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Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 7Topic 3: Urban Renewal and ExpresswaysSlum Clearance
Slum Clearance

Poster published by the United States Housing Authority

Poster published by the United States Housing Authority.
In the post-Second World War period, slum clearance became an important government priority in helping the poor get better housing. But the focus of this project was only on improving physical housing: the living and vibrant neighborhoods and communities that existed around the slums were not considered in the process of slum clearance. As a result, slum clearance did not repair neighborhoods, it destroyed them.

Title 1 of the 1949 Housing Act created the Urban Renewal or Slum Clearance Program. It was a federal initiative put forward by Senator Robert Taft, who gave Robert Moses advance notice of the act in 1948. Robert Moses quickly made himself chairman of the New York City Slum Clearance Committee. Moses filled the committee with his financial, political, and real-estate friends.

Title 1 was publicly intended to relieve the post-war housing crisis, as soldiers returned, families grew, and immigrants came, and to provide affordable housing for the poor. Its provisions stated that the federal government would pay the city to use its legal power to confiscate little pieces of land from slum owners in rundown areas. Then the city would take the small properties it had accumulated and patch them together into larger tracts of land. The city would then clear the land and give swaths of it to private developers to build housing on. Title 1 slum clearance funds were made available only if every building in a designated area could be slotted for destruction. Thousands of teeming city blocks were turned into rubble, and the poor became displaced.

In theory, this housing was intended for the poverty-stricken who had lost their homes. But Title 1 did not require private developers to build housing that recent slum dwellers could afford. Since poor people couldn't pay high rents, and had rental rates that were legally protected from sizeable increases, private developers had no interest in building housing for the economically disadvantaged. When the developers did build rental housing, it was for middle-class tenants who could afford to pay higher rates. They limited their scope further by building housing only for tenants who were white. The developers went out of their way to keep Latino and African-American people out of the new housing.

Many of those who lost their homes to demolition were not re-housed at all, and those who did get relocated found themselves in massive housing projects, cut off from the intimacy of street communities and segregated as never before. Title 1 was a boon for developers and real-estate people, but it destroyed the heart of poor neighborhoods.

By 1959, sixteen huge Title 1 projects had been completed. Where slums had been, Moses and the private builders created Le Corbusier-inspired superblocks. Because Moses wanted his projects free of commercial life, no neighborhood stores were available. Because he wanted the clean lines of modernist architecture, this housing did not consist of row buildings with their windows close to the street and their front stoops. Instead, a big gulf existed physically between the city grid and these projects. John Cheever wrote of these new superblocks: "Their bleakness is absolute. No man has ever dreamed of a city of such monotonous severity, and there must be some bond between our houses and our dreams."

The completion of the Title 1 projects put hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes. Especially chilling, Moses' committee had uprooted more than a hundred thousand black New Yorkers and forced them into Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. The people who were affected most were those with the least political clout. The lasting effects of the program were the displacement of the poor, the loss of community life that tied individuals and families together, the strengthening of racial divisions and distrust, and the dehumanizing of large parts of the city.

Life in the Slums | Slum Clearance | Suburbanization and Highways
The Destruction of Neighborhoods | Jane Jacobs and Landmark Preservation

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