How Did American Cities Become So Unequal?

How Did American Cities Become So Unequal?

The Metamorphosis

The making of the unequal city.


As the coronavirus ricocheted through New York City this spring, among its many casualties was a certain image of life in the Big Apple. The foodie destinations, posh galleries, and pricey cocktail lounges sat deserted while city hospitals long scorned as antiquated, clunky, and ineffective became crowded, bustling centers of activity and pandemonium. If they didn’t abscond to their second homes, financiers and lawyers huddled in their apartments, and grocery store employees, doormen, UPS drivers, and postal workers all became consummate risk-takers. Spaces segregated from the middle class—homeless shelters, nursing homes, jails—were revealed as inextricably linked to the rest of the city on a microbial level, as the virus could not be kept out or contained within. In the pandemic city, the oft-praised prosperity of New York in the early years of the 21st century proved illusory or at least misdirected: a world of glittering condos and luxe hotels that somehow could not provide enough hospital masks to its nurses or figure out a way to keep its children safe.

The virus held up a mirror to the city that revealed a very different image from that of a gleeful elegance and striving opportunity: a distorted, cruel urban landscape divided between those with the means and resources to depart and those who had no choice but to keep taking the subway, even as the viral wave crested. Zip code maps showing infection rates in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens compared with those in Manhattan told the story. When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, his death seemed to magnify the vulnerability, racism, and exclusion already evident, and New York, like many other places in the United States, justifiably erupted in protest.

As cities across the country and around the world struggle to cope with the ongoing pandemic, it is an opportune time to read Saving America’s Cities, Lizabeth Cohen’s excellent study of postwar urban planning. The period she chronicles is at once near and far from our own. Over the years that followed World War II, the federal government sought to address the problems of urban poverty and deindustrialization through a series of attempts at urban renewal. Much of the historical literature on these programs has focused on their failings—especially and most damningly with regard to public housing, which created what scholar Arnold Hirsch, writing about Chicago, called a “second ghetto.” Cohen, by contrast, views the contradictory legacy and aspirations of postwar urban liberalism as having much within them to admire, a case she makes by taking up the life of urban planner Ed Logue.

Logue’s name is little known today, but he was a renowned figure in the mid-20th century, dubbed “Mr. Urban Renewal” by The New York Times and the “Master Rebuilder” by The Washington Post. He brought federal redevelopment money to New Haven. He used public money to rebuild downtown Boston. He built the apartment towers on Roosevelt Island for New York City as well as affordable housing elsewhere throughout the state. For Cohen, his career was representative of a certain liberal hope: that professional expertise and federal funds could reverse the racial inequalities, suburban flight, unemployment, and disinvestment that plagued American cities in the second half of the 20th century.

Cohen makes a compelling case that a renewed faith in the public sector and the active participation of the federal government in rebuilding urban infrastructure and public housing are essential for any progress today, and she argues that Logue’s work demonstrates the potential of this approach as well as some of its successes, however partial. Yet at the same time, Saving America’s Cities is, purposefully or not, a study in urban liberalism’s failings and of the profound pressures that always constrained and shaped its aspirations and accomplishments. In the end, Logue’s career—which began with his trademark sunny confidence and brash appeal but ended with his back against the wall of declining federal money and slipping public support—cannot help but suggest the limits of postwar urban renewal as much as its possibilities.

Ed Logue hailed from the heart of urban America, Philadelphia. Born in 1921, he grew up the oldest of five children in an Irish Catholic household. His father was a tax assessor, a well-paid public sector job that enabled him to send his children to private school and to summer at the Jersey shore. But after he died when Logue was just 13, the family fell into near poverty. The charity of an uncle enabled them to avoid destitution.

Despite the family’s travails, Logue went to Yale on a scholarship. During his time in college, he became involved in New Haven’s labor movement. He worked in the Yale dining room and gained a reputation as a firebrand; a supervisor later told the FBI that Logue had been known for spreading “malicious rumors” about management, calling Yale administrators “dictators” and “slave drivers.” After he graduated, he went to work as an organizer for the local that represented the university’s janitors, maids, and maintenance workers. He may have been a radical, but he was also a committed anti-communist, skeptical of the Communist Party’s role in local politics and dismissive of its broader program. As Cohen puts it, he was a “rebel in the belly of the establishment beast,” a New Dealer who believed in the role of the federal government and in the power of labor unions, but he was not someone who sought broader social transformation.

Logue fought in World War II and then attended Yale Law School on the GI Bill. But he was quickly bored and alienated by the life of an attorney. “The law is a whore’s trade,” he explained to a law school mentor. “I don’t want a nice law practice for anything but the income, and I’m a son of a bitch if I’ll throw away ten or twenty years of my life building up an income.” He considered a career in labor law, but here, too, his ambitions were larger than the role. Being a labor lawyer meant serving the labor movement but not leading it. Logue found himself drawn to politics instead, albeit not as a politician but as the labor secretary to Chester Bowles, a former New Dealer (and head of the Office of Price Administration, which regulated prices during World War II) who had become the governor of Connecticut. Logue then traveled with his boss to India when Bowles became the US ambassador, observing with great interest the community development work the Ford Foundation was doing in rural parts of the country.

In 1954, Logue returned to New Haven to work with the city’s new mayor, Richard Lee. Federal support for suburban development was most evident in subsidized home loans and tax breaks for homeowners as well as road construction, but there was still ample money available for cities, and Logue was able to win more than $130 million in federal aid (over $1 billion in today’s dollars). Cohen details how Logue and Lee used this money to make New Haven a “model modern city” and an example of “what can be accomplished when a full-scale attack on blight and poverty is undertaken.” With federal aid as well as foundation money, Logue and Lee rebuilt schools, developed an industrial center, and helped reshape the downtown commercial district. Logue also helped give shape to an increasingly familiar figure in East Coast cities: the urban planner who would operate with political reserve to create a city in the best interests of all.

With the emergence of civil rights and Black activism in New Haven, many of the problems with Logue’s model of urban planning came to the fore. The kind of renewal that Logue promoted at times involved displacing poorer residents and people of color. It also privileged a certain kind of rule by experts rather than the voices and power of the people most directly affected. Throughout the United States, the anti-communist liberalism embodied in Logue’s top-down urban planning was coming under pressure from below—from the civil rights movement and the New Left, from people who did not want to fight in Vietnam, and from those who rejected the terms of the postwar affluent society.

The tensions in Logue’s liberalism were on full display in New Haven. At first, the city’s Black residents greeted urban renewal with optimism, recognizing that it held the potential for them to gain better housing. But over time these hopes faded, especially as many displaced by redevelopment found it difficult to find new homes and were often relocated in neighborhoods or projects that were no improvement over what they left behind. Community organizers began to show up at public meetings to criticize Logue and his fellow planners for making decisions about their city without consulting the people who would feel the strongest impact of those choices. As one area resident said at a 1967 hearing held by former Illinois Senator Paul Douglas on redevelopment in New Haven, “You people have listened to the Mayor. How about listening to us?”

By the time of that forum, Logue had left for Boston. He claimed he moved on because of his program’s success. “I had done about as much as I could do in New Haven except stay the course and see it through,” he recalled. “After a while there’s not much challenge in that.” But it was already becoming clear that his complacent sense of optimism about New Haven as a model city was unjustified. As early deindustrialization set in, the city’s racism and racial inequality became only more glaring. Local white resistance to school desegregation expanded, and Yale continued to benefit far more from its relationship to the city than the city’s residents did, especially those of color.

Logue’s time in Boston was equally marked by victories and frustrations. There, too, he relied centrally on leveraging federal money to stimulate development and also came up against the challenges of a declining industrial economy and white resistance.

He began his time in the city with ambitious plans to rebuild its downtown. He oversaw the construction of Government Center, a new set of headquarters for city, state, and federal offices that helped encourage commercial development. Building on this success, he embarked on a series of renewal programs in Boston’s neighborhoods, where he sought to encourage racial integration by improving housing and constructing infrastructure and services, including better public schools. In practice, getting white and Black Bostonians to live side by side in racially integrated neighborhoods was far harder than it looked on paper. Logue had trouble building as much affordable replacement housing as the city needed, which meant that Bostonians were displaced by his projects, leading only to further segregation and housing inequality.

Logue claimed to want to work with the neighborhoods to make sure his programs fit the needs and visions of residents, but he was more comfortable with communities that were willing to accept his expert knowledge, and in fact, he was often surprised by the community organizing that resisted his urban renewal efforts or sought to redirect them in a way that more closely fit local needs. When he tried to run for mayor of Boston in 1967, he finished fourth in the primary—well behind Louise Day Hicks, whose claim to fame was her vigorous defense of segregation in Boston’s public schools. Logue’s efforts could not keep open expressions of racism from surging to the forefront of the city’s politics.

From Boston, he went to Albany, where New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller tapped Logue to lead the Urban Development Corporation. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Rockefeller established the UDC with a mandate to construct affordable housing in the state. Under Logue’s leadership, the UDC was responsible for building about 25 percent of government-subsidized housing there, for some 100,000 people. Among these were three “new towns” built from the ground up, including on Roosevelt Island.

In contrast to Logue’s earlier efforts, undertaken in the heyday of postwar liberalism, the UDC could not rely in the same way on federal money. Instead, it sought to combine some public money (from the state as well as the federal government) with private investment raised through moral obligation bonds that carried no legal obligation to repay and thus did not require voter approval. Logue and the UDC relied on Rockefeller’s close connections to real estate developers and the financial community. (Rockefeller’s brother David Rockefeller was, after all, the president of Chase Manhattan Bank.) But after the governor left the state to become vice president under Gerald Ford, the problems with relying on the bond market to carry out the construction of affordable housing quickly became evident. With the absence of public money, it was difficult to build low- and moderate-income housing that would be profitable—and unless it was, private lenders would call in their debt.

The UDC faced serious political 
obstacles as well. When it sought to build low-income housing in Westchester County, just north of New York City, the proposals seemed crafted to mollify the residents of leafy enclaves such as Bedford and Scarsdale, with projects that contained no more than 100 units of low-income housing mixed with moderate-income units, with veterans, area residents, employees of local businesses, and town and school district staffers to be given priority for them. Instead, the plans met with intransigent opposition from suburbanites who had no intention of allowing their towns to become more diverse racially or economically. As Cohen puts it, “In town after town, something like a civil war broke out.” Organizations like United Towns for Home Rule sprang up to marshal resistance. At one point, a barn that the UDC was planning to convert into a community center was burned to the ground. Logue received death threats and was taunted at community meetings: “Get out, we don’t want you in Bedford!” Meanwhile, the Nixon administration imposed a moratorium on the housing subsidies that had been key to the UDC’s financial projections, and Nelson Rockefeller’s departure meant that the UDC no longer had a key ally in Albany. Still, Logue kept building and borrowing to build, using the moral obligation bonds even though he no longer had a clear way of repaying the debt the UDC was accumulating.

By the mid-’70s, the declining commitment of the federal and state governments to build affordable housing, the resistance the UDC faced locally, and Logue’s general indifference to the finances of the agency created a perfect storm. Banks began refusing to lend to the UDC, and in February 1975 the agency defaulted on more than $100 million in debt. As a spokesperson for the bankers put it, the underlying problem was that “social goals are funded one way in this country and economic goals another.” Logue and the UDC’s leaders had assumed that their obligation was to the people who might live in the homes they built, not to the bondholders, but the corporation officials soon realized their mistake. An agency like the UDC could not fund itself through ever-increasing piles of debt.

The rules of the game for people like Logue had been changing even as they played, but above all else, what the UDC’s failure suggested was that only a massive public commitment of resources could address the housing crisis. Relying on the bond markets only empowered the financiers. As Logue said, “We cannot allow basic public policy of this importance to be made in corporate board rooms and issued to public men by fiat.” The problem was that in the absence of taxes and redistributive mechanisms that enabled social resources to be used for public goods like housing, there was no choice but to rely on the credit markets—and that would always mean that corporate boardrooms, in the end, made the rules.

Logue’s reputation was seriously tarnished by the UDC debacle. It marked not only the failure of the agency but also the failure of the kind of urban liberalism to which he had devoted his life. His last major project was an effort at redemption of sorts. In New York City he headed the South Bronx Development Office under Mayor Ed Koch. No love for him was lost upstate, and people in the governor’s office sought to divert funding from his new post. The new governor of New York, Hugh Carey, insisted, “I don’t want any of my money to go to him.”

Despite the governor’s hostility to Logue, the SBDO undertook a variety of projects aimed at rehabilitating the South Bronx, including the construction of Charlotte Gardens: 90 single-family homes, subsidized for purchase, a pocket of suburbia abutting the area’s crumbling apartment towers. Relying less and less on federal or state money, Logue found himself forced to depend primarily on private foundations like Ford to help finance the construction. The Charlotte Gardens project incorporated input from the Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in which he worked and broke from his early top-down centralism, pointing toward a more democratic and inclusive model of urban renewal.

Yet at the same time, the project’s scale was much more limited and its ambitions smaller than those that defined his earlier career. Logue retired from the SBDO in 1985 and returned to Massachusetts, where he was involved in local development efforts but moved increasingly into obscurity. He wrote letters to the editor and got in touch with his contacts in city government and at The Boston Globe to share his thoughts on public matters. “In a way he tried to go about doing things the same way he had done when he had the power,” said one former colleague. “I think it was hard for him.” Logue died suddenly in 2000 at almost 79.

It is hard not to see in Logue’s story a parable for many of the problems of postwar liberalism and some of the political dilemmas this legacy creates today. On the one hand, he always believed in the importance of the public sector, especially the federal government, as a force that had the capacity to transform cities. The problems of urban poverty, racism, inequality, and substandard housing were for Logue profound moral and political issues—ones that the private sector alone could never resolve and that required the commitment of the state. It is as true today as it was in the mid-20th century that landlords and developers will not provide the affordable housing that people so desperately need and that the consequences of overcrowded housing, rent instability, and eviction wreak havoc.

But on the other hand, the political framework Logue relied on frustrated his biggest goals. Instead of seeing the key problems in terms of money, resources, and power, he treated the challenges posed by deindustrializing cities as issues of development—problems that could be solved by intelligent men working rationally and capably from above.

The issue was not simply one of participatory democracy versus top-down control; it was that men like Logue never really had the power they wanted to begin with. They tried to execute their visions and plans, but they did so in a context that favored suburbia, in which capital had free rein to leave the cities, in which bondholders had the final say, and in which white homeowners saw Black neighbors as a threat to all they held dear. Logue and his ilk also tried to do so in a context in which they purposefully distanced themselves from the political ideas and radical social movements that might have pushed urban liberalism toward a more egalitarian outcome, one that took more seriously questions of power, class, race, and resources. In other words, midcentury urban planning failed not because it was too ambitious but because from its outset, it was not ambitious enough, never really getting at the deeper inequalities that structured American society. It stayed at the level of urban policy when what was needed was a challenge to power.

With deep archival research and a narrative sweep that fixes her subject in the arc of midcentury US history, Cohen sketches Logue vividly, illuminating his forcefulness, his passion, his masculine confidence. She also provides a painful account of what he and so many liberals of his generation were up against. The contrast between these two aspects of her story—Logue’s certitude crashing into the limits of what he was able to accomplish—at times makes Saving America’s Cities read a bit like a claustrophobic horror story. Logue is increasingly hemmed in, his dreams and aspirations frustrated by the ever-dwindling federal resources on which they depended. He comes to seem like the King Lear of urban planning, following a dimming star of liberalism that was so clearly inadequate to its time.

The limits of Logue’s vision are evident all around us today. The 21st century city in the United States has all but abandoned the ideals of integration and affordability. Instead, American cities are organized around accumulated wealth, racial disparities, and delivering luxury consumption to a rarefied elite. Given where we have ended up, it is hard to see Ed Logue and the political tradition he embodies as saviors. The gap between what they sought to achieve and the outcome was too great. After the collapse of the UDC, the journalist Joseph Fried wrote a postmortem in The Nation in which he argued that the “fundamental issue” the UDC raised was that “only a long-range, public effort will make possible the construction and rehabilitation needed” for millions of Americans “to live in decent housing and decent neighborhoods.” The “skittish and volatile” private market could not accomplish this; “the job must be done by American society generally.” To survey the failures of local and federal bodies today is to hear Fried’s words echo down the years. The problems of American cities remain, as he put it then, a “harsh and vivid reminder that American society is still a long way from meeting a moral obligation of its own.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that Paul Douglas was an active US Senator during a 1967 hearing on New Haven redevelopment. At the time, he was chairman of the National Commission on Urban Problems, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after losing his Senate seat the previous fall.

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