Wednesday, May 10, 2006
What kind of urban development projects destroyed the central city neighborhoods? Urban historians often point to interstates and other highways, which were dumped down in the middle of cities --- often the poor and black sectors, of course --- with the loss of thousands of homes and the destruction of entire neighborhood fabrics. After all, the most pressing policy issue for local governments in the '50 seemed to be helping the commutes of new and influential suburbanites. Robert Moses even planned the pulling down of a large chunk of Manhattan’s now-super-hip SoHo for a freeway.
A new exhibit here in Tampa, however, shows a more modern story of urban demolition. In a pair of striking photos, the Ybor City State Museum shows how Tampa’s famous Ybor City, once home to thousands of Latino and Italian cigar rollers, actually survived the running of Interstate 4 along its edge in the ‘50s. By 1966, Ybor was still home to hundreds of wooden shotgun houses (prevalent in many cities of pre-air-conditioned South) around the bustling cigar-shop and retail 7th Avenue.
But this wasn’t enough for the urban “renewers.” In a plan not completed until the ‘70s, nearly all of the shotgun houses were bulldozed, in large part through eminent domain. Unsafe, they said. Slums, they said. By the second photo, in 1976, Ybor City was nearly completely a wasteland of empty lots. Carpet bombers could not have done a better job. (Today, a few remaining shotguns in Ybor can go for as much as half a million.)
There may have been a lot of reasons for the ‘70s urban destruction –-- a sincere but misguided belief that older housing “caused” poverty, the racist fear that Ybor was attracting too many African Americans as the Latinos moved out, and the desire of government and other institutions for some inchoate projects (a junior college, lots of parking lots, and a new condo complex were eventually built on the land).
The sad lesson of Ybor City is that cockeyed urban policies lived on until quite recently. There was hardly a blink between “tear down the slums” and “revitalize the old neighborhoods.”