EARLIER THIS MONTH, City Councilor Michelle Wu became the latest in a string of ambitious politicians to call for the abolition of the powerful agency that oversees development in New England’s largest city: the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
Wu, widely seen as the most formidable potential challenger to Mayor Marty Walsh, makes numerous proposals for improving planning in Boston, but she also appeals to history. The BPDA, she suggests, is a relic of the city’s infamous adventures in urban renewal.
That critique — like others that have come before it — is rooted in a damning narrative of modern American city-making: a story of powerful, hubristic planners who leveled entire neighborhoods in the mid-20th century and erected soulless buildings and massive highways in their place.
But a new biography of the planner responsible for empowering Boston’s redevelopment agency, Ed Logue, challenges that simple story. It shows how many architects of urban renewal learned from early mistakes and evolved, and that the brash, top-down planning that’s drawn so much criticism was often inspired by lofty, progressive aims.
While the criticism of urban renewal’s worst offenses are justified, the book suggests that an oversimplified story of the era has come with a cost.
In “Saving America’s Cities,” Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen offers a complex portrait of Logue, including seven years at the helm of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the BPDA’s moniker before its 2016 rebranding. Logue was a bold planner and a famed city-builder in his day (dubbed “Mr. Urban Renewal” by the New York Times in 1970) who also led urban renewal programs in New Haven and at the state level in New York.
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His tenure in Boston, which ended after a failed run for mayor, left indelible marks on the city’s urban fabric, including Government Center, the Prudential Tower, an ambitious master plan for the city, and thousands of units of subsidized housing and civic improvements in Boston’s neighborhoods. He managed to channel scads of federal dollars into rebuilding Boston at a time when many older cities were struggling.
“My goal is not to make Logue a hero,” Cohen says. In his long career (he retired in the 1990s and died in 2000), Logue made numerous mistakes but also fought to improve cities at a time when they were suffering. He was an old-fashioned progressive with a vision of a racially integrated and mixed-income city, but he also embodied a self-righteous, expert-driven approach to planning that left deep wounds in Boston’s neighborhoods. His oeuvre includes buildings that many people hate, and many of his ambitions never came to fruition.
Cohen’s version of urban renewal has more well-intended experiments than villainous demolitions. “Although there were terrible mistakes made in urban renewal, it was an evolutionary learning process,” Cohen said, in a recent interview. “The way urban renewal was practiced in the 1950s was not the way it was practiced by the late 1960s and into the 1970s, and people like Logue really did learn on the job.” To be fair, Logue evolved in part because of unrelenting pushback from citizens who challenged his visions. “He was forced [in Boston] to learn to negotiate with communities,” Cohen said.
Urban renewal makes an easy foil against which designers, planners, and politicians can contrast their proposals. But its blanket dismissal, Cohen argues, has also led to a deep suspicion about top-down planning and federal and state investments in cities, ultimately leaving the work of city-building to the private sector. The result is familiar to Bostonians: dilapidated infrastructure and a shortage of affordable housing, even in a city experiencing a building boom and economic growth. It’s worth revisiting a time when a strong government hand was seen as necessary for creating a vibrant city.
Looking at Boston today, it’s hard to envision how low the city’s fortunes had sunk in the mid-20th century. A postwar decline in industrial and manufacturing jobs and a trend toward suburban living was draining the city of population — particularly white, affluent people. Many of Boston’s neighborhoods were saddled with aging housing and chronic poverty. Downtown businesses were struggling. No cranes dotted the skyline; almost no major buildings had been constructed in the city after World War II. Boston was nearly bankrupt, with a credit rating lower than any other American city its size. A bitter, decades-long political standoff between the Yankee Brahmin business elite and the Irish Catholic government stalled investment; the city’s wealthy spent their money elsewhere. Around the time Logue arrived, an article in the Christian Science Monitor asked, “Is Boston worth saving?”
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The federal Housing Act of 1949 had brought new funding for cities to rebuild blighted areas, but early urban renewal projects often destroyed existing neighborhoods and cruelly displaced residents. That was true in Boston. Under Mayor John Hynes in the 1950s, Boston razed two neighborhoods, the West End and the New York Streets area of the South End. Today, those projects are shorthand for callous and inequitable planning that made “urban renewal” a reviled word.
Mayor John Collins was elected in 1960 and found himself in charge of a troubled city he was determined to fix. To do it, he tapped a proven fixer. Logue had just spearheaded an ambitious urban renewal program in New Haven. He agreed to become the new head of the BRA, but he demanded and won a salary that made him the highest-paid public official in Massachusetts, and he also insisted the BRA have unprecedented power, taking on both planning and redevelopment functions for the city and making it an independent entity answerable only to the mayor.
Logue was charged with channeling federal urban renewal funding to turn around a city already bruised from government intervention. He had overseen plenty of clearance in New Haven, but regretted not consulting communities more. In Boston, he adopted the slogan “planning with people” to signal a new approach. But the ambitious array of transformations he oversaw in the 1960s met intense resistance from neighborhood activists and historic preservationists.
Logue won a change to state law that allowed urban renewal funds to be used for non-residential projects, enabling the construction of Government Center and the Prudential Tower in Back Bay. The BRA began planning for the revitalization of downtown and the waterfront. Logue oversaw an ambitious comprehensive master plan for the city that took a far-sighted regional approach to economic development. In the neighborhoods, the BRA looked for groups that could serve as negotiating partners for targeted projects. One of the largest redevelopments, Washington Square in Roxbury, was embraced by middle-class Black residents who sought upward mobility for the neighborhood, though not all residents welcomed the changes. In Charlestown, opposition was fierce; Logue finally won an endorsement for the BRA’s plan at a public hearing but needed a police escort to leave the building. In the South End, residents successfully organized to negotiate for better representation of low-income residents, including the Villa Victoria housing development.
Logue transformed the BRA from a modestly-sized urban renewal agency with a staff of sixteen to a powerful planning and redevelopment juggernaut with more than 500 employees. He recruited young architects and planners from across the country (including a relatively large percentage of minority staff members), and forged relationships with luminaries of modernist architecture. “It was exciting and frenetic,” said Tunney Lee, the former head of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, who was one of Logue’s recruits. Lee grew up in Boston’s Chinatown, and worked on planning for Chinatown and South Cove with the BRA. “It was a chance to do something for my neighborhood,” which had earlier been maimed by the Southeast Expressway, he said.
While Logue’s BRA saw itself as innovative, idealistic, and liberal, it was increasingly out of step with the changing times. “You have this very intensely centralizing seat of power and decision-making authority in the local government just at a time where the student movement, the civil rights movement, a lot of these counter-cultural movements are railing against that kind of centralized, elite, technocratic professional-driven model,” said Karilyn Crockett, a lecturer of public policy and urban planning at MIT, whose book “People Before Highways” chronicles the successful activism that defeated urban highway projects in Boston in the 1960s and 70s. Tunney Lee even joined his BRA colleague (and future state transportation secretary) Fred Salvucci to protest highway projects, although it went against the BRA’s official position, a move he says Logue tolerated.
In 1967, Logue took a gamble and ran for mayor of Boston to win a wider mandate, but finished fourth in a race won by Kevin White. Afterward, he led the New York State Urban Development Corporation, where he oversaw a wave of new subsidized housing construction throughout the state, including the redevelopment of Roosevelt Island. But after a failed effort to push economic and racially integrated housing in wealthy New York suburbs, he was forced to resign when the corporation fell into financial trouble. Later he took on a humbler role as president of the nonprofit South Bronx Development Organization, where he made community alliances to build subsidized housing — in a way finally embodying his own ethos of “planning with people.”
Urban renewal may seem like ancient history when rents are sky-high in neighborhoods that Collins and Logue fought to rescue, and abandoned storefronts have become cafes and spinning studios. But in 2016, the BPDA won a six-year extension of its urban renewal powers in 16 of its original urban renewal areas, a move that confounded many who wanted to see the era finally end. Land that the city snatched up decades ago is still being developed; Chris Breen, who oversees the urban renewal program, estimates that 300 urban renewal properties are owned by the BPDA and about 1500 others have some kind of restriction under the urban renewal zoning.
BPDA’s director Brian Golden argues that the tools of urban renewal have shaped the city’s skyline and contributed thousands of units of affordable housing. “The tools we have today are fundamentally the same tools Ed Logue had in the 60s, but the political parameters on using these tools are very tight,” he said. “They’re used very surgically and with public input.”
But in a 44-page report on the agency, Wu argues that these tools, like eminent domain and the power to streamline zoning rules, were stopgap measures from a different time that don’t make sense in a booming city like Boston, and the concentration of power that Logue demanded for the BRA has resulted in an agency with little accountability.
Cohen says she sees the BPDA’s history in “somewhat more evolutionary terms.” The story of urban renewal often gets cast as a battle between Goliath government planners — exemplified by New York planner and highway advocate Robert Moses — and citizen activists, exemplified by Jane Jacobs, who advocated for more organic, bottom-up planning. Logue is a more complicated figure who shows how urban renewal was an experiment with successes and failures. It was also a dialectic between citizens and planners with competing visions for the city; engaged residents helped to curb the worst impulses of government planners, while heavy-handed interventions spurred communities to organize to control their own fates.
Cohen argues that Jacobs-style critiques of top-down planning can play into free-market visions of a limited government role. “From the left and the right there’s been a kind of cynicism about a strong federal hand in city-building and revitalization,” Cohen says. “It’s convenient to say that, ‘oh well, urban renewal was a complete disaster anyway, so nothing is lost.’” But the alternative that’s risen in its place, which is to leave city-building to the private sector, “has failed totally,” she says. Cities like Boston are left trying to squeeze affordable housing and civic improvements out of private developers instead of building their own. Even Logue in the 1980s bemoaned how Boston’s development was increasingly driven by private profit. This enormous loss of public investment, Cohen says, is at the root of many of the problems that still plague Boston today.
Courtney Humphries is a freelance journalist in Boston.