Exhibit Visits Urban Renewal’s ‘Scenes of Crime’

In retrospect, Urban Renewal, the post-World War II program that demolished undesirable urban areas in an attempt to heal cities, has a lot in common with the old medical practice of leeching. Contemplating each, you’re first relieved the idea is no longer popular, then you can’t help wondering, “What the hell were they thinking?”

A new exhibit on Urban Renewal at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture attempts to, in its own words, “[return] to the scene of the crime to ask some post-mortem questions.” Curated by the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), a nonprofit that works in schools and galleries to encourage awareness of the built environment, “Urban Renewal: the City Without a Ghetto” uses photography, video, documents, and interactive models to examine specific moments in Urban Renewal’s history and unpack why and how the program unfolded.

Urban Renewal grew out of the momentous Housing Act of 1949, and rested on the assumption that, in the words of James Baldwin, “A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence.” The theory attracted proponents as diverse as Baldwin and Robert Moses, individuals whose motives ranged from the earnest to the racist to the self-interested. Urban Renewal’s critics decried what they felt was a willful embrace of theory at the expense of reality, a reality that included mass displacement and seizure and destruction of homes by the U.S. Government. These conflicting viewpoints are crystallized in a book featured in the exhibit that shows photographs of Urban Renewal sites before and after their makeovers. While supporters claimed these new buildings were spectacular architectural achievements, the caption notes, “Where are all the PEOPLE?”

In addition to excavating primary sources, CUP has produced extensive educational materials for the exhibit, including dossiers on Urban Renewal Areas and a video on public housing. Some items on display-such as a 115-page report from the Bronx Center Steering Committee-will excite mainly municipal policy wonks, but the exhibit’s interactive games and color-coded maps will also satisfy casual visitors.

Furthermore, the exhibit features five case studies of New York Urban Renewal areas that drive the program’s reality home. Atlantic Terminal, in Brooklyn, after a series of miscarried plans, is the site of a massive mall and ongoing construction. Melrose Commons, in the South Bronx, has had a happier fate: The activists of Nos Quedamos (We Are Staying) insisted on participating in the area’s planning process, thwarting plans to displace them; the result is that the site’s blueprint incorporates a range of affordable housing and post-Urban Renewal conventional wisdom like “active street presence.”

“Urban Renewal: the City Without a Ghetto” is part of a larger CUP project that entails educational seminars and other exhibits. Rosten Woo of CUP says the “City Without a Ghetto” moniker was meant to be deliberately ambiguous, and he was pleased to find that the title provoked different reactions. “To a lot of people, a city without a ghetto sounds like a self-evidently desirable thing,” he says. “But one of the students in our class said the title really bothered her. She said, ‘I live in the ghetto, so a city without a ghetto is a city without me in it.’”

Ultimately heartening, “Urban Renewal: the City Without a Ghetto” shows that the ideology of Urban Renewal has taken its proper place in history: as a blunder to be examined for its lessons.

“Urban Renewal: the City Without a Ghetto” will run at Storefront for Art and Architecture through Oct. 19. Gallery hours are Wednesday—Sunday, 11am – 6pm.

Categories: Cities