We are still recovering from Richard Lee. For as much as he is gone, the mayor who tried to save the city remains.
Drive down the never-finished Richard C. Lee Highway that cuts through New Haven by his design and ends abruptly near the center of town. Along the way is the physical legacy of Lee’s unprecedented 16 years in office: a vacant downtown mall once anchored by Macy’s; some of the sorriest, dreariest low-income housing units New England cities have ever seen; the Coliseum — the most tragic of all standing monuments to an ill-fated era of urban engineering — set to be torn down later this year.
So Mayor Lee did not get it quite right. So he bulldozed through the city to the abject horror of Yale’s finest architects and America’s loudest pragmatists, creating a new urban landscape that was both ugly and pointless. So he tried to fix complicated problems with boatloads of federal aid and little understanding of what actually heals an ailing city. So, by many accounts, he failed — but gloriously.
Richard Lee was first among so many mayors trying to reinvent their cities in the 1950s and 1960s, a great man in a Great Society that never quite was. He hobnobbed with presidents, created plans for a brand new New Haven and found his way to the cover of Time magazine. This is his how he will be remembered: not for the dowdy physical infrastructure he left behind, but for being a creative, moral and deeply committed leader.
In a relentlessly optimistic time, Lee stood out as a charismatic visionary. His was a city government that believed it could actually help its people by redrawing borders and reconstructing neighborhoods. He scrapped buildings and built new ones with the best of intentions. He identified New Haven’s problems and attacked them flamboyantly, methodically, and to little avail.
Most said it couldn’t be done — and it couldn’t — but for a little while at least, schools were open 16 hours a day and downtown New Haven looked more like a bustling metropolis than the seventh-worst American city, which it soon would become. For nearly two decades, Lee was America’s best-known urban puppeteer, directing the spending of more than $430 million in federal grants toward whatever project was the latest panacea. He built 31 new schools, two large department stores, a 19-story hotel and countless gawky, efficient-looking apartment buildings. “Consistency,” he once said, “is the virtue of fools.”
Lee’s virtue was his passion. For that alone, he was perhaps the most virtuous mayor New Haven has seen.
“Sure,” he said presciently one election night in the middle of his tenure, according to biographer Allen R. Talbot, “every once in awhile I have my regrets, but I think I still have a lot of living to do, and I’ve already done something that few men will ever do — I’ve rebuilt a city, not just any city, mind you, but a city I love.”