Program examines urban renewal era

In the 1920s New Haven had more than 830 grocery stores. But when the urban renewal period hit mid-century, chains began to swallow the local butcher shops, bakeries, and other small businesses.

On Saturday, an array of speakers came to the New Haven Colony Historical Society to discuss this controversial period of urban reform — which has been as much condemned as praised for its effects on the city. Speakers addressed the political, economic and social issues related to the period of redevelopment in the city, which lasted between 1950 and 1980.

A public program that examined the urban renewal era and its impact on New Haven, “New Haven Renewed?” coincided with the historical society’s latest photography exhibition, “Reshaping New Haven.” Speakers included Robert Dahl, Sterling Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Yale; Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Karyl Evans; Howard Shuman, former Chief of Staff to the Douglas Commission on Urban Problems; and Douglas Rae, Richard Ely Professor of Management at Yale. About 75 people attended, including many who witnessed the city’s renewal era first hand.

Delivering the historical context for the program, Rae summed up New Haven’s downturn in a sentence: “Rails built the city, and cars took it apart.”

During the early twentieth century, New Haven was an “economic hot site,” Rae said. But within decades, the city was in decline. Starting in the 1950s, a period of rigorous urban reform swept the nation. The main objectives of the movement included modernizing the city’s shopping and industry areas, and eradicating its slums.

“New Haven was literally covered in urban renewal projects,” said Allan Talbot, author of “The Mayor’s Game: Richard Lee of New Haven and the Politics of Change.”

Four people who lived through the period’s changes in New Haven neighborhoods described the effects of urban redevelopment projects, including the forced relocation of businesses and families.

“What was torn down was not only buildings–[but] also a sense of community,” said Warren Kimbro, who lived in one of the affected neighborhoods.

Nancy Alderman, a New Haven activist and environmentalist, said Yale had a role in pushing for redevelopment. She also said the urban renewal period was a terrible confluence of large grants and bad architecture.

“We happened to hit the most horrible time in architectural history,” she said.

Kathleen Reilly, who grew up in New Haven in the 1960s and 1970s, said she did not remember as much sadness surrounding the projects as other panelists.

“It was so exciting, here in my own back yard were nationally recognized [places],” she said, about the construction of the New Haven Coliseum.

Barbara Lamb, Director of the New Haven Bureau of Cultural Affairs, said she thought some of the panelists did not pay fair attention to the larger picture in their targeted criticisms of the redevelopment projects.

“You have to also take into consideration the changing world situation,” she said.

Peter Lamothe, executive director of the historical society, organized the program in conjunction with Rae, who recently wrote a book on twentieth century New Haven history. Since Lamothe came to the historical society two and a half years ago, he has been trying to put more emphasis on recent history. He said he wants the historical society to become “a venue — where issues and ideas that are important to people in New Haven are expressed, exchanged, and dialogued.”

Rae was enthusiastic about Lamothe’s progressive efforts.

“[The historical society] used to be about pewter, and [Lamothe] is turning it into something about reality,” Rae said.

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