Death of a Neighborhood

New Haven's Oak Street section was obliterated for a 1960s urban renewal project that scattered residents and renewed nothing. Now, as other cities make way for development, have the lessons of New Haven been forgotten?

If you've ever wondered what an extinct neighborhood looks like, I can tell you. It looks well fed.

On this occasion, it mills around tables piled with red and white pizzas, stuffed breads, and antipasto. It lines up at the open bar, in sports jackets and ties, slapping backs and laughing. It gathers around the fountain with colored lights, joking with the young Italian waiters as they slip through the crowd. And from time to time it stands quietly at the edge of the patio behind Anthony's Oceanview Restaurant, in a far-flung little sliver of New Haven, Connecticut, and gazes out at Long Island Sound. From there, through the haze down the coast, one can make out downtown New Haven's skyline and the buildings that stand where the old neighborhood once flourished.

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At the time of its death in 1957, New Haven's Oak Street neighborhood was one of the city's densest and poorest communities. Most of the families who lived there were Italian or Jewish, but Oak Street -- which included not only the street itself, but also its extension, the commercial stretch known as Legion Avenue -- was where new arrivals scrambling for a foothold usually wound up. Jews, Italians, African Americans, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Irish, Greeks, and others lived cheek by jowl in long rows of dark, timeworn tenements and cold-water flats with junk-strewn back lots. City leaders considered Oak Street their worst slum, "a hard core of cancer which had to be removed," as New Haven's mayor at the time put it. So the city razed it, giving it the honor of becoming the first stage of a massive urban renewal program that transformed the city's face and made New Haven ground zero during the 1960s for federally financed experiments with urban form. Forty-three years after the razing, Oak Street's scattered residents still haven't forgotten the affront.

Ever since the mid-1960s, they have gathered once a year to honor their own and to reminisce. Some 300 former residents have paid $30 apiece to be at the Oak Street Reunion tonight at Anthony's. Many of them are nearing or past retirement and living in the suburbs. They put in their time in insurance or collections or fuel oil, and now, their voices rough with age, they sit and schmooze about the old neighborhood.

"It was a sacred spot," muses Sid Bruskin, the former owner of a bicycle shop in downtown New Haven. "A world. A universe."

"I can think of no other place in the world that I would rather have grown up in," proclaims Barry Vine in his speech to the assembled crowd. Vine, who manufactures and imports costume jewelry, is one of the night's honorees, and he handily sums up one of the chief strains of conversation in the room. "It was alive, it was exciting, it was always uplifting, and we all felt that it belonged to us. It was our neighborhood. Sunday mornings on Legion Avenue were unbelievable: the hustle, the bustle, people came from all over to shop, to eat, to socialize.... Of course," he winds up, raising the issue that haunts people here, "the redevelopment of Legion Avenue created a very sparse grassland which changed our lives." Nick DiMassa, who grew up in another neighborhood but played ball with a lot of Oak Street kids, puts it more bluntly: "They screwed over New Haven," he says. "They made a parking lot of the city."

This is not entirely true. Granted, part of the old Oak Street neighborhood is now a highway spur that ends abruptly in the middle of downtown. Beyond the spur lie a parking garage, several blocks of parking lots with chain-link fence around them, and then a wide, grass-covered stretch of emptiness that was once Legion Avenue and was slated to become more highway -- though nothing has ever been built there. Parts of Oak Street, on the other hand, were rebuilt. There's the now-decrepit telephone company building, for instance (even when it was new it was described by the editor of Architectural Forum as "that great green hulk of a building which looks like it was designed by the janitor"). There's the Knights of Columbus building, the national Catholic fraternal organization's headquarters, a glass tower anchored by four colossal, rust-colored cylinders that the architectural historian Vincent Scully once labeled a "jackbooted sentinel of corporate power." There's the New Haven Coliseum, an immense monolith, which a film company wanting to do Rollerball 2 once got interested in because it looks like it might have been built in a bread-and-circuses aftermath of World War III. Next to the Coliseum are a vacant field where a department store once stood, an ill-conceived downtown mall, a blank-faced former Macy's building, and, a block down the street, more parking lots -- all the result of the renewal projects that followed the razing of Oak Street.

All of this -- the alchemical transformation of a declining neighborhood into an urban Sahara, the roughshod erection of highways through old city centers, the creation of poorly contrived downtown retail centers -- gave urban renewal a bad name, and not just in New Haven. Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, and other old industrial cities still bear the era's scars. So do cities that made it through the 1960s and 1970s largely intact: Think, for instance, of the oafish concrete plaza and characterless modern buildings that make San Francisco's Japantown such an affront to that delicately textured city.

We believe we know better now, of course. Demolishing large tracts of old buildings and relocating massive numbers of working-class and poor urban residents has been discredited as an approach to revitalizing cities. For the last two decades, renewal has tended to happen incrementally. That's partly because there's no longer much public money for large-scale revitalization; partly because there hasn't been much private money for it either, until recently; and partly because planners, architects, developers, neighborhood leaders, and even elected officials now see some benefit to letting communities undergo more gradual and "organic" change.

Yet for all the progress we've made in understanding what makes cities livable for a diversity of classes and cultures, pressure is again increasing in some urban communities to make the same big mistake that wiped out Oak Street four decades ago: to impose on viable communities some new concept of what ought to be there "in place of the real place," as Michael Beyard, a vice president of the Urban Land Institute, puts it. This time, though, what threatens the fabric of cities and workaday neighborhoods are forces associated with prosperity -- well-off suburbanites moving back or returning to shop and play; successful businesses carving out office space; developers realizing that cities are once again in vogue; political leaders doing whatever they can to promote economic development.

Around the country, central cities are back in play. "It's hip living in the cities," as the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, Vincent Cianci Jr., recently said. This is most apparent in places like San Francisco and Seattle, where boom times have brought much new construction and floods of people with money to spend. But the popularity of cities is also evident elsewhere, in communities that bumped along for years without anyone showing much interest in them. In Cleveland, more new housing is being built within the city than in any suburb around it, according to Tom Bier, a Cleveland State University political scientist who studies housing trends, and much of it is geared for upper-income buyers.

There's nothing wrong with prosperous cities, of course, but the prosperity is exacting a cost from some current residents. There may be no such thing as a national "urban renewal" program, but there are signs that its private, market-driven equivalent is catching on around the country. In Pittsburgh, Mayor Tom Murphy is trying to acquire a stretch of downtown, raze most of the buildings on it -- displacing 125 businesses -- and sell the real estate to Urban Retail Properties, a Chicago developer that plans to install upscale national retailers, restaurants, two 500-car parking garages, and an 18-screen multiplex. On the western edge of downtown Baltimore, the city has acquired an older commercial neighborhood for developers who intend to turn it into a massive new retail development. "It's already a vibrant shopping district, just not with the class of shoppers [that civic leaders] want," says Van Smith, an independent journalist who lives nearby. "It's a wig shop, or Middle Eastern immigrants who started a pager business, or a hatter who's been there 50 years. The streets are crowded with people spending money, just not the demographic that would bring in the big national chains."

In other large, popular cities, low-income and working-class neighborhoods are being threatened by gentrification, to which city govern-ment is sometimes happy to give a nudge. In Seattle, the construction of a light-rail system through the working-class and mostly minority neighborhood of Rainier Valley threatens to wipe out the neighborhood's commercial strip just as the city is also planning to displace public-housing tenants there.

Most ominously, a little-noticed practice is growing, especially among smaller cities, of handing off the power of eminent domain -- that is, the power to force landowners and homeowners to sell property that the community wants -- to private developers. Traditionally, eminent domain was used to acquire land for school sites, libraries, highways, and the like. Now cities are using it for commercial projects and giving developers free rein to obtain the individual parcels, usually as part of a city-subsidized "tax-increment financing" (TIF) deal. "How is it that the city can give the developer condemnation power?" asks Robert Denlow, a St. Louis lawyer who chairs a committee on real estate condemnation for the American Bar Association. "Under the Constitution, a city cannot undertake condemnation -- much less give it away -- unless the taking is for a public purpose and you pay just compensation. Well, these days the public purpose, to get around the constitutional limitation, is typically the 'removal of blighted conditions.' But each tif statute defines 'blight' in such a way that it's so broad it encompasses everything: If a project is profitable to the city, that area will become 'blighted' even if, in layman's terms, it isn't. The practice is growing geometrically."

If cities aren't actually in the process of being renewed, they are now scrambling to jump-start renewal. "Some communities," says the Urban Land Institute's Beyard, "have not learned the lessons of urban renewal and are still looking at prescriptions that respond to the feeling, 'This is our only choice, and if we don't do this the opportunity will go away.'" It makes sense, then, to look back at the last time serious money was available for remaking urban areas, because the lessons of that experience are no less fresh now than they were the day Oak Street disappeared.

The man who presided over urban renewal in New Haven -- and whose name became synonymous with it both at home and nationally -- was Richard C. Lee, an ambitious, vibrant politician who served as mayor from 1954 through 1969. Lee had cause to want to do something. By the time he took office, New Haven was losing population to the suburbs; the downtown was overrun with traffic and crowded with ancient, grimy storefronts; a hefty portion of the city's housing was substandard; and its central neighborhoods, especially Oak Street, appeared to be dangerous, even unlivable.

Lee had gotten to know Oak Street during his campaigns for office, and after one visit, he later recalled, "I came out from one of those homes on Oak Street, and I sat on the curb and I was just sick as a puppy. Why, the smell of this building; it had no electricity, it had no gas, it had kerosene lamps -- light had never seen those corridors in generations. It was just awful, and I got sick." It was this moment, Lee eventually maintained, that crystallized for him the need to harness the city's resources and apply them to a renewal program. "He felt very strongly that people shouldn't have to live that way," says Harry Wexler, a prominent New Haven lawyer who worked for Lee as a young man, "and that as head of the city he couldn't tolerate or permit that."

But urban renewal in New Haven turned out to be far more than an attempt to improve housing standards for the people living in one neighborhood. Lee and the young, ambitious men he hired were confident that they could wring order from disorder and prosperity from decline by physically rebuilding the city. "They were very much a product of the hubris of their times," says Ed Zelinsky, a former New Haven alderman who teaches law at Yeshiva University's Cardozo Law School in New York. "They'd New-Dealed themselves to peace and prosperity, and they thought, 'Now we'll New-Deal ourselves to urban renewal.'"

So the Oak Street Project moved out some 3,000 people and brought in a highway connector so that commuters could drive straight from the new Connecticut Turnpike into downtown. The project also produced the new telephone company building, some high-rise, market-rate apartment buildings (that Lee himself later called "the most god-awful things I ever laid eyes on"), and some room for Yale University to expand. Other projects followed: to remake the central business district, rehabilitate or demolish portions of an old Italian neighborhood just east of downtown, revitalize part of the city's leading African American neighborhood, and others. By 1967 New Haven had garnered more federal urban renewal dollars per capita than any other city. But New Haven was not renewed. Instead, it declined precipitously, becoming by the 1990s one of the country's poorest cities and a national symbol of urban blight. The truth of the matter -- and I have to confess to bias here, since it's my hometown -- is that New Haven has never deserved its poor reputation. It is a small, approachable city, filled with livable neighborhoods, enclaves of ethnic vitality, a small but lively arts community, and the cultural resources that a world-class university such as Yale can bring. But New Haven continues to struggle with the legacy of the Lee years.

If you stand atop the ziggurat-like parking structure known as the Air Rights Garage in downtown New Haven, it's easy to see what renewal did to Oak Street. To the east is the highway spur originally known as the Oak Street Connector and since renamed the Richard C. Lee Connector. Though old Oak Streeters resented the name change -- "It was the only thing with Oak Street still on it," explains Sid Bruskin -- it was hardly something to take pride in. An immense barrier through the heart of the city, the connector ends at the parking garage. Along one side is a stretch of buildings -- the telephone company, the Knights of Columbus building, and the Coliseum -- whose monumental indifference to the street pretty much sucks the human life out of this part of the central business district. Off to the west is what was once Legion Avenue, where steady streams of cars and trucks barrel in from the suburbs or head out to them along twin one-way roads given over entirely to traffic.

"What an abortion this is!" fumes Sherman Kramer, looking out at the former Legion Avenue and gesturing at the car-crammed flats it has become. "To destroy a city for this?"

Kramer is one of the organizers of the Oak Street Reunion. He ran a commercial print shop just off Legion Avenue, and over the years he has painstakingly pieced together a list of the businesses that once gave the street its life: the Italian bakery where kids would go to get pizza (which Kramer, who is Jewish, still calls "abeetz," giving it the New Haven Italian pronunciation of "apizza"), the Jewish bakeries, the butchers, the kosher and Italian meat markets, the delicatessens, hardware stores, plumbers, mechanics, and barbers. There was the Smoke Shop, a dark, crowded shop front where men gathered to wager; the grocery store run by Art Mooney, who would trade comic books with kids who couldn't afford to buy them; Galucci's grocery, Caparossi's meat market, Ticotsky's bakery -- all of them gone. The city gave relocation help to the businesses it moved, but usually it was a pittance, and many of them didn't survive the transition to new neighborhoods where the web of customers that had kept them alive no longer existed. "Who's survived?" Kramer asks. "There's one bakery, White's plumbing supplies, and ourselves. We're the only survivors."

There are plenty of people in New Haven who will argue that Lee did the residents of Oak Street and Legion Avenue a favor by moving them out and tearing down their old buildings. "I'm surprised at the bitterness of people who, through urban renewal on Oak Street, moved from places that had no indoor plumbing into places that did," says Chuck Allen, a special assistant to New Haven's current mayor, John DeStefano. "Anybody who was still living in a neighborhood or a house that did not have indoor plumbing in the 1950s and the early 1960s should kiss the feet of whatever movement came to change that." Indeed, there is a good argument to be made that urban renewal simply accelerated the inevitable: By the late 1950s, families were already leaving Oak Street for the suburbs.

But that misses the point: Neighborhoods are how people get their bearings in cities. They are, as Barry Vine puts it, "a predictable support system" made up of neighbors and local merchants whose importance to the city reaches far beyond bricks and mortar. Until the threat of the bulldozer began forcing Legion Avenue merchants to flee, says Simon Lurie, a retired fuel oil executive, "it was where everybody met everybody," no matter where they actually lived in the city. And however decrepit Oak Street looked to outsiders -- "a collection of whorehouses, bars, tenements, and rats," as one longtime New Haven resident characterizes it -- for the people who lived there, it was home.

This is the Oak Street neighborhood that Warren Kimbro remembers. Kimbro, who in 1970 attained notoriety as one of the Black Panthers charged along with Bobby Seale in the torture and murder of a suspected informant, now runs Project MORE, a respected New Haven program that provides drug counseling and other alternatives to incarceration, as well as programs for ex-offenders. He was born and raised on Spruce Street, a one-block street just off Oak that no longer exists.

"It was a mix," he remembers. "You had blacks, you had whites, there was one Cuban family, we had an Indian family from India, there were Greeks, Italians, Russians, Polish, Jewish, French, English, German, Cape Verdean, West Indian -- and all this on just a one-block street! On the corner of Oak and Spruce streets you had a public bathhouse. On another corner, there was a package store. There was also a moving-and-storage company, two scrap-metal businesses, and Mr. Mentes across the street had his little popcorn cart and his goat; he sold popcorn down on the Green." The neighborhood did indeed have rats -- "huge rats" -- and cockroaches, but it was also filled with working families tied to churches, synagogues, schools, and each other. "People say to me now, 'You know so much about this culture or that religion!' Well, how do you not, in that neighborhood? When Passover comes you have to understand why there's Passover. Or why on Easter the Italians are doing this or the blacks are doing that."

By the early 1950s, Kimbro agrees, Oak Street had lost some of the qualities that made it the vibrant place he'd known, but he believes redevelopment was a blunt instrument in an area that didn't need one. "Did they need to tear down some buildings? Yeah," he muses. "But the row of houses from 29 to 17 Spruce, they were like brownstones and had indoor plumbing -- you could have probably rehabbed those. Where I lived, that should have come down." When they tore down the neighborhood, he adds, "they said they were going to build buildings for low- and moderate-income people to live in there. So everyone said, 'That'll be good! We'll have our neighborhood, but we'll have these new buildings.'" But it was not to be. Redevelopment physically destroyed the neighborhood.

Ironically -- and poignantly -- the urban renewal era in New Haven did produce one project that accomplished what the Oak Street Project and all the others did not. Wooster Square, just a 10-minute walk from where Warren Kimbro grew up, was, in the early 1950s, another battered, apparently neglected neighborhood. The state highway department planned to run a highway (now I-91) right through the square that gives it its name. But, like Oak Street, the neighborhood was filled with Italian (and a small but growing number of African American and Puerto Rican) families, social clubs, churches, and restaurants -- including the two pizza parlors, Pepe's and Sally's, that today help put New Haven on the culinary map. Organized by the pastor of a local Catholic church, residents fought the highway plan and were brought in by Lee to help plan a renewal effort that eventually included rehabbing hundreds of buildings, planting trees along the streets, creating small parks, and constructing a few clusters of low-rise housing. Many of the neighborhood's buildings were kept intact, and so was much of the community. The result, today, is a graceful and lively mixed-income neighborhood still filled with families, churches, social clubs, and restaurants.

Wooster Square is the model for neighborhood renewal projects in New Haven these days. Current mayor DeStefano's "Livable Cities Initiative" calls for selected, abandoned buildings to be torn down with an eye towards creating garden space or room for the homes on either side to expand. Some neighborhoods that were on the verge of debility have seized on the initiative as a way to rejuvenate themselves. What DeStefano values in a city policy, he says, are initiatives that help people "feel connected." Stanley Rogers, New Haven's city clerk, grew up on Oak Street and talks about what might have happened had a more delicate touch been applied to his old neighborhood: "Can you imagine this city," he says, "if you had an intact neighborhood next to downtown?"

It is all too easy, of course, to come down hard on Lee and his colleagues for what was done to Oak Street, and New Haven. They used the tools that were available at the time, says Matt Nemerson, former president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce: federal programs that did not make rehabilitation easy. "If we had had the Tax Credit Act of 1978 in 1958 [to encourage historic preservation]," he says, "if we had had the modern sensibilities of yuppies wanting to live in brick-walled apartments downtown, if we had had the technology to graft a Second Empire building onto the box of a new Macy's, then yes, we would be the most remarkable city. Parisians would come here to look at all that stuff! But we didn't." Moreover, it's hard to fault Lee for not understanding, in 1957, that federal highway spending and other subsidies were encouraging the demographic shift to the suburbs, and that there was nothing they could do to stop it.

One of the lessons to be drawn from New Haven's experience is that what seems appropriate now may look ridiculous in just a few years. This is a point that may yet come home to cities that are currently embracing big-box retail development in place of the congeries of small shops and homes that exist now. But then, the urban renewal era did foster -- in New Haven and many other cities -- a way of thinking about development that emphasized bricks and mortar and grand projects. The unnoticeable ties among residents, the attachment to neighbors or church or school, the deep sense of contentment in a particular patch of street, the bond that could later bring hundreds of people together once a year to celebrate a neighborhood that exists only in their minds -- all these things that make city life a pleasure were secondary. One of the most pointed lessons from the era, says Yale architecture professor Alan Plattus, is this: "Some of the things that make communities good places to live have less to do with the state of the plumbing and more to do with the relationships that are formed in the community and the support systems that are formed in the community over a long period of time. Simply picking people up and moving them to new housing doesn't make their lives better, and doesn't make their opportunities better." But now, as the ambitions of developers and city officials begin again to dismantle working-class and low-income city neighborhoods, this hard-won insight appears to be slipping from memory.

As for the people gathered at the Oak Street Reunion, they appear to have done pretty well for themselves. For many of the former residents, renewal did precisely what Lee promised. It moved them into better housing. But as they wander around the banquet hall in Anthony's Oceanview, happily greeting old friends, sharing stories about what they learned from this shopkeeper or that, commenting on the values that all the neighborhood's parents felt at liberty to pass on to any kid, it becomes clear that this is more than an exercise in nostalgia. It wasn't really Oak Street and Legion Avenue that gave them their bearings; it was each other, and this reunion is now their only way to reaffirm that. For all the success most of them made of their lives, urban renewal "separated a lot of us," says Barry Vine. "That hurts a great deal."