Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The sorry modern history of urban renewal ...

   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.”

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As someone with at best a passing knowledge of this topic, isn't part of the problem that the market in revival only exists after demolition? Are there many examples of cities that retained older, dilapidated but functioning housing in poor areas and then saw a market in them later (perhaps some historic district revitalization has)? My preliminary guess would be that, on average, revitalization markets require investment capital, which would only flow to a scarce good. Those Ybor shotgun houses would not be million dollar properties now if there were many of them around. The real problem is in getting investment in housing for the near poor and poor in order to maintain and update the reserves of older housing (which you have raised on other posts as well). But unless government does that, I don't see it happening at all.

Posted by: James Fox | May 11, 2006 7:56:25 AM

I believe there are quite a few examples of older dilipated neighborhoods later increasing in value. I think of places in which crtics complain of "gentrification." (See my April 14, 2006, entry about Houston's Third Ward.) The attraction of neighborhoods includes a lot of factors, and the revival of interest in older housing styles certainly has played a role.
My impression of much of civic urban renewal is that a lot of the motivation came from a desire to get the poor people out first. This may have facilited new development, but at a cost to those removed, of course.
I drove through a small poor-and-black part of Tampa between downtown and Ybor last night and saw a number of big old wooden houses in not-so-good shape. I wanted to yell out the car window to any resident who owned these houses: Hold on to the house! Yuppies will want to buy them for a bundle ten years from now!

Posted by: Paul Boudreaux | May 11, 2006 12:07:06 PM