Urban renewal and the struggle of New London

New London — For many who remember the city's experience with federal planning initiatives as a disaster, former New London development director Philip Michalowski's joke that Benedict Arnold was the mastermind behind the city's first urban renewal project in 1781 when he burned the city to the ground may not have seemed too funny.

But Michalowski, who served as city development administrator from 1971 to 1979 during the final phases of urban renewal here, was just one of three members of a panel discussion Monday at Connecticut College who attempted to recalibrate the often negative view of federal planning initiatives from the 1950s to 1970s.

Other panel members meeting at Conn's Shain Library were James Butler, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, and Lizabeth Cohen, a professor of American studies at Harvard University and author of "Saving America's Cities," a book just released in October that traces the ups and downs of urban renewal. The panel was moderated by Anna Vallye, assistant professor of art history and architectural studies at the college, and served as the closing event for the 2019 half of the college's yearlong project to investigate urban renewal's local impact, particularly focused on the Hodges Square and Winthrop Cove areas.

Cohen made the point that urban renewal has often been painted in broad strokes as a disaster. But she said the movement has to be put into a bigger context because urban renewal changed a lot between the 1950s and 1970s as planners discovered what worked and what didn't work.

"These people were not dummies," she said. "They learned from their mistakes."

But they also faced declining metropolitan areas reliant largely on narrow streets built for pedestrian, horse and trolley traffic rather than for a transportation system based on personal vehicles. Parking for cars was virtually nonexistent, and ancient trolley systems had to be ripped up to make way for new modes of transportation.

At the same time, cities faced a massive flight to the suburbs as the interstate highway system enabled more people to find paradise in a house and a half-acre of land. Cheap federal mortgages also were stoking the mass migration that some equate with "white flight" from the cities.

The new freedom afforded by cars gave consumers a chance to look around for cheaper deals and more convenient shopping experiences that led to the sprawl of suburban malls. Mom-and-pop shops in the cities just couldn't compete against larger stores with lower prices.

"We want it cheap — that was a collective decision across the country," Butler, the COG director, said.

Urban renewal, intended to revitalize cities, ran from 1954 to 1974, an initiative launched under the Republican administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower that cost the country about $13 billion over two decades and was embraced by about 1,200 communities nationwide. And New London was quick to take advantage, according to a timeline given by Vallye, eventually demolishing by her count 690 homes, mostly in lower- and working-class areas of the city.

"It dramatically transformed the face of the city," she added.

Michalowski said much has been made about New London losing large chunks of its historical buildings, but at the time when the city was making decisions about urban renewal, not many people cared about these places and there was no awareness that they were losing things of value.

In fact, on a per-capita basis, Michalowski said that early on only New Haven statewide was more aggressive in using urban renewal than New London.

"It was in the top 10 in the country at one point," he said. "New London is much more interested in its physical fabric than it was in the past."

Michalowski recalled a time when New London was an urban hub, with Montgomery Ward, Grant's, Woolworth and Kresge department stores all thriving downtown. Butler recalled several family-run jewelry stores as well as high-class men's stores and both the Capitol and Garde theaters in their heyday.

But department stores were looking for street frontage that was wide but not deep to show off their stock, while most downtown stores were narrow and deep. It was a revolution in retail, Cohen pointed out, similar to what brick-and-mortar stores today are facing as they try to compete with online purchasing.

Greg Stone, a former editor and reporter for The Day who attended the event and whose book "The Day Paper" was cited for its reporting on urban renewal, told the panel his impression was that the Chamber of Commerce and merchants were pushing the projects without a lot of public support.

"I don't remember a lot of public participation," he said.

And the few times that people attended neighborhood meetings, he said, the public was talked down to, as if the decisions had already been made.

Butler agreed that some urban-renewal backers initially were worried about what a democratic process would be like if not controlled. But he said times changed, and by the 1970s and the Model Cities program the process became more participatory.

Laura Natusch, executive director of the preservation group New London Landmarks, said oral histories her group is currently conducting with African American residents who lived through urban renewal here show a mixed reaction to the programs. Some were given a "whole new life" after being moved from substandard housing to the Crystal Avenue apartments, she said, while black homeowners moved out to make way for projects feel their neighborhoods were undervalued and they didn't receive enough compensation.

She branded programs that subsidized white flight to the suburbs as essentially racist and called for "reparations" from the suburbs to help boost cities that are too often taking a hit on taxes for harboring tax-exempt social service agencies.

Vallye said the record of urban renewal in New London was mixed.

"Many were displaced with no voice," Butler said. "They didn't recognize the human component."

But clearing land proved easier than rebuilding, and many places sat vacant for years. Perhaps the final vestige of urban renewal, Butler added, was the Fort Trumbull neighborhood cleared for redevelopment in the early 2000s by eminent domain in the famous New London v. Kelo case that went to the Supreme Court, but now sits as an expanse of open land.

Ironically, said Michalowski, it was a private development sponsored by the now-defunct New England Savings Bank on Starr Street several years after urban renewal ended that proved historic renovation rather than the wrecking ball could bring people back to the city.

"Starr Street," he said, "was the only successful project to get folks downtown."

l.howard@theday.com

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