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Were Citizens Involved in Urban Renewal?

Democracy was at work in New Haven. Every two years from 1954 to 1968, when people voted for Dick Lee, they voted for urban renewal. The mayor created the Citizens Action Commission, a group of several hundred business and civic leaders, to consult on all redevelopment projects. Before any construction began, the Redevelopment Agency consulted with Renewal Committees in each neighborhood, and presented its plans at public meetings.

At the same time, Lee referred to the Redevelopment Agency headquarters as “the Kremlin,” implying that he had created an organization isolated from political pressures. The team of experts Lee assembled were confident that they were using the best knowledge of the day, and sometimes disregarded local objections. By the late 1960s, neighborhood groups clashed openly with city “human renewal” programs. Today, while some citizens feel they played constructive roles, many feel they were uninformed or even excluded from the decisions that overhauled their neighborhoods.

The Hill Parents Association

In 1965, a group of parents with children attending Prince Street School in the Hill organized to protest the school's poor conditions. The effort grew into a broad based activist organization, struggling to gail local autonomy over programs run by Community Progress, Inc. “We had to fight New Haven's image as a model city,” the HPA's leader, Fred Harris, said. “It was a model city — a model city for everyone who didn't live in the ghetto.” CPI acknowledged, “Large-scale experiments and great risks inevitably invite big mistakes.”

Photograph of the Citizens Action Commission
A meeting of the Community Action Commission, 1959.
Photograph of Lee with citizens and model
Mayor Lee shows a model to citizens at the groundbreaking for a new school in Dixwell. Undated. Courtesy Yale MSSA.