America’s numerous struggling cities face the unenviable task of addressing crumbling physical and social infrastructure, housing and affordability crises, and unemployment on shoestring budgets (after you account for the massive slices handed to police) and public debt. In the age of neoliberalism, the solution is all too often to turn to the private sector—which usually only results in an upward transfer of public wealth into private hands without substantial improvement to the problems at hand. Urban development, particularly in a city like Baltimore, is especially egregious in this regard. But it didn’t have to be this way, and it wasn’t always the plan. Urban planners of days gone by such as Edward Logue once advocated and fought for urban development as a project oriented towards public good and managed by government, rather than corporate interests. Historian Lizabeth Cohen joins the hosts of Tax Broke for a look into the origins of ‘urban renewal,’ how the idealistic visions of progressive urban planners were hijacked in service of private interests, and how we can fight for the cities of the future to really belong to all of us.
Lizabeth Cohen is the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies and a Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of History at Harvard University. Her most recent book is Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age.
Production: Stephen Janis, Taya Graham
Studio Production: David Hebden
Post-Production: Alina Nehlich
Taya Graham: Hello, my name is Taya Graham, and welcome to another installment in our series titled Tax Broke, an investigative project that explores the use of incentives, subsidies, and tax breaks to fuel development in Baltimore and beyond. Myself, along with my reporting partner, Stephen Janis, are continuing to report on and investigate how Baltimore’s expansive array of tax breaks and incentives have cost the city hundreds of millions with little or no transparency.
But we also explore a question that remains unanswered for both of us: Why does a poor city like Baltimore have to pay developers to build? The centerpiece of our work is the documentary called Tax Broke, which tells a story of how Baltimore, faced with a shrinking population, has increasingly relied upon tax breaks to fuel development. The story we recount is similar to many cities that have been overwhelmed by a decline in federal funding, suburban flight, and political and social isolation of communities already wrestling with extreme poverty and limited resources.
Stephen Janis: During our investigation, one of the questions that kept bothering me was what I would best describe as an uninformed sort of presentism. That is, as a reporter completely absorbed and figuring out the story of now, I also felt there was a critical aspect of the narrative that was missing, namely, how did we get here? That’s why when I was working on the documentary, I picked up a book called Saving America’s Cities. It was, on the surface, a biography of legendary and controversial urban planner Edward Logue, but it was much more than that. It was a book about a world I honestly simply could not conceive of, an era when urban redevelopment operated in an entirely different reality that made me question my assumptions about what I thought I knew and how the story should be told.
Taya Graham: Stephen, you’re right. Logue was a superstar urban planner in a field that is almost entirely driven by the private sector now. His work in cities like New Haven and Boston earned him national acclaim, and his methods drew both praise and criticism.
But like Stephen, I was struck by how the book described urban renewal as a process I was entirely unfamiliar with, a push to reimagine cities driven by government, not private capital. A period in history when the nation intervened to rebuild urban centers instead of sitting on the sidelines. It’s a story that every person who cares about the health of our communities and neighborhoods should read.
Stephen Janis: And to discuss it, we are so grateful and fortunate to be joined by the author, professor Liz Cohen. Professor Cohen is a current Howard Mumford Jones professor of American Studies in the History department at Harvard University, as well as a Harvard University distinguished service professor. From 2011 to 2018, she served as the dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is, of course, the author of [Saving America’s Cities:] Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age, which, in 2020, won a Bancroft Prize.
Taya Graham: Her book, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, was a Pulitzer finalist. I mean, we could go on, but we honestly would run out of time. But for now, we are happy to be joined by professor Cohen.
Professor Cohen, thank you so much for joining us. Now, before we get to the work of Mr. Logue and his unique role in urban renewal, can you set the scene for us a bit? What was going on with cities when he started his work in New Haven? We know there was an expansion of highways and a strong movement towards suburbanization, but what challenges was Logue facing when he started his career and how this country viewed cities?
Liz Cohen: Well, I think it’s crucial to put urban renewal of the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s in a historical context. So that’s the right question to ask. We were coming out of a long period right after World War II of little building, cities deteriorating, a great need for housing as new families were constructed, as there had been delayed family formation with 10 years of the Great Depression followed by World War II.
And you can imagine that during that time, first the Depression then the home front, there was very little development taking place. So when the soldiers come back, families start being formed, the baby boom happened. People were desperate for housing. And the solution that the United States really promoted through federal legislation was basically suburbanization. We will subsidize developers, we will subsidize mortgages through the FHA and the veterans loans. We will build highways through the Highway Act of 1956 to make it possible for people to access those suburbs and then get back into the city, supposedly for work. But the big push was metropolitanization moving people out of cities into areas that had been farms and forests, basically, before the war.
So cities were suffering. They were losing residents, they were losing businesses because our office parks were part of this suburbanization where many businesses were moving out. Retail was moving out of downtown. The classic downtown department store was now showing up in shopping centers in suburbs with suburban stores. So cities really were facing a crucial moment of, how are we going to survive the changes that are taking place in the United States starting in the 1950s?
So Logue enters the field of urban planning, urban development, with a huge concern that cities which he valued tremendously – He had grown up in Philadelphia, he thought cities were the lifeblood of the United States, that they were in big trouble.
And they were also developing in a very racially segregated way, because those who were able to take advantage of these mortgage opportunities through the FHA and the VA mortgages were white, and the cities were becoming increasingly minority as African Americans were moving north out of the South looking for more opportunities, particularly for good jobs in manufacturing. So they were arriving at the time when manufacturing was in trouble, when many of these cities were really struggling, and we were getting what many historians call a donut effect where the center is Black and the surrounding is white. So that was the world that Logue was facing when he started working as an urban redeveloper in the 1950s in New Haven.
Stephen Janis: And so, professor, your book recounts his initial work in New Haven as one of his first major projects and defining for him. What was Logue tasked with in New Haven? What were the challenges and goals, and why did the city decide to embrace him as the right solution for their problems?
Liz Cohen: Well, Ed Logue returned to New Haven, where he had gone to college at Yale College and had returned after he served in World War II to attend Yale Law School. And after Yale Law School, he went on, he tried his hand at being a lawyer. He was a big labor guy, but he decided he didn’t really like labor law enough to stick with that. And he was much more attracted to public service. He worked in the state of Connecticut as a labor secretary.
And then the man he worked for, Chester Bowles, who was the governor of Connecticut, was named as the new ambassador to India. And Ed Logue went with him at his invitation to be his special assistant. When he went to India, which was a new nation, he observed the US government and the Ford Foundation investing a lot of money in physical infrastructure to modernize India, and also to ensure that India remained in the democratic fold or in the United States’s orbit in the Cold War. And India was notoriously independent and responsive as well to the Soviet Union. So there was a lot of investment put into places like India in the late 1940s, early 1950s, and Logue saw that.
And when he came back to New Haven after Bowles was no longer ambassador, and he himself was returning to have his first child, and came back to New Haven where his in-laws lived, he felt that there was a strategy there that was being used in the developing world that might be applied to these struggling American cities, New Haven being a prime candidate.
And New Haven had had a lot of trouble for many years, but it still was the regional retail center of this southern part of Connecticut. But it was struggling. And as soon as he came back, he joined the campaign of a man named Richard Lee, who was running as a progressive candidate for Mayor of New Haven. And part of his platform, really a major part of his platform, was to take on the urban renewal of New Haven. And Logue joined the campaign. And then when Lee was elected, he was actually named to be the head of redevelopment for Mayor Lee.
And the two of them became a duo who really threw themselves into renewing the city. And they saw that they had to change the way New Haven looked in order to convey to the world that it was truly a modern city and not some antiquated 19th century out-of-date urban center. And it did look deteriorated, and they were particularly worried about the construction of the Interstate 95, which was going to bypass the city. And that would mean that rather than people driving through New Haven to go north towards Boston or south towards New York, they would be avoiding the city altogether. And that seemed like the death knell to retail in New Haven. So they felt they had to do something.
And they threw themselves, as I said, into this urban renewal. And Logue’s genius was that he understood how to get money out of the federal government. There had been a Federal Housing Act in 1949 that made federal funds available for urban renewal, and Logue figured out how to get a lot of that money for New Haven. And believe it or not, New Haven became a kind of laboratory of urban renewal.
Taya Graham: I’m so glad you mentioned his genius, because I think one of the hardest aspects of your story for me to reconcile is urban planner as national celebrity, but Logue was that. Why and how was that possible? Was it about the moment? Did he turn himself into a star? Was he an anomaly, or was urban planning just a bit more high profile at that time?
Liz Cohen: Good question. I wouldn’t say that he was a national celebrity to everybody. Certainly within the planning circles and urban policy circles, he was extremely well known. He was a cover story in Life magazine. He was in Look magazine. He was in Newsweek. He did get a lot of attention. Probably not as much as Robert Moses, who was in New York and was able to get an awful lot of media attention for being there. But Logue was well-known in these circles. And so when, for example, seven years later, Boston was looking for someone to come in and help it turn itself around because it was in terrible shape, Logue surfaced very quickly as the guy to get. So people who were in the know knew about Logue.
But I would say that you’re correct that the times mattered tremendously. And this deterioration of American cities seemed very threatening. Remember that Europe was coming out of World War II, it had faced a lot of destruction during the war, whether it was the UK, France, Germany, and there was a lot of rebuilding going on – In Japan as well. So the US, which at first after the war was in a very strong position, as the rest of the Western industrial world had been fairly destroyed, was now worried about what was going to happen as its allies were rebuilding cities, rebuilding manufacturing plants, and so forth.
So in order for the US to keep up and stay modern, it seemed important to keep those cities viable and growing. And Logue believed, as very much a devoted New Dealer – He was really raised on F. Roosevelt in the 1930s – And a belief, a deep belief, in all that a strong federal government could do to help the people and the common good. He felt that we need to get government in the act, and we need to take on the next big frontier, which is our American cities, and we have to modernize them, we have to make them more egalitarian, we have to provide more housing, we have to keep people in cities and keep business in cities and keep retail in cities, because that is the lifeblood of this country.
Stephen Janis: Yeah, before I ask the next question, I just want to say when I listen to you, I’m thinking, that is so antithetical to how development is done today.
Taya Graham: I know.
Stephen Janis: I wish we had a person who cared that much and thought government could do something for us. So professor, can you talk a little bit about his style? It seems that at the beginning of his career, you describe him as an intense, hardworking, take no prisoners approach that perhaps was not inclined to collaboration, was more wedded to his vision and his centralized approach. So talk a little bit about his personality and his personal work philosophy and how he approached the problems that he faced.
Liz Cohen: Well, Ed Logue was known to be hard driving, of himself as well as everyone who works for him, to have these egalitarian goals, to believe in government, but to feel that experts should be in charge. He understood that, in the United States, we were never going to have a really social democratic society, which he might’ve wanted. The private sector was always going to play an important role. But he felt very strongly that public officials, government officials, needed to be in the driver’s seat.
But this belief in expertise did sometimes take him down some dangerous roads. So there are many aspects of the New Haven period which I think are deeply flawed because of that. Yes, they believed on the surface in consultation with the public, and one of Logue’s mottos, particularly as he went into the Boston period, was “Planning with people”. But when it came down to it, he really felt like he knew best and the planners knew best. So there were some real problems in terms of public consultation.
There were also people who felt that Logue was very top-down, very unsympathetic to people who worked for him. High expectations. Over time, he did change, and we can talk about that. He was forced to change as American society changed and people really weren’t willing to put up with this top-down decision making. That’s really something that emerges in the 1960s.
But to start with, he really felt that consultation should happen through the leadership of existing organizations. And they had a committee that they consulted with in New Haven that was made up of leaders from labor, from various kinds of community organizations, whether it was the [inaudible] voters, or different business leaders, or so forth. And that that was sufficient, and that the people living in those neighborhoods that they were about to renew didn’t really need to have a voice. Their leaders would represent them. And that was a problem.
They also were so tied to the idea that we need to prove that New Haven is modern that anything went. And they learned very quickly that modern architecture could be bad. And the first building that they put up on this road called the connector, which was the strategy for connecting people from I-95 to New Haven so that they didn’t lose that access, the first building was a disaster. It was done on the cheap, the architecture magazines called it out as a building that looked like it was designed by the janitor. So he learned a lesson there that he then really, I think, took to heart when he got to Boston, where he had a committee of architects who consulted on design.
So there were mistakes made. The connector turned out to be pretty destructive of the downtown, of the streets they had to destroy in order to put it in. And those tended to be neighborhoods, the Oak Street neighborhood that was lived in mostly by minority populations. There was a lot of plowing things over to build anew. But it needs to be pointed out that the 1949 Housing Act required that you basically clear and rebuild and not renovate and rehabilitate. By the 1954 Housing Act, that was corrected, and there was a way to do rehab.
So to some extent, the mistakes that Logue and Lee made in the 1950s – And were copied all over the country. You can find most cities having the same kind of mistakes in the 1950s – Partly it was because that’s what the government regulations required.
So I wouldn’t say that New Haven was a success, but I think there were lessons learned in New Haven that Logue then took with him on his road forward to Boston and then ultimately to New York state. And that’s one of the main points that I make in the book, which is I think it’s a mistake to just dismiss everything that happened in the urban renewal era from the late 1940s to, say, the early 1970s as one big mistake, which is often what is said. I think it was a much more evolutionary process, and that there was learning on the job and bringing lessons from one project to the next and one city to the next.
Taya Graham: I’m so glad you mentioned the destroy and raze as opposed to rehabilitate, because it seems like there have been almost two schools of thought when it comes to urban development. There’s the Robert Moses raze whatever’s old and pave over approach, and then a more organic take of Jane Jacobs’s perspective, where cities thrive through the creativity of neighborhoods. Where do you think he fits into this spectrum, if there’s a spectrum at all? How would you explain Logue’s urban planning philosophy in a broader sense?
Liz Cohen: Well, I think that Logue liked certain aspects of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and was critical of others. So in the case of Moses, Logue made a very clear distinction between himself and Moses saying that he himself, Ed Logue, cared much more about the social impact of his projects. And one of his great commitments was to try to create socially mixed residential environments that were mixed by class, by race, by age, people who were disabled being integrated into the standard housing by providing for them. That was a great commitment on his part. Certainly not one of Robert Moses’s. But he did like Robert Moses’s park building, and he did like his parkways with the highways that he built around New York, because Ed Logue was a highway guy. I mean, he really did believe in these roads, and he did contribute to what today we are critical of in many cases, where there were neighborhoods that were destroyed in order to build access roads into cities.
So he knew Robert Moses, they would meet up at Princeton-Yale football games. They both were Yale alums, so they would meet in the parking lot, greet each other. They had certain professional interactions. But Logue was careful to not really ally himself with Robert Moses, who he felt did a lot of damage as well as a lot of good.
Jane Jacobs was a complicated case because there were aspects that he respected of her, and she of him at first. In her classic book on rebuilding cities, she does actually point to some positive things that happened in New Haven. But as time went on, she became increasingly critical of Logue, and he of her. And what he worried about with her approach, which was basically to let cities evolve organically, naturally on their own, was that they would become the playgrounds of the wealthy. And the wealthy, who lived in suburbs and perhaps worked in cities, would then be able to return to their comfortable suburban lives and not in any way have to invest in improving the neighborhoods and housing options available to less fortunate people.
So he felt that Jane Jacobs’s model was really unfair, and that it really didn’t provide for a common good, it just kind of left things to their own and ran the danger of letting the private sector, the real estate market, dictate what happened.
And her neighborhood, of course, was the Greenwich Village, and he felt that wasn’t fair to say that all of American cities, and certainly all of New York, was Greenwich Village. It was a very privileged, though less so then than the now, neighborhood. And so sure, maybe Greenwich Village will evolve wonderfully, but that wouldn’t be true if you’re talking about tough parts of Brooklyn or Harlem or the South Bronx and so forth. So he felt there needed to be a greater commitment by government and planners, and she was very critical, of course, of that expertise coming into the game.
Stephen Janis: So in an interesting point to all this, during his career, how involved was the federal government in financing urban development? We know now there’s not much, but how could he depend on federal funding for his work? And what role did the federal government play in urban development process then, when he was working?
Liz Cohen: There were housing acts, as I mentioned, in 1949 and 1954, there was another one in 1968. And the way they worked was to make money available to cities on a two-to-one basis, and sometimes even with the federal government doing the two and the city doing the one, and the cities were also able to charge other expenses they were already investing in against that one. So they got a lot of money from the federal government, basically, to clear land or do the preparation that would make an urban site more attractive to a private developer. So it was not a fully social democratic strategy where the government just does it. As always in the United States, the government was also partnering with the private sector. But it was an effort to try to encourage and incentivize developers to take on urban projects rather than just build suburban, industrial and business parks, and shopping centers, and suburban developments, and so forth. And in general, that worked pretty well.
There also were provisions to get subsidy for housing that was built, and often there were rules that the housing needed to be charged at rates that required no one to spend more than 30% of their income on their housing. So the government was very much in the act. And it had its flaws, as I was suggesting, and there still was a lot of discretion and power given to the private sector, but the government was very much in the act, and it was public officials that were calling the shots, not the developers, as we see very often today.
That comes to a halt in 1973 when Richard Nixon declares a moratorium on the federal government’s investment in housing and, basically, in cities. So this era ends at that point. It does come back in. The Nixon philosophy was that the money should go directly to the states and to the cities, and then it doesn’t really get to the cities at the same level because, as we know, many state legislatures are dominated by more conservative upstate interests. And so the housing needs of a city like New York City in the state of New York was never so assured when the money went to the state of New York rather than from the federal government directly to the city.
So it is really a death knell when Nixon puts in that moratorium, and it becomes even more so when Reagan is president starting in 1980, and he cuts the housing budgets hugely, more than any other part of the federal budget. So we move, starting really in the 1980s, into a very different era of needing to find private sector strategies for doing whatever we are able to do to build more subsidized and affordable housing.
Taya Graham: When you look back on all his work, what do you think was his greatest achievement in terms of transforming a city? Where was his philosophy or vision? Where did it come together in a way that you think is the best example of how he could improve a city or save a city?
Liz Cohen: Well, Ed Logue would tell you that he took the most pride in Roosevelt Island, which was one of the new towns that he built in New York state when he was head of the New York State Urban Development Corporation. He was appointed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was a liberal Republican – If one can point to that anymore – Who really did believe in the role that government could play, and had hired Logue to head the statewide agency, the Urban Development Corporation, which was funded by state money, whatever federal money was still left. Logue goes into this job, starts it in 1967, ’68. And then also private bonds that would be sold through banks to private investors. So it was a new hybrid entity to deal with the decline in federal funding.
And Logue, who never really would’ve loved the idea of private sector playing such a big role and having bonds that were in the hands of private investors being so crucial, was struggling for how to get more funding for the projects he wanted to do – And remember, this is an era of the Vietnam War, and the domestic programs are being cut and cut.
So he goes into this, and one of the strategies that he embraces is building new towns, which is an approach that had been used in Europe and in the UK and France and Germany to build these new communities that would be a combination of residential as well as employment and recreation. And he builds three of them in New York state. And the one he, I think, was most proud of, as I said, was Roosevelt Island. And there, he was able to actually have mixed income, mixed race, mixed age. And because there had been some hospitals for the disabled on the island before Roosevelt Island was created, that became a part of the approach as well. And there was a lot of recreation on the island.
The one thing they did not get as much of as Logue would’ve wanted was retail and employment. But New York was right there. And part of the retail problem for many years was that the subway, which was supposed to connect Roosevelt Island to Manhattan and to Queens, was very slow in coming. So that’s why they put the cable car in that still runs from the East Side of Manhattan to Roosevelt Island, even though there is now, of course, a working subway.
But he was able to have, on the same island, without having to do clearance – And there’s an example of how he learned how unpopular that had become, because Roosevelt Island basically had some hospitals on it and some other public institutions, but was basically not very developed. So he was able there and in the two upstate new towns that he developed, also being places that were open land, he didn’t have to face this very challenging situation of having to evict people, clear old neighborhoods. He could just go into these virgin lands.
Now today, there would probably be more pushback about doing that, because we would have more environmental concerns, we would care more about open space. He would’ve had a bigger battle on his hands. So he would definitely point to Roosevelt Island.
He would also point to Wooster Square, which was the first big housing rehabilitation project he could do in New Haven. It was an Italian neighborhood. There were a lot of brownstone buildings. And he was very proud of having rehabilitated and not having had to clear. And also bringing in some subsidized housing amidst more market rate and homeowner-owned housing.
So those two were important. And then there is another project that he never succeeded in doing, but I think that he, and I, am proud that he tried. And that was a project called the Fair Share Housing Program, which was an effort he made when he was head of the Urban Development Corporation, the UDC, in New York, to build a small number, 100 units, of housing in nine well-off Westchester communities. Logue believed strongly that urban problems could not just be left to cities to solve, and that we needed metropolitan solutions, and the suburbs had to be involved in taking on some of the burdens that cities faced of inequality, of poor housing, and so forth.
So he had this scheme, and Nelson Rockefeller went along with it, and thought that he could pull this off since he too was from Westchester – That’s where his family had its big estate. But it turned out to be an incredible struggle, and these nine towns pushed back tremendously. There were death threats against Logue. And ultimately Rockefeller had to give it up because Republicans were being targeted in elections in Westchester, and the UDC was looked at as the enemy of the people.
So that was a failure, and it’s one he always regretted. But at least he tried. And he really did introduce the notion that we need to take on exclusionary zoning in many of these well-off suburban areas.
Stephen Janis: And conversely, and of course I hope this isn’t redundant, but where do you think one of his least successful efforts was? Perhaps his style, perhaps his way of doing things, or even just, like you said, the realities of zoning and the realities of trying to create new development in already existing communities. Where did it not really succeed for him, or what would he or you look back and say, well, this is where it failed?
Liz Cohen: Well, I think New Haven, in the end, was not a great model, as I’ve said. And part of it was that’s what everybody was doing, and that’s what the government regulations that were tied to these housing acts required. But there certainly wasn’t the input from the communities that were being affected. There was a lot of clearance and destruction. There was, in retrospect, a big mistake in clearing downtown and putting in a shopping mall that mimicked what was happening in suburban New Haven. They thought that the best way to compete with the suburban shopping centers, which were popping up all over the city, was to make downtown into its own shopping center and to have an adjoining parking garage, which a major architect, Paul Rudolph, designed.
And that turned out to be a total failure, and it’s still a struggle today. The shopping center doesn’t really exist much anymore, it’s become a community college, and one effort after another to keep downtown New Haven viable. So that was really kind of a failure. But it was happening all over the country also, that effort. How do you compete when all the retail is leaving? So I would say New Haven was kind of a failure.
I think he was successful with Government Center in Boston, which was based on the notion that if we put the resources of government at every level, from the city, to the county, to the state, to the federal government, invested in a government center near the downtown of Boston, we can use that as leverage to get the private sector to also invest in downtown buildings and not flee the city and go to the suburbs, as was happening. And I think that was successful. So though there certainly was criticism, and there still are people who hate the Boston City Hall, but I think that was successful.
The neighborhood efforts in Boston were more mixed. There he struggled. Some neighborhoods really welcomed the Boston Redevelopment Authority. And interestingly, the neighborhoods that welcomed them were not just upper-class white neighborhoods. But there was a neighborhood called Washington Park in Roxbury, which was basically the major place where middle-class Blacks could own homes. And they were feeling very threatened by a lot of displacement that was happening from neighboring communities like the South End. And they welcomed Logue and urban renewal to their neighborhood as a way of trying to preserve the middle class character of their neighborhood.
Now, there were other parts of Roxbury that pushed back much more, Madison Park neighborhood of Lower Roxbury, for example, and were able as a result, to get more housing out of the BRA than was originally planned. So even where the neighborhood work in Boston was not as successful as one would hope, it did encourage a lot of community mobilization and taught people that they could become pressure lobbies for getting more resources out of the Redevelopment Authority and more subsidized housing than might have been in the original plan. So even where there was a mixed history, I do think there were some positive outcomes in that communities really learned how to mobilize and get benefits.
Taya Graham: One thing you keep mentioning is having a vision or having a plan, that Logue had a plan. But today, in many cities, just like in my hometown, Baltimore, development seems to be driven by tax incentives and private developers with very little mention of urban planning, or even a plan at all. How would you contrast this with the era that Logue worked in? What do you think he would say about this mostly private profit-driven process? And what’s your take on it in terms of strengths and weaknesses?
Liz Cohen: Well, Ed Logue watched this transition take place. As I mentioned, it really takes off in the 1980s. And at that time, he’s working in the South Bronx as head of a small organization called the South Bronx Development Organization. And that was a crucial moment, I think, in his career when he finally realized that planning with people had to really mean talking to people. And he started to work with a local CDC called the Mid Bronx Desperadoes, with the community planning boards, there was one in the South Bronx that he worked very closely with. So he started to realize he had to do that.
But he was also watching, much appalled as time went on – He died in 2000 – And returned to Boston in 1986 to see how little the federal government was engaged and how much influence the private sector was gaining. So this happened in his lifetime, and he often said, you can’t trust the private sector to protect the public interest. And that became his slogan, and he believed in it.
And he saw happen what has only become more so, which is that we are very dependent on strategies of private sector initiative, whether it means companies that shop around, like Amazon did, among cities to see which city will give them the best deal, the best tax breaks, best tax incentives, and they play one city against each other. So it becomes a race to the bottom among cities to offer the best deal. And then those deals often mean for cities that they’re taking on costs of transportation, of delaying getting the taxes that they should get and are so dependent on for their city services.
We’re also now dependent on strategies like vouchers, housing vouchers, and low income tax credits as our housing policy. The housing vouchers still depend on private landlords to accept them. These are vouchers that people want to be able to shop or move themselves to communities that they think are better serviced, have better schools, may have better transportation, and so forth. But you have to get a landlord to accept that voucher, and many landlords won’t because they worry that their housing won’t be as appealing to market price housing customers.
And then the low income tax credits, which is the major way that we’re building any subsidized housing nowadays, requires companies to be looking for tax shelters and therefore investing in these tax credits at the state level, And then the state gives them out to private developers so that they can reduce the cost of the rental units in their projects. But that depends on companies needing those tax shelters, doing well enough and having high enough corporate taxes that they feel like they need the tax shelters. So these are all, I think, very inadequate strategies.
I would add to it that some cities are doing things that are the best they can do, which is to have inclusionary zoning, which means that they require of private developers that they put aside a certain proportion of the units in their buildings for people who will be able to qualify because of their income, they may make 60% of the average income of the community, or it might be set at a different rate. That number varies by city. In Boston it’s now, I think, 17% of the units – That’s pretty high for many cities.
There also is the danger, and this is something that happened in New York, that there be a separate door, the red door that is the part of the building for the subsidized housing, and that this is a lower grade quality of housing, and that’s not a solution either. It needs to be integrated.
Another thing that some cities have done, and Boston has tried this, has been linkage fees, where a developer might want to do a market rate project downtown, not necessarily have the inclusionary zoning requirement, but will pay into a fund which will make money available to build housing in neighborhoods where there is a great need and they may be more low-income neighborhoods.
So there are a lot of strategies. But what runs through all of those strategies is a dependence on the private sector. So I would say that given all of the flaws of federal or renewal – And there certainly were a lot: much too much clearance, a lot of red tape, still a lot of authority in the hands of developers, but public officials were in the driver’s seat, and there were federal funds available. So we were not completely dependent on what the private sector decided it wanted to do.
Stephen Janis: Thank you so much for all these great answers. This is the last question. So in cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, places we’ve reported on, what can residents who want development to be more equitable and progressive learn from your book? What lessons should we try to apply today, and how should the methods of the past be discussed in the context of today’s debate? What are the lessons you would take forward to say, hey, this could actually help improve and create a more progressive landscape for development in cities like Baltimore and beyond?
Liz Cohen: Well, I can prescribe what I think should happen, but no, it’s not likely to happen. So some of the values that Logue had of seeing the urban issues as metropolitan ones, sharing the burden, therefore. Understanding that communities do need to have input, but we cannot go down the road of full NIMBYism and say, yes, on the one hand, I want to see lots of affordable housing, but not in my neighborhood. We have got to build density around transportation, and we have to allow that diversity in our own communities.
I think this is hard for people because in the case of most Americans, their greatest asset is their home, and the property value that they have often depends on the exclusivity of their investment and their community. So they’re very afraid to say, okay, I’m going to allow diversity on my block, in my town, in my neighborhood. But we’re not going to get out of this mess unless people are willing to have it happen in their own backyard. So I think there has to be a recognition that it’s a good thing to have mixed income and racial residential life and what that means, that it doesn’t just mean that we change what cities look like. It means we also have to change what suburbs look like.
Let’s see… I think that we have to find a balance between planning for a city as a whole, but also moving more incrementally than in the urban renewal era where there were big plans and probably too much taken on at once, but see this as a more gradual process where there can be more community input. So these are very sensitive balancing acts, I think. But there needs to be a commitment, I think, on the part of people at all income levels to let this happen.
And another thing that I think is important is we need to try to salvage what’s left of public housing. There was a lot built starting in the 1930s and more into the 1940s, and then we kind of abandoned building any, and we have also abandoned maintaining public housing. And still the waitlists are filled with thousands of people who would like to live in public housing despite all of the problems, perhaps, that they have. I think that housing could be good housing if they were kept up, the elevators hadn’t failed, if the grounds were kept up, if the apartments and kitchens and bathrooms were modernized. But there is no maintenance budget for most public housing, and that is a real shame.
Stephen Janis: Well, professor, I appreciate it. Let me just say this, that I think everyone who is interested in a city, not just urban development or urban planning, should read Saving America’s Cities. I found it, as a reporter, to be crucial and provide critical context to this question, and more specifically, a history of how we got where we got, which is something that is sometimes missed by us reporters who tend to dwell in the present. Wouldn’t you agree, Taya?
Taya Graham: I’d have to agree. And I think what the professor quoted Mr. Logue saying, essentially, that you cannot trust private actors to protect public interest, I think those are words of wisdom that can apply to almost every aspect of American governance today.
Stephen Janis: So professor Cohen, thank you for joining us. And like I said, we recommend the book, and we will continue our investigation into tax breaks in Baltimore called Tax Broke. Thank you for joining us.
Liz Cohen: And thank you for having me. I’m glad to have had the opportunity.
Taya Graham: Thank you so much.