Many of the most puzzling parts of New Haven — the patternless one-ways streets, the never-finished Highway 34 West and the eternally vacant Coliseum, are products of an era that began 50 years ago, when building and bulldozing en masse was the norm. Under Mayor Richard C. Lee, New Haven led the nation in its efforts at urban renewal.
Serving eight consecutive terms as mayor from 1953 to 1970, Lee came to power at a time when the restoration of urbanism — the idea of making cities desirable to live in — was at the forefront of the federal government’s agenda. During his reign, Lee directed the spending of more than $430 million in federal grants, built 31 new schools and two large department stores, and relocated some 25,000 people from their homes. No other city in the United States at the time could equal the commitment to such a large scale redevelopment of its business and residential districts. The changes that ensued often came at the cost of entire neighborhoods, historic architecture and downtown vitality.
In recent years, the Elm City, spurred on by a nationwide emphasis on urban development but humbled by the mayor that took on the impossible, has scaled down its ambitions and is trying to correct some of Lee’s mistakes. Still, current Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is undertaking the largest downtown redevelopment program since Lee.
Today, DeStefano faces a political and economic climate significantly different from the 1950s, but much of the community’s criticism of Lee, such as his undemocratic process of urban planning and inattention to the maintenance of low-income neighborhoods, remain the same.
Even if some believe the current administration has not improved on Lee’s shortcomings on the community level, its efforts to redevelop rather than create anew indicate a lesson learned from the failed overhauls of entire neighborhoods that characterized Lee’s urban renewal.
A different mentality
When Lee came to power, he inherited a city that, like many others across the nation, was struggling economically. Manufacturing and industry were being consolidated outside of cities, and the rise of the automobile was accelerating the development of residential suburbs.
As part of a government-led master planning process, the mayor took on the task of rebuilding the city from scratch. Unlike today, when the current administration has recognized that downtown New Haven thrives on its restaurants, culture and local retail, Lee thought the key to survival was big business and retail, School of Architecture professor Alan Plattus said.
“These were very different eras and very different ideas of how a city works,” Plattus said. “Now people realize downtown is never going to be a big commercial center.”
Another key difference, Plattus said, is that today’s efforts toward revitalizing New Haven come primarily from private developers seizing opportunities to profit, while the driving force in the ’50s and ’60s came from federal funding and local government.
The Housing Act of 1949 served as the main engine behind New Haven’s urban renewal. The act contained a provision that encouraged the use of eminent domain to buy up small businesses and residences and combine them into large parcels to auction off to developers. School of Management professor Douglas Rae said the act destroyed the “human texture” of the city, leaving enormous dead zones, such as the Knights of Columbus area, that still exist today.
Lee employed the Housing Act to tear down many low-income residential neighborhoods in order to replace them with businesses.
Ward 7 Alderman Frances Clark, who has been involved in New Haven arts and social agencies since Lee’s era, said the Lee administration’s main focus was placing as much big retail as possible downtown.
“City planners took pieces of New Haven, broke them up, and created redevelopment plans,” Clark said. “Some of them turned out to be wonderful, but in other parts housing was thoughtlessly torn down and very bad decisions were made.”
Judith Schiff, the chief research archivist of the University library, grew up in New Haven under Lee. Schiff said that without hindsight, it is difficult to hold one person or theory accountable for what happened to New Haven.
“This was before the age of preservation, so the idea was to get rid of decaying buildings,” Schiff said. “It was cheaper and more efficient to knock them down and just build new ones in their place.”
Rae said the single most important lesson the current administration should learn from Lee’s era is that replacing large, unused structures with similarly brutal structures is a huge mistake. Rae pointed to the upper Chapel Street district, an area that entrepreneurs brought back to life with high-quality local retail, as a model for downtown redevelopment.
“Although moving big chunks at a time feels more efficient and sensible, the city should allow some of the large parcels to be subdivided into smaller parcels, encouraging the creation of mixed-use neighborhoods to revitalize formerly dead zones,” Rae said.
The downtown project
The heart of New Haven’s urban development, both in the past and today, lies in Ward 7. Formerly home to Macy’s and Malley’s as well as the soon-to-be-demolished Coliseum, Ward 7 is the site of the current Downtown Gateway Project, which plans to bring Gateway Community College and the Long Wharf Theater to the downtown area.
Optimistic that New Haven would become a modern city, Lee’s administration recruited big-time entrepreneurs, ultimately investing more than $25 million into what became known as the Church Street Project. A project of such massive scale necessarily dislocated and inconvenienced numerous small businesses, who tied the city up in litigation for the next two years, slowing down the construction process.
Other problems with the project arose even after it was finished. The opening of a hotel, office tower, department stores and a shopping mall excited New Haven residents, but the area quickly became overcrowded and ran into parking problems, Schiff said.
Some residents have voiced concern that the current administration is getting itself into the same mess by bringing Gateway Community College downtown.
“If I couldn’t find parking at Macy’s, I can’t imagine what it will be like when thousands more students are in the area with an additional parking lot that is not nearly large enough to fit them all,” Schiff said.
Like Lee, DeStefano chose to take on a downtown project that could depend largely on public funding. New Haven Urban Design League president Anstress Farwell said she thinks the mayor’s refusal to consult with business leaders and private developers about the project before turning to the government was a fundamental mistake that followed Lee’s legacy too closely.
“If the mayor wanted to make sure that the project he was doing really had value, he would first look at it from many different angles,” Farwell said. “While Lee might have been taking on too much with his downtown project, DeStefano is not taking on nearly enough.”
A major difference between the Church Street Project and the Downtown Gateway Project lies in the current administration’s efforts to attract small local retailers for the ground floor of the college buildings.
But Rae said although he thinks the problem of parking in the Downtown Gateway Project is surmountable, he is not confident that the need to recruit high-quality street-level retail throughout the area will be satisfied. Rae said he does not think the community college or the state government are sufficiently equipped to attract businesses.
Andy Horowitz, the director of the New Haven Oral History Project, who last year created an exhibit on Lee’s urban renewal, said he thinks that DeStefano is under too much scrutiny to attempt what Lee did with his downtown project.
“The Gateway project looks a lot like the urban renewal project of the 1960s because it is so massive, but there is a new insistence on ensuring the presence of pedestrians and creating a vibrant, 24-hour street life that DeStefano has to answer to,” Horowitz said. “They wouldn’t have done that in the 1960s.”
But community members have recently voiced complaints that the current city government is not as inclusive of New Haven residents in its decision-making process as it should be. Ward 2 Alderman Joyce Chen ’01 said that during public hearings about the demolition of the Coliseum, a product of Lee’s era, the city largely ignored suggestions for preservation and reuse of the building.
“The DeStefano administration tends to formulate plans that are already so developed by the time they bring them to us that it seems like a done deal,” Chen said. “Once they’re set in their initial plans, they never really give other options full consideration.”
Farwell said she does not think decisions about urban development have grown any more democratic between Lee’s era and today.
“Critics were ignored during the Lee administration, and this administration has also pursued its projects through a closed process,” Farwell said. “The public is not brought into decision making at an early stage, which it is not a valid process for making decisions about the use of public funds.”
DeStefano said he thinks this criticism misses the fundamental difference between his and Lee’s administration. The most significant departure from government policy in the ’50s and ’60s, DeStefano said, is that today the focus is not on the physical development of the city.
“Lee’s mindset was to build a city with buildings, but I think you build a city with the people in those buildings,” DeStefano said. “We take the community’s safety and education into account, which is more of a priority than the actual physical reconstruction.”
The role of automobiles and highways
By the 1950s, the demand for cars was increasing daily, and old city streets built for pedestrians and trolleys could not support new levels of traffic. City planners argued that New Haven needed highways in order to sustain itself. These plans played out in the form of the Oak Street Connector, also known as the Richard C. Lee highway, which would diverge from the Interstate and provide three exit ramps at various points downtown.
Marketed as the best way to facilitate smoother traffic flow into the city, the Highway Department accepted the plan. In leveling off the area, more than 600 families and businesses had to be relocated, a product of the Redevelopment Agency’s vision to replace slums with projects that would usher in prosperity.
In an interview for the New Haven Oral History Project, former Oak Street resident Robert Silverman said he was frustrated with the process by which the Redevelopment Agency used eminent domain to assume ownership of community organizations in the area.
“You could classify Oak Street back then as a slum, but it was a thriving slum,” Silverman said.
With the increased accessibility to the I-91 and I-95, the major focus of street design became making it as easy as possible to get in and out of the city. New Haven roads, intersections and turns were all made larger and mostly one-way, a change the Department of Transportation recommended for the safety of drivers.
Local architect Robert Orr ARC ’73 said he thinks the street redesign detracted from the vitality of the city because only drivers, and not pedestrians, were kept in mind. Retail works best where the streets are tight, two-way, and parking is available on both sides, Orr said.
“When cars feel safer, they go faster, and no one wants to stop in the downtown area,” Orr said. “During Lee, the entire focus was getting people in and out of the city as fast as possible. Life was oriented entirely around the automobile.”
As an increasing number of housing developments sprung up in the suburbs, New Haven suffered from the nationwide trend toward a middle class that increasingly chose to live in the suburbs. This decentralization directly countered the fundamentals of urban renewal.
“When the Lee administration decided to create all one-way streets, they weren’t necessarily thinking about the fact that they were serving people who lived in the suburbs and were trying to get out of the city, not into it,” Clark said. “The mayor was forced to accept the fact of suburbanization, but he didn’t think about the ramifications.”
Today, New Haven is still a city very much based around the automobile, and Farwell said she thinks neither Lee nor DeStefano created city plans that were sufficiently conducive to changing times.
“What Lee started was a city based on cars, and that has not changed in this administration’s way of looking at the city,” Farwell said. “We need to think about how to rebuild the city in terms of what is necessary now and where the world is forcing us to go in the future.”
Orr said he believes it would be feasible to reverse Lee’s work and go back to two-way streets in New Haven. In the past decade, a new industry of traffic engineers has emerged that make pedestrians a priority in street design, due in part to the rapid rise in gas prices.
But this shift back to city residences has brought with it a new set of problems reminiscent of those during Lee’s time. Instead of replacing low-income neighborhoods with highways, the current administration is expanding its focus on luxury housing, amplifying the gentrification process.
Chen said during her four years in office, she has seen numerous cases when the city used eminent domain to force out of the city those who cannot afford rental rates in luxury housing complexes.
“New Haven is becoming less and less affordable to live in, and although the city is cleaning up neighborhoods, we are losing a portion of the community in the process,” Chen said.
A city back on the rise
The 1970s and 1980s saw a decline in urbanism that hit New Haven especially hard. The riots in the summer of 1967, which occurred almost entirely on business streets in low-income neighborhoods and incurred about 225 arrests, was widely interpreted as a failure of Lee’s programs to help those living in the inner city, further tarnishing his legacy. Crime rates continued to rise, and people without advanced education expressed increasing frustration at their lack of job opportunities or a voice in city politics.
Having worked closely with the Lee administration during the redevelopment era, Yale turned its focus inward in the years that followed and the shape of the city deteriorated. Only when the University began to suffer as a result of the city’s poor reputation did it begin to make a more active effort, Plattus said. New Haven was making it difficult to attract students and professors.
University President Richard Levin has made it a cornerstone of his tenure to improve Yale’s partnership with New Haven. But Plattus said the city’s revival in the past 10 years is primarily the product of a nationwide demographic of people who have had enough of the suburbs and prefer urban living.
“The dynamic you’re seeing now is a national one,” Plattus said. “Residential redevelopments are taking place all over the country, and cities such as New Haven that have culture and entertainment in their centers are doing very well with this.”
Plattus pointed to Hartford as an example of another city that has taken off in the past 10 years with similar, if not greater, success. To facilitate recovery, the Capital City Economic Development Authority was created seven years ago to oversee Hartford’s redevelopment. Dean Pagani, a spokesman for the authority, said he attributes Hartford’s rapid transformation to the authority’s concentration on a variety of small projects throughout the city, rather than the “Big Bang Theory” of one huge initiative.
“New Haven is taking a similar approach in that no one is trying to build a mammoth development and promising it will save the city,” Pagani said. “The key is a combination of building on your assets, like Yale, and developing the whole city together in pieces.”
Between the time of Lee’s urban renewal and the current efforts at redevelopment, Yale became the largest employer in New Haven. As a result, it necessarily increased its ties to the city and the mayor. DeStefano said an emphasis of his administration today is to look at Yale as a cultural and educational resource instead of as a job creator. He said the focus on collaborative action between Yale and New Haven, as well as between New Haven and its surrounding regions, was not present during Lee’s urban renewal.
“I think there’s a larger sense today of how New Haven is part of a web of relationships,” DeStefano said. “The larger challenge today is a different one than in the ’50s and ’60s, which is, ‘How do we create [development] that recognizes the economic model we’re working with does not end at town lines.’”
Rae said he gives Yale credit for its “institutional learning curve,” due in part to Levin’s managerial skills. He said the University learned its lesson after proposing to build a 13th and 14th residential college in 1973 and finding no allies in City Hall.
With many of New Haven’s newer neighborhoods and retailers thriving, especially in the areas directly around Yale, Plattus said he thinks the present prospects for New Haven are promising. But this revitalization and prosperity has not found its way into poorer neighborhoods, Plattus said.
“To the credit of DeStefano, I think his administration is sensitive to this problem, maybe even more so than Yale, who is only interested in the immediate surrounding area,” Plattus said.
But as Lee learned the hard way, the more the city attempts to achieve without the participation of its residents, the more likely it is to fail. Chen said she thinks the Board of Aldermen has grown increasingly inclined to oppose DeStefano in matters where his administration has not opened its ears to the community.
Overall, Clark said, an emphasis on keeping the past in mind while moving forward is necessary to keep New Haven alive.
“I’ve been here for so long that I’ve seen all the ups and downs,” Clark said. “I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t and how we learn from our mistakes. Things that are right for a city at one point go away, so there is no use being nostalgic.”