If you must read one commentary on the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo vs. City of New London–the ruling that allows local governments to seize homes and businesses via “eminent domain” and hand them over to developers for “urban renewal” projects–read this one by John Tierney in the New York Times.
Tierney writes scathingly about what happened when they tried urban renewal in Pittsburgh starting in the 1950s, destroying bustling business districts, working-class neighborhoods, and entire African-American communities in order to erect sterile plazas and so-called “renaissance” centers, where the only renaissance that ever occurred took place in the contractors’ bank accounts:
“They replaced a bustling business district with Gateway Center, an array of bland corporate towers surrounded by the sort of empty plazas that are now considered hopelessly retrograde by urban planners trying to create street life….
“Bulldozers razed the Lower Hill District, the black neighborhood next to downtown that was famous for its jazz scene (and now famous mostly as a memory in August Wilson’s plays). The city built a domed arena that was supposed to be part of a cultural ‘acropolis,’ but the rest of the project died. Today, having belatedly realized that downtown would benefit from people living nearby, the city is trying to entice them back to the Hill by building homes there.
“In the 1960’s, the bulldozers moved into East Liberty, until then the busiest shopping district outside downtown. Some of the leading businessmen there wanted to upgrade the neighborhood, so hundreds of small businesses and thousands of people were moved to make room for upscale apartment buildings, parking lots, housing projects, roads and a pedestrian mall….
“The shopping district was destroyed. The drugstore closed, along with the department stores, movie theaters, office buildings and most other businesses….
“The city managed to clear out shops and an office building to make room for a new Lazarus department store, built with $50 million in public funds, but Lazarus did not live up to its name. It has shut down and left a vacant building. Meanwhile, the city?s finances are in ruins, and businesses and residents have been fleeing the high taxes required to pay off decades of urban renewal projects and corporate subsidies.”
For me in Washington, D.C., the Kelo ruling was deja vu all over again.
I live in Southwest Washington, and in 1954, in a case called Berman vs. Parker, the Supreme Court upheld the D.C. government’s to seize almost the entire Southwest quadrant, raze every single standing structure on it–rowhouses, going businesses, churches, you name it–to build the sterile, soul-less, neighborhood business-free wasteland that is the Southwest today. Plus block upon block of gang- and drug-plagued housing projects–the very worst way to house the poor that?s ever been dreamed up–to replace the single-family, owner-occupied neighborhoods where Southwest’s poor once lived. The “public purpose” for the exercise of eminent-domain power? To cure “urban blight.” The luckless Berman had owned a thriving hardware store in the Southwest business district–no blight on his premises, he contended. The Supreme Court’s response: tough tomatoes.
Only now that property values have gone sky-high in the Washington–and someone finally realized that Southwest is in walking distance of the National Gallery, the Smithsonian, and so forth–is the housing market finally starting to wake up down here. And there are some plans afoot to put back some of the urban character that we lost in 1954. But of course it’s going like molasses, because now that the District of Columbia owns much of the property, politics and bureaucracy are major factors that delay our enjoying a renaissance that could mirror that of the mostly privately owned downtown arts district. It will take the better part of a century to bring back the lively urban street life that was bulldozed away overnight during the mid-1950s.
And I don’t think we’ll ever get a hardware store back down here.