Radcliffe Institute Dean Examines Urbanization in Lecture

Harvard Crimson
October 16, 2012
By Anneli L. Tostar

Lizabeth Cohen, the recently inaugurated dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, brought a multi-faceted lens to the problem of integration in post-World War II urban America in a speech called “Place, People, and Power”—an aptly all-encompassing name for a wide-ranging talk.

In the 1950s, the term “modern”—which had historically been equated with “urban”—underwent a shift as America switched to a more suburban ideal, Cohen said. As the middle class left the cities, large immigrant populations moved in, creating increased segmentation in metropolitan areas. The new cities struggled to survive, leading to a wave of urban renewal projects to “save” them throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Developers attempted to “revitalize cities from fading industrial workshops,” Cohen said, to make them more appealing places to live. But lack of incorporation of residential perspectives frequently led to projects that did not match the needs of citizens.

Yet despite their flaws, Cohen said these projects deserve examination in order to understand their goals and contemporary implications.

“We need to analyze this important moment in city building as history,” she said.

A central figure in her talk was Edward J. Logue, whose ambitious plans served as models for urban renewal in America. She showed a clip of “A City Reborn,” a 1966 video promoting the revitalization of New Haven, Conn., for which Logue was partially responsible. Attempting to create a more sprawling and racially integrated city, the project cleared the slums but ended up further isolating low-income residents, Cohen said.

But more than talking about the flaws of the past, Cohen stressed the importance of looking at the municipal and social goals, not just developer priorities, in today’s urban planning.

“We must move the story beyond a simplistic morality tale of the forces of good and evil,” she said, arguing that neither community members nor companies fully understand the challenges of crafting appropriate urban space.

Attendee Emma Lucken ’14 said, “It’s good to get a perspective of what we should take away from urban renewal—not just the negative consequences, but still seeing it as a problem we need to solve.”

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