The Tragedy of Urban Renewal

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 7 minutes.

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