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The Argument For Urban Renewal

In the 1950s, people relied on cars like never before, and demand increased daily. Old city streets, built for pedestrians and trolleys, could not support new levels of traffic. Planners argued that New Haven needed highways in order to sustain itself.

At the same time, working people, often first- or second-generation Americans, filled New Haven’s neighborhoods. Another argument for urban renewal was that their neighborhoods were filled with substandard — slum — housing that needed to be replaced. But slums by what definition?

By any account, many New Haven neighborhoods had a low standard of living. Families had little money. Apartments often lacked running water and electricity. Tenement houses could be dark and crowded, and were prone to devastating fires. Still, many New Haveners do not remember an overwhelming amount of slum housing. One interviewee spoke for many people when he related, “we never knew we were poor.”

What makes a slum?

The federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation survey of New Haven in 1937 classified the Oak Street neighborhood as a slum, because, as the survey’s authors crudely wrote, it was “given over to the laboring classes and is rapidly filling up with Negros [sic]. Vandalism may be expected.”

Or, according to the U.S. Census:

“A housing unit is considered substandard by the Public Housing Administration if it is dilapidated or lacks one or more of the following facilities: flush toilet and bathtub or shower inside the structure for the exclusive use of the occupants, and hot running water.”

Tenement housing
Interior of a Wooster Square boarding house, taken by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency, 1961. Courtesy NHCHS.
Traffic on George Street, heading towards State Street. Undated. Courtesy NHCHS.