A Renewed Look at Urban Renewal

Dean Lizabeth Cohen’s Inaugural Lecture, Introduced by Harvard President Faust
President Drew Gilpin Faust and Dean Lizabeth Cohen Photo by Tony RinaldoPresident Drew Gilpin Faust and Dean Lizabeth Cohen Photo by Tony Rinaldo
@ The Radcliffe Institute
October 15, 2012
By Danielle Cotter

The historic Radcliffe Gymnasium was filled on Monday afternoon when Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies, delivered her inaugural dean’s lecture, “Place, People, and Power: City Building in Postwar America,” to a crowd of faculty, students, and friends of the Institute.

Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, who established the tradition of inaugural dean’s lectures when she was the founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute, introduced Cohen and briefly described her award-winning books. “Liz Cohen has crossed traditional disciplinary boundaries in ways that have brought fresh insight to some of the most important issues of our time,” she said. “What an important contribution for a dean of the Radcliffe Institute to have made.”

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo

An expert on 20th-century American social and political history, Cohen is the author of Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939, which won a Bancroft Prize in American history and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent book, A Consumers’ Republic, The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, explores how an economy of mass consumption shaped social life, culture, and politics following World War II. 

Cohen spoke about her current book project, Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age, which explores the history of post-World War II urban renewal in Boston, New York, and New Haven through the work of Ed Logue. Logue, who the Washington Post titled “the Master Rebuilder” in 1967, remains well-known for an urban redevelopment career that spanned nearly half a century. 

Cohen set the stage with the circumstances that led to cities’ decline in the postwar period: the mass exodus of the middle class to the suburbs, the influx of minorities hungry for opportunity, and the departure of retail and manufacturing. Urban renewal, then, was a program—subsidized by federal funding—to save America’s cities by demolishing areas perceived as obsolete and replacing them with modern homes and a new economy. Cohen called for a reexamination of this controversial movement.

“What a wholesale dismissal of urban renewal misses is the ways in which it was an authentic utopian moment for urbanists who were bursting with a new vision of urban social life, economic vitality, and aesthetics,” she said.  In particular, the urban renewers envisioned two chief goals—to create a modernist and a more racially integrated city.  Without ignoring its obvious flaws, she said, “We need to analyze this important moment in city building as history.” 

With people, place, and power as a rubric to understand the complexities of urban renewal from the 1950s through the 1980s, Cohen hopes to begin a new, more balanced conversation about the relationship between public and private power in efforts to revitalize our cities.

“Whereas many scholars have simply written off urban renewal as one more example of blind, deluded, or pernicious liberalism,” she said in her closing, “I prefer to revisit it as an invitation to address hard issues that proponents like Logue admirably struggled with, if didn’t solve, and which remain crucial challenges for American society today.”

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