Through large-scale demolition and clearance, American urban renewal waged a war on perceived waste—and created a new tide of it.
This post is part of a CityLab series on wastelands, and what we squander, discard, and fritter away.
“Urban renewal” is a phrase with loaded connotations in American politics and history. The term largely refers to three policies enacted in the postwar era: the Housing Act of 1949, the Housing Act of 1954, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Up until 1974, the federal government funded a nationwide policy of demolition and large-scale clearance.
Last year, Francesca Russello Ammon, an assistant professor of city and regional planning and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, chronicled the impact of those policies on American cities by focusing on the machines that made it possible.
In Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape , she unearths the origins of a “culture of clearance” that emerged after World War II. From 1950 to 1980, wrecking crews brought down roughly 7.5 million dwelling units across the United States, equivalent to one out of every 17 in the country. Leading the charge was the bulldozer itself, which was promoted in construction equipment ads and children’s books as part of a patriotic and positive ideology of demolition-as-renewal.
Bulldozer grapples with the physical and environmental destruction of this wave of tear-downs, as well as the social displacement caused by rebuilding American cities, suburbs, and interstate highways. Ammon spoke to CityLab to unpack urban renewal and what it tells us about the idea of waste in cities.
We see before and after photos of demolition sites pretty often. What process is missing from that picture?
The gap between the before and after is what my book is about—how do you get from one to the other? The challenges, frustrations, and injustices of that process leave people dissatisfied. It’s not the aesthetics—it’s what happens to the people who get displaced and the environmental consequences.
Photographs were a big part of how I went about understanding what happened. From journalistic depictions to municipal archives, I used photographs—among other sources—to unpack this complicated process.
You draw on the example of New Haven. Life magazine did a profile of the city’s mayor at a demolition. Can you tell us more about that feature?
Dick Lee was New Haven’s mayor and one of the leaders of urban renewal implementation. He was leading a smaller city, but New Haven captured more federal dollars per capita for urban renewal than any other city in the country. They went into urban renewal in a big way and he wanted to showcase demolition and clearance.
That Life magazine photo spread [in 1958] was fascinating to me. He’s celebrated as a “clean-up champion,” looking at demolition as cleaning. Lee’s happy operating the wrecking ball, standing in front of the cleared land. He’s not celebrating new buildings—but the removal as something itself.
That’s the sentiment that pervaded this process: the real rush to clear. There weren’t developers necessarily lined up to build something new. But the idea was if we could get rid of what was there, that was a step forward.
Why did the bulldozer capture the American imagination after World War II, and how did it return to the home front?
That was one of the most interesting processes of discovery for me. The history of cities tends to skip over World War II as an interruption of urban development. We know a lot about the big programs of the New Deal. We know a lot about postwar suburbanization, renewal, and highways, but the war gets left out.
Fitting that back in, I saw how positively construction equipment, particularly the bulldozer, was portrayed during the war. They had material importance on the Pacific front but also on the European front. That’s how American construction and destruction work came to be seen as patriotic and part of American progress.
The machine comes out of the war with a lot of positive valence. The companies that made them, Caterpillar and International Harvester, among many others, continued to build equipment throughout the war. So they were ready to hit the ground running to sell products to consumers after the conflict was through. And advertisements touted their machines as having been proven on tough battlefield terrain. So war was actually conducive to their postwar business. The technology, the ideology, and the skills learned by members of the Construction Battalions (Seabees) and Army Engineers during the war all made these machines ready for use on the postwar home front.
A chapter in your book pulls from a quote that described urban renewal as “armies of bulldozers smashing down acres of slums.” What was it that Americans thought they were fighting?
People have been talking about large-scale clearance for a long time. We can go back to Haussmann in Paris, and this wasn't a brand new idea. What was different during the war is that it happened in a big way in Europe. The post-war opportunity to rebuild some of these cities enabled the implementation of modernist planning ideals.
The corollary to that was: why couldn’t we do that at home? The war hadn’t physically damaged most American cities. But people started to articulate the problems at home as akin to a war-torn situation or a battle. They needed to be addressed in the same way as European cities.
There’s metaphoric language that traveled over, but also a way of seeing enabled by the destruction of World War II. Machines were clearing away the rubble there, and so people thought they could do the same thing to clear away the problems of American cities. They could unleash an army of bulldozers to wage “war on cities.” Of course, it’s not so simple as that, but the war and postwar reconstruction helped make the idea more practical on the ground in the United States.
You describe a “culture of clearance” in the book. What does that tell us about American attitudes toward the idea of waste, and who are the casualties of that “war”?
It’s creative destruction—to achieve progress we needed to destroy that which came before to make way for this new building. Rather than looking to old built fabric as something that could be restored or improved, we’re actually going to destroy it to make something anew.
From a social perspective, the “casualties” are largely African Americans and people of ethnic or racial minorities who get displaced. The cores of cities, which had been home to diverse communities, get remade for higher income people. That wasn’t necessarily going to be the case originally, as some cities promised people could move back to rebuilt neighborhoods.
People who were displaced may have moved to physically better housing because there was a relocation dimension to displacement. They were given moving expenses and assistance in finding a new home. But a physical home wasn’t enough. They lost the social connections, the cultural connections, and the communities that were forever torn apart. They bore the consequences. That’s why “urban renewal” gets called “Negro removal”; about two-thirds of the people who were displaced were minorities.
How was government policy driving urban renewal? What were the laws that were in place?
The Housing Act of 1949 was the most critical. The federal government covered two-thirds of the cost of acquiring and clearing land for new development. If you were going to remake your city, you had to tear down what was there before. Cities would pay the other third, and they would often do that in-kind by building roads and schools—things that they may have had to build anyway. The infusion of federal funding made plans that had been sitting on city shelves economically viable. Judicial support for eminent domain further bolstered that viability as well.
The Housing Act of 1954 extended funds to rehabilitation, as well as clearance. But the demolition ideology of urban renewal was already in motion, infusing many of the early, major projects. The funding came to a close by 1974, so postwar urban renewal was in place for about a quarter century.
What was the scope of these projects?
It was a national phenomenon. That’s what distinguishes this period from demolition throughout time. By 1965, nearly 800 cities around the country—located across almost every state—were participating in urban renewal.
Nationally, on average, one out of every 17 dwelling units came down during the 1960s. Urban renewal and highway clearance were a big part of that. Today, cities like Detroit are doing it in a bigger way, but large-scale clearance is no longer the norm for the average American city.
I looked at New Haven, where roughly 30,000 people were displaced. During the 1960s alone, redevelopment tore down one out of every six dwelling units there, displacing people and businesses as well.
Businesses suffered because of their specific neighborhood ties. A grocery store, a tailor—these businesses couldn’t easily start anew somewhere else. All their customers were locals. So many businesses went out of business as a result.
The specific place mattered.
Exactly: it was the community impact. A lot of the policy addressed the physical aspects of cities. There were often physical problems—for example, of electricity, plumbing, and general dilapidation—but fixing those with clearance created a whole host of social problems.
It created economic problems, too. People moved further away from where they worked. Even if housing was physically better for them, it didn’t mean it was a great fit for them in other realms. Sociologists have studied these communities and found long impacts from this displacement. Mindy Fullilove calls it “root shock.” That didn’t get factored into compensation of displaced communities.
Stepping back to the actual process of demolition, how did that in its own way produce waste?
I looked through New Haven’s records of what happened day to day on construction sites. Redevelopment created more refuse and rubble than anyone had anticipated. No one had thought through what to do with all this stuff. The initial contracts with wrecking companies didn’t really make provisions for these materials. They first thought they would burn a lot of it, but people [started] to say, “Woah, you’re doing this right next to downtown, and there’s all this smoke.” So the city banned that.
Planners thought city dumps would be able to handle it. But, very quickly, that space filled. The Redevelopment Agency started looking at surrounding cities like Hamden. Eventually, they said, “We don’t want it either,” and it became a real problem to get rid of this. There were incidents with unscrupulous contractors trying to bury some of the material onsite. They couldn’t figure out where to put it. You could do that in the short term, but eventually the ground settles where you’ve put organic materials into the ground.
The amount of waste produced in the destruction was quite large. Wreckers weren’t salvaging much. Planners were bent on clearing the landscape as fast as possible. Wrecking companies in the early 20th century used to actually pay for the privilege of tearing down a building. They knew they could make their money by reselling the parts. In urban renewal, that was much less common, so from an environmental and recycling perspective it was really destructive.
What can we learn from the idea of demolition as a spectacle that demonstrated “progress being made”?
We have to look beyond the spectacle. It is an exciting event. People come to see implosions. They draw curiosity and there’s something very visually compelling about them. During that moment of a building coming down, there’s a lot more that goes into that process that we should think through.
What happens to the people affected by this? How do we think through the environmental effects? Should we be tearing it down at all? Are there other alternatives? What position might these cities be in if that older fabric still existed? How can we rebuild to serve a diverse constituency?
I’m for slowing down the process—there’s a real race to demolish. We do that quickly and the rebuilding ends up being slower. If we can be more thoughtful about who are the beneficiaries and the victims and try to even that out, I think that can only help. There are buildings that do need to be demolished, but it doesn’t have to be the go-to solution for every city.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask how you see the bulldozer as a metaphor in our culture—it’s even in children’s books. What does it symbolize and how does it transform, as you say in the book, from “hero to villain”?
Some cultural forms were really instructive for me in understanding how the broader public was engaging with this story. Of course, there are the activists standing up in front of bulldozers in cities or in the countryside. In popular literature and in children’s books in particular, there’s the picture of the friendly bulldozer: Benny the Bulldozer, Buster Bulldozer. These characters that I uncovered exist through time; we still have those today.
We also see the emergence of more critical characterizations, in films such as Soylent Green, with these trucks with bulldozer-like shovels picking up people. There’s something a bit scarier—this isn’t necessarily all progress. There’s a certain violence to this that appears in popular culture and artwork.
It’s not that people stop embracing the bulldozer. There are always people encouraging this machine. Its power, its ability to clear and create this supposed blank slate for starting anew. In tandem, though, we also start to see the growth of more oppositional and nuanced viewpoints. I characterize it as moving from a “culture of clearance” to a “culture of conservation.” That’s a little bit of an overstatement. We haven’t completely gone the other way.
But the culture of clearance wasn’t just an urban phenomenon. It also undergirded what was going on with postwar suburbs, and with highways too. All of these were grounded in the process of clearing away, and that’s kind of the uniting ideology. The built products look different in the end: a suburban home, a high rise in the city, an interstate highway. But that starting belief in tearing down what had been there—and the damaging social and environmental consequences that result—those aren’t so different.