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Making a Better City Out of 'Model City'

In New Haven, a student-driven signage project and a government-led redevelopment take different approaches to addressing mistakes made decades ago.

The new Alexion building, part of the ambitious Downtown Crossing project can be seen behind a sign made by Elihu Rubin's students. (Elihu Rubin)

By the end of the 1950s, New Haven was receiving more federal funding for urban renewal than any other U.S. city. Its mayor at the time, Richard C. Lee, used his charm and ambition to gain support from U.S. Presidents and average New Havenites to take on a scale of renewal that earned his city the nickname, “Model City.”

The tidal wave of large-scale demolition and construction that took place under Lee—who served as mayor from 1954 to 1970—failed to curb the sprawl, crime, or unemployment that plagued so many Northeast U.S. cities at the time. New Haven sputtered into the 21st century as a scarred place underneath a layer of well-intended renewal.

“The built environment tends to hide conflict,” says architecture historian Elihu Rubin. Rubin teaches a course on ghost towns at Yale University. After surveying the ghost towns of the American west, his students turned towards a more local ghost town: the former Oak Street neighborhood, just a few blocks from the School of Architecture’s building in downtown New Haven.

A passerby along Oak Street won’t find boarded up storefronts or abandoned homes. They’ll find a six-lane highway connector, running between I-95 and Route 34, and, eventually, the Merritt Parkway. It divides New Haven’s downtown and Yale’s central campus from the Hill neighborhood and Yale’s medical campus. In the middle of the connector is a central island, featuring the Smilow Cancer Center, a parking garage, and the city’s latest initiative known as the “Downtown Crossing” project. Anchored by the 14-story Alexion building, Downtown Crossing is intended to promote safer streets for vulnerable road users and street-level retail, restoring an active street life to the area decades after urban renewal.

Leaving downtown New Haven on a clear day, you can cross the connector and see the Long Island Sound and Marcel Breuer’s Pirelli building to the south. To the north, the gleaming blue glass of the Alexion building at 100 College Street, the anchor of the Downtown Crossing project. The project includes traffic-calming measures, like dedicated bicycle lanes in the place of previously fast-paced connector on-and-off ramps. It also promises cafes and street retail, reduced car traffic, further real estate development, and additional public spaces, including pocket parks.

Long term, Downtown Crossing will seek to connect downtown, the Hill, and New Haven’s Union Station. In a May 2013 article for Planning magazine, urban planner David Fields described the overall effort as seeking to “re-stitch the daily life of the city back together.”

(Elihu Rubin)

Or, as Rubin puts it, Downtown Crossing is Oak Street’s “21st century makeover.” Lining the connector are sixteen orange and white wayfinding signs set in all caps and designated with the hashtag #OakStreetHistoricalSociety. Developed by Rubin’s students, the signs site historical information and quotes from locals. One sign quotes a former Oak Street resident on his childhood home: “IT WAS A SACRED SPOT. A WORLD. A UNIVERSE.” Another sign informs passers-by of a stat: “one-fifth of New Haven residents were displaced between 1956 and 1974.”

Another sign includes words from then-Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz shortly after construction of the Route 34 connector, calling New Haven, “The greatest success story in the history of the world.” But in fact, the displacement entailed by New Haven’s Model City era is responsible for much of the city’s current traumas. More than 3,000 people—881 households, plus 350 small businesses—were displaced during the Oak Street demolition, with many people moving to the Hill and Newhallville neighborhoods, which remain among New Haven’s poorest.

And while Oak Street is notable in the concentration of its excision, New Haven also shut down more than twenty residential hotels and SROs throughout the Model City, a key form of housing for low-income individuals without families. In her book, Model City Blues, historian Mandi Isaacs Jackson neatly summarizes the intentions and outcome of these twin practices:

Places previously inhabited by the poor and working class would become clean, vibrant, commercially viable space. In New Haven, this new urban center never quite materialized according to plan, but the transformation of the downtown from mixed living, working, and commercial center to prescribed and economically enforced government, arts, parking, and shopping units directly circumscribed the kinds of living choices available to the city’s working class.

This legacy remains. Today, many New Haven households are disproportionately overburdened by housing costs, in part because of city’s low inventory and thus extremely low vacancy rates. A 2012 survey by local firm DataHaven revealed that housing costs consumed more than 50 percent of household budgets for 39 percent of families in the Hill. A 2015 Community Wellbeing Survey suggests that nearly one-in-ten New Haven residents struggle to afford housing. Some of the projects created during the urban renewal era are now out of use or no longer in existence: The New Haven Coliseum was demolished in 2007, and the Chapel Square mall—notorious for gang-related shootings during New Haven’s “Gun Wavin’” 1990s—has been redeveloped into housing.

As Rubin says, “the urban historical story that you can’t ignore or avoid [in New Haven] is the urban renewal moment, when there was so much physical and social upheaval in the city.” Once the primary arrival neighborhood for immigrants to New Haven, Oak Street was diverse in its demographic composition save for one common denominator: socioeconomic status. Rob Gurwitt once described the area for Mother Jones as a place where “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.”

Robert Moses, right, shown with then-New Haven Mayor Richard Lee, March 4, 1958. (AP Photo/John Rooney)

Perceived blight in the Oak Street neighborhood was used by Lee and others to legitimize Oak Street’s destruction during his time as mayor. Elihu’s signage project incorporates some of this rhetoric. One, for instance, compares the neighborhood to the “rotten spot from an apple.” Eventually, despite resident protests and resistance, 42 acres were seized under Berman v. Parker, a 1954 Supreme Court case that expanded the principle of eminent domain to include seizing land and private property for the nebulously defined purposes of “public safety, public health, morality, peace and quiet, [and] law and order.” Oak Street was then bulldozed under the 1956 Federal Highway Act.

By presenting oral history and archival research in the every day public sphere, the #OakStreetHistoricalSociety signs link the past with the present, and offer a re-consideration of the future. “Even in the spaces of our cities themselves, signage is a way of marking out history and chapter,” says Elihu. “History doesn’t exist as a fact sheet; it’s possible to remake history.”

In 21st century New Haven, those forces have not evolved much since the Model City era. The embrace of bicycling and use of parking spots as patios notwithstanding, there are parallels between the displacement created by Oak Street and today’s Downtown Crossing project. For starters, there’s the continued practice of demolition-as-development as well as its ample federal funding (New Haven received a $20 million TIGER grant from the federal Department of Transportation to support the Downtown Crossing project last August after a $16 million grant was disbursed in 2015.) There are also stakeholders who question whether the project will actually do what it says it will: as previously noted in this publication, New Haven’s Urban Design League is critical of the Downtown Crossing project, arguing that it simply replaces one highway with another.

But most consistent of all is how all the urban renewal in New Haven still fails to alleviate poverty in the neighborhoods that evolved after Oak Street’s demolition: neighborhoods like the Hill and Newhallville. In the Hill, for instance, 60 percent of the population lives at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The Hill and the area ringing the Route 34 connector currently shoulders roughly a quarter of New Haven’s evictions, based on a recent mapping of eviction data. Units in the Charles Moore-designed Church Street South housing project nearby were condemned by the city in 2015; tenants were then shuttled between hotel rooms throughout the New Haven area to accommodate Yale’s parents weekend.

“New Haven continues to be a city that is deeply uneven in its economic recovery or in the vigor of its redevelopment,” says Rubin, with neighborhoods that remain “deeply under-served by both the private and public sectors.”

This is perhaps the biggest connective tissue between the Model City era and New Haven today. For all the city’s enthusiastic embrace of an active street life and new development, there are neighborhoods that still bear the outcomes of well-intended but ill-conceived decisions made a generation ago. To this end, the #OakStreetHistoricalSociety project hopes to “call out forces of neighborhood change.”

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