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Before Urban Renewal

In the 1950s, the future of the American city looked bleak. Formerly thriving urban centers watched industrial jobs and immigration decline. Small urban shops gave way to chain stores, which then moved to the suburbs. Automobiles choked the city — traffic in New Haven moved at an average speed of 5 to 7 miles per hour. Crowded cold-water tenement houses were regularly described as a cancerous growth on the heart of the city. During the 1930s, the federal government classified all of New Haven’s working class and ethnically-diverse neighborhoods as poor investments; the years of neglect that ensued took their toll. By the 1950s, the suburb, not the city, began to represent the American dream.

New Haven voters elected Dick Lee mayor in 1954 on his promise to “renew” the city. Lee’s goal was “a slumless city — the first in the nation.” He secured massive amounts of federal money for urban renewal. He redesigned the New Haven Redevelopment Agency to coordinate redevelopment — projects that at first stressed slum clearance but increasingly included historic preservation and anti-poverty programs. New Haven led the nation, but the results were mixed. President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Labor called New Haven’s efforts “the greatest success story in the history of the world.” But by the end of his tenure, Lee said regularly, “If New Haven is a model city, God help America’s cities.”

Saturday Evening Post (1958): “He is Saving a Dead City”
Article about urban renewal in New Haven, from the Saturday Evening Post, 1958.

What made New Haven a “model city”?

In 1966, the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act — the Model Cities program — began to fund pilot projects in the War on Poverty. President Lyndon Johnson asserted that the goal of the program was “to build not just housing units, but neighborhoods, not just to construct schools, but to educate children, not just to raise income, but to create beauty and end the poisoning of our environment.” The programs already underway in New Haven inspired the national Model Cities program.