah because if they had owned all of Korea they would have never been a threat to anyone. What planet do you live on?”””

    How is a broken down communist dictatorship going to be a threat to the USA? Its the USA and South Korea which keep North Korea afloat with their food aid and other support. It would have collapsed years ago without the US involvement. What a joke you are that you think that the Koreans are going to march across the Pacific and be a threat to the USA.

    “”””’Had communism been allowed to spread unchecked, Latin America would have gone communist and it would have been on our doorstep. “”’’

    So a system of government which has trouble feeding its own people is going to take over the world. And the US had to wasted tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars against a system which does not even work. So I guess you have no faith in freedom, you think that communism will win.

    “”””And sorry but we have enemies and benefit from and need most of the rest of the world to be free. There is a reason why the paleo cons like you were run out of polite society. It is because they were objectively pro fucking communist and if it had been up to them we would have lost the cold war and most of the world would still be a communist hell hole including the United States if we were not lucky.””’’

    If the US has enemies then why is it wasting money and resources on defending “allies” who have no capacity to defend the USA? NATO could not even take on Libya without the US. South Korea does not even spend half the percentage of GDP that the US does. Worthless allies are worse then worthless, they are a burden.

    As to being pro-communist, it was not the Paleocons who support fake free trade with communist China which keep the communists in power. Nor the various foreign aid bailouts which kept communist countries including the Soviet Union afloat.

  • Nipplemancer||

    not to pick nits, but Bose is and always was an american company. Amar Bose was the son of Indian immigrants.

  • ||

    I thought they were German. I guess that is BASF.

  • Nipplemancer||

    if it's any consolation I thought they were a German firm for the longest time.

  • Mr. Mark||

    You may be thinking of Bosch or Blaupunkt.

  • Hmmm||

    If ignorance is bliss, you must be one happy motherfucker.

  • DJF||

    Ignorance? I see how Truman and his world wide military adventures are still costing the US today. The US is still paying for our worthless NATO allies defense. The US is still paying to defend South Korea. The US still pays for its involvement in the Israeli mess

  • Warty||

    OK, forgot about the Berlin Airlift.

  • ||

    The Berlin Airlift.

  • ||

    Whatever your fellings about the merits of recognizing the state of Israel, the fact is that Truman was motivated far more by keeping the Jewish vote than any possible humanitarian impulses.

    On the other hand integrating the armed forces was not popular and in signing Executive Order 9981 risked losing a sizable portion of the Democratic Party's base with precious little in the way of gains.

  • Warty||

    There's the first unambiguously good act. There must be more.

  • ||

    I'm done, Warty.

    I agree Truman is a seriously neglected candidate for worst president. I would certainly class him in the top ten worst ever. Not sure exactly where I'd rank him.

    As for integrating the military, even that has another side.

    While the officer corps (of the Army at least) was generally in favor of segregation, maintaining a separate facilities and units had become an administrative nightmare. Even if the generals were hesitant, the civilian leadership was pretty well convinced that maintaining a segregated military was simply too costly.

    And too be fair, many of them actually believed that it was unjust as well.

  • ||

    Integrating the military did more to integrate the country than almost anything. If forced people to live together and changed a lot of attitudes.

  • ||

    And I think Truman's contributions to the Cold War keep him from being the worst President. Also, he worked with the Republican Congress after 1946 and ended war planning and control of the economy. A lot of Democrats wanted to keep the same rationing and control system in place the way Britain did. Truman to his credit ended the system. That was a very good act.

  • tarran||

    He ended rationing because his men so incompetently administered it that there were serious shortages and farmers were close to rebelling.

    The price controls, incidentally, were designed to prevent inflation - yes, Truman tried the same bullshit that Nixon would try a quarter century later.

  • ||

    The price controls were in place during the war. And he ended that.

  • tarran||

    Yes, after they contributed materially to the famine in Europe as farmers diverted production into areas where there weren't price controls.

    Heck, they apparently dicked around for months debating whether to solve the wheat shortage by raising the price ceiling for wheat, or capping the maximum size of livestock. Guess which one they tried first?

  • l0b0t||

    He fired MacArthur.

  • ||

    Which reasserted civilian control over the military and kept McArthur from potentially started World War III. That was another good act.

  • ||

    On the negative side of that, though, there is the fact that when MacArthur had regained all the lost ground and gotten back to the 39th parallel, he asked Truman for instructions pointing out that the UN mandate only authorized restoring the status quo ante.

    Truman ordered MacArthur to conquer the entire north saying something to the effect that he wanted crush communism once and for all.

    All his advisors, including MaArthur, had warned that such an action could bring in Chinese into the conflict but he ignored them.

    That to me sets up Truman as the rash adventurer, not MacArthur.

    MacArthur simply paid the price for Truman's recklessness.

  • ||

    That is not true. MacArthur repeatedly denied that the Chinese would intervene. He denied it to the point that he threw people out of his headquarters who disagreed with him. MacArthur was in total denial about the Chinese threat. And proof of that is in how completely unprepared he was to handle it once it happened.

    Further had recaptured Soul, not all of the ground he lost.

  • ||

    I'll concede it on MacArthur on the Chinese, but plenty of Truman's other advisors warned him.

    Furthermore, I will stand by my contention that Truman ordered crossing the 39th parallel. That makes him responsible. Maybe MacArthur would have disobeyed an order to stop at the 39th parallel, maybe not.

    But by ordering pressing the war into NK Truman becomes the one responsible for bringing in the Chinese, not MacArthur.

  • ||

    But what if MacArthur had taken Pyongyang and stopped and dug in? When the Chinese invaded, rather that catching the US spread out, they would hit a wall. There might not have been a North Korea had that happened.

  • KDN||

    Nitpick alert: the border was initially the 38th parallel, not 39th.

  • ||

    Thankyou.

  • ||

    Let's try that again without misspellings and missing words.

    Whatever your feelings about the merits of recognizing the state of Israel, the fact is that Truman was motivated far more by keeping the Jewish vote than any possible humanitarian impulses.

    On the other hand integrating the armed forces was not popular and in signing Executive Order 9981 Truman risked losing a sizable portion of the Democratic Party's base with precious little in the way of gains.

  • Audrey the Liberal||

    Racially integrating the military.

  • Jerry||

    Talking about neighborhood destruction, what's up with planned new UN building?

  • Mainer||

    Even little Portsmouth NH has a shameful history of urban renewal. This time it was the Italians.

    http://www.seacoastnh.com/Plac.....tle_Italy/

  • Dan||

    Sicilian?

  • Doctor Whom||

    But ... but ... look at how much better urban renewal made everything. Southwest D.C. became much more livable and economically vibrant and not at all a neo-brutalist moonscape. [/sarcasm]

  • ||

    World Trade Center anyone.

    The site for the World Trade Center was the location of Radio Row, which was home to hundreds of commercial and industrial tenants, property owners, small businesses, and approximately 100 residents.


    Lesson: don't get in the way of business socialists, you little people.

    Good stuff here on ED abuse in general:

    http://www.rpa-cui.org/newslet.....etter.html

  • GroundTruth||

    This reminds me of the fascist-socialist fool who taught high school "social-studies" when I grew up. He went on about how the government was authorized, and wise, to take by eminent domain and tear up neighborhoods for the growing highway system. "They know better than any of you", or words to that effect.

    Funny that 40 years later, cities like Providence and Boston are going to great expense to move the highways and try to rebuild the neighborhoods they so wisely destroyed.

    (Strange parallel, traveling in Bratislava, one sees a monument to the victims of fascism in a bit of open space that is all that remains of the city's old Jewish neighborhood that the communists bulldozed to put in a new bridge.)

  • ||

    Fifty years later, the federal bulldozer tore that neighborhood apart.

    And America was saved from jive. Hurray!

  • ||

    I bet every city has an example of shitty urban renewal, mine is Boston's West End. Acting on behalf of the public good is rarely really and truly good, no?

  • Rhywun||

    Yes, every city does. My hometown (Rochester, NY) tore up a neighborhood to build a new "civic center". Compare a map of any American downtown from 1950 vs. 1980 - anywhere a bunch of streets disappeared is going to be where another megaproject landed.

  • cynical||

    Overall, about half of urban renewal's victims were black, a reality that led to James Baldwin's famous quip that "urban renewal means Negro removal."

    Ah, so "urban" has been a euphemism for "black" for much longer than I thought.

  • jtuf||

    ED sucks.

  • ||

    There are many commercials on TV to that effect.

  • ||

    Nice to see a short video about one way the modern day plantation owners, i.e., Democrat politicians ruined inner city peoples' lives.

    The real tragedy is that those who have had their lives ruined still vote for those who ruined their lives.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    THIS IS WHAT TONY ACTUALLY BELIEVES IN.

  • ||

    Another urban renewal tragedy to add is the Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pruitt-Igoe
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7RwwkNzF68

  • Nicholas D. Rosen||

    And we wouldn't have most of the urban blight which provides the excuse for Urban Renewal if we didn't have a messed-up tax system. Tax land as Henry George taught, and we wouldn't have land speculators creating blight; we wouldn't have people punished by higher taxes for erecting buildings and creating jobs.

  • Dan||

    Reason should do a piece on Costa Rica. Is it the refuge or more bs?

  • ||

    Was just there. The answer It depends. On your ability to do without a lot of what you've been accustomed to and how long you think you'll be "safe" there.

    As for me, great place to visit, but I'll pass on living there, or anywhere else I've been.

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