One of the things we do not do well in this country is learn from our mistakes. This is particularly true in the strengthening and rejuvenating of cities. To listen to the hype about new stadiums, aquariums, convention centers and downtown malls, one would think that cities are on a fast track to rebirth. To see photographs of miserable, overscaled public housing projects–effectively warehouses for poor people–blown up and replaced by architecturally attractive low-scaled "town homes," one would think neighborhood rebuilding is moving along nicely. And to observe once empty or neglected neighborhoods exhibiting renewed life is to be reassured that the organic rebirth process is always possible where an urban district has not been erased.
But beneath the pretty-picture surface is a disturbing trend: the repetition of past mistakes that will inevitably lead to severe problems no different from many of generations past. So it is cause to cheer when books come along to remind us of former destructive policies and help provoke scrutiny of practices that mimic them today.
Chester Hartman’s Between Eminence & Notoriety: Four Decades of Radical Urban Planning is just such a book. A rare critical voice within the urban planning profession, Hartman graduated from and then taught urban planning at Harvard and other universities; served as consultant to many public and private agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Civil Rights Commission; has written or edited more than a dozen books; and currently is president and executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington. This book is a compendium of articles penned by him over four decades, covering displacement, affordable housing, poverty, race, social activism, transportation, the failings of planning schools and other pertinent issues. With a no-holds-barred style that reflects his lifelong social activism, Hartman is refreshingly direct in his criticism of professionals, educators and public officials.
"What appears irrational or neglectful in working-class residential patterns may, upon deeper inquiry, prove to be quite reasonable and meaningful," Hartman writes. "’Slum’ is a loaded, often class-biased term, oblivious to or ignorant of different and legitimate ways in which indoor and outdoor spaces are used and perceived."
Viable neighborhoods, he points out, have been mislabeled slums because a different political agenda (a highway or urban renewal project) took priority. Hartman’s first professional work was in the early 1960s, studying displacement and relocation impacts in Boston’s West End, "a prototypical early ‘slash and burn’ urban renewal clearance project" of a tightly knit community that functioned well socially and economically, both as a distinctive neighborhood and as a critical contributor to the larger city’s stability. That was a formative experience for Hartman; it became the basis of his PhD dissertation and reverberates through his years of activism, studies and writing.
The destruction of the West End also provided a formative lesson for the pre-eminent urban critic Jane Jacobs, whose Death and Life of Great American Cities was a useful guidepost and inspiration for Hartman’s work. Jacobs has written a brief but instructive foreword to this book. Reluctant to do so at first, Jacobs changed her mind for the reason that goes to the heart of this book’s value:
I happened to receive a phone call from a reporter asking me for a quote on why middle-class people (her code word for whites) were returning to cities when a generation earlier they had fled cities as unfit places to live or bring up children. She was astonished when I told her that hundreds of thousands of middle-class people had been forced against their will to leave cities because their homes and businesses were demolished in the name of slum clearance and urban renewal, or their neighborhoods degraded and ruined by highway clearances. Nor was she aware that poor black ghettos do not locate themselves spontaneously; she knew nothing of financial redlining, social blockbusting, and planned pushing about of minority populations. By the time our conversation ended–she incredulous at my words, I incredulous at her innocence–I had made up my mind…to put in my say that [Hartman’s] book is needed, especially by people too young to have lived through the kinds of events it chronicles.