In 1962, at the Museum of Modern Art, the urban renewal pioneer Edward Logue and the urban renewal critic Jane Jacobs faced off in a debate. Jacobs had just published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her seminal “attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” as she wrote at the book’s beginning. Logue was in the midst of remaking Boston as head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, investing millions of federal dollars in affordable housing across the city and in the downtown’s ambitious Government Center; a few years later he would move on to New York. The Washington Post called him “the Master Rebuilder.”
Logue’s angle on Jacobs was sharp. Jacobs had positioned herself as a critic of suburbia, its excesses and exclusivity. But Logue saw a weakness in her logic. For better and for worse, urban renewal was the federal government’s effort to reinvest in cities after subsidizing the creation of the suburbs and, in turn, devastating urban tax bases. Logue believed that by attacking urban renewal, Jacobs was unwittingly letting suburbia off the hook—a point he made with panache at the debate. Her argument was popular “among comfortable suburbanites,” he said, “who like to be told that neither their tax dollars nor their own time need to be spent on the cities they leave behind them at the close of every workday.” Jacobs was myopic, he suggested, and a friend to the burbs to boot.
In our seemingly never-ending clash between the top-down-monumental approach to city building, represented by the likes of Logue and Robert Moses, and the local-small-scale approach of Jacobs, it was a point for “Team Top-Down.” It wasn’t the only one. In her meticulously researched biography of Logue, Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), the historian Lizabeth Cohen, a professor of American Studies at Harvard, argues that urban renewal was more forward-looking than we like to acknowledge today. More importantly, Cohen takes issue with the entire “Jacobs v. Moses” city-building narrative. It’s a “stark and in many ways distorting dichotomy,” she writes—one that should have fallen out of fashion a long time ago. Cohen’s portrait of Logue, urban renewal’s forgotten protagonist, demonstrates how his legacy resists such easy classification.
Cohen has found a compelling figure in Logue. Over the course of his 30-year career, Logue remade New Haven, Boston, and New York, and worked with some of the era’s most powerful governors, mayors, and architects. In the 1950s, as head of the New Haven Redevelopment Agency, Logue collaborated with Paul Rudolph (the Temple Street Parking Garage) and Gordon Bunshaft (the Conte School in working-class Wooster Square), among others. In the 1970s, Logue was appointed by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to run the statewide Urban Development Corporation, where he transformed Roosevelt Island (formerly Welfare Island) with a plan by Philip Johnson. Throughout it all, Logue challenged the approach of both Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. In the mid-1970s, when Logue lost his fight to build low-income housing in nine towns in tony suburban Westchester, outside of New York City, Moses himself had voiced support for the local opposition.
As for what should replace the tired “Jacobs v. Moses” framework, Cohen is less certain. Sometimes she suggests it could be Logue, while at other times she acknowledges that his many failures preclude him from being a solution to anything. I didn’t mind this uncertainty, mostly because the tension that kept me reading Saving America’s Cities wasn’t how Logue would upend this dichotomy. Rather, it was how such a clear-eyed, honest, and progressive guy, talented at getting lots of money from the federal government, could oversee so many disastrous projects.
It’s a timely question. Our country’s infrastructure is old and crumbling, and most Americans support government spending to fix it. If we’re going to rebuild, as we must, we need to understand how we’ve gotten it wrong in the past. Some of Logue’s failures have familiar villains. There’s Le Corbusier and his foolish, inexplicably seductive vision that cities should have separate quarters for work, play, and housing—a vision that Logue and many postwar city-makers followed, to tragic effect. There is also the federal government’s massive failure to desegregate the suburbs and enforce Fair Housing laws. (Cohen doesn’t consider these trends and forces as much as I would have liked.) In many ways, Logue’s story is the tale of one man coming to realize, rather slowly and sometimes painfully, that the problems he aspires to solve are structural and political in nature, beyond the grasp of any one man, woman, or agency. He alone cannot solve them.
A Progressive (With One Glaring Exception)
Cohen establishes Logue’s progressive bona fides from the start. At Yale, where he completed his undergraduate and law degrees, Logue spent his senior year helping to organize the university’s janitors and maids, and after graduation, he took a full-time job with the local 142 of the United Construction Workers. “Unions are the greatest single force today in preserving and strengthening our democracy on the home front,” Logue wrote when he left his job and entered the Air Force.
Logue also thought critically about American racial prejudice. After World War II (he flew missions over Italy), he drafted a proposal he called “Is One Hundred Years Long Enough?” to promote full citizenship rights to black Americans. “The Negro problem in America today is not a Negro problem,” he wrote. “It is a white problem.” Logue believed it was the government’s responsibility to ensure full civil rights; he also believed in government support for poor and low-income Americans. “You can’t trust the private sector to protect the public interest,” he liked to say.
But while Logue challenged the era’s racism and classism, he indulged in its misogyny. He rarely hired women, partly, it seems, because doing so would have interfered with his enjoyment of what Cohen rather euphemistically calls “the fraternal intensity of the workplace.” Logue liked to hold lunch meetings at prestigious all-male clubs: the Graduate Club in New Haven, the Century Association in New York. When he moved to Boston, he negotiated membership to the all-male Tavern Club as part of his hiring package. When he moved to New York, he fought against an effort to open the Century Association to women.
Embracing the “male culture of urban renewal” had unfortunate effects beyond the obvious. Although Cohen never quite says it, it’s clear that Logue’s work, in New Haven in particular, suffered from a lack of imagination enabled, in large part, by sexism. Logue made a practice of hiring young planners who had been educated at the best schools but weren’t from the cities he was remaking. When they talked with the locals, Logue’s teams went through already-powerful interests: area businessmen, heads of unions, religious leaders. Community engagement was like a series of unofficial public-private partnerships. Those who oversaw social networks and home fronts, namely women, were ignored.
When Logue and his employees built highways and housing, they were blind to the consequences of destroying a neighborhood in the process. They failed to anticipate the need for the replacement housing, leaving thousands of families worse off than before. They also failed to anticipate the collective anger and loss that arose when entire communities were wiped out. One of the book’s most memorable quotes belongs to a New Haven official who spoke to a university researcher about the secrecy surrounding their projects, including the razing of the primarily black Oak Street neighborhood. “You have to realize that if you talk about wholesale relocation and demolition, then the people would be filled with fear and frustrations,” the official said. “While we explore very carefully all the implications of every project, we have to be careful not to have any public conversation until we are absolutely satisfied that we are right.” If not for the resulting devastation, the hubris would be almost amusing.
Why Urban Renewal Failed
Today, urban renewal is often invoked as part of the argument against “big government.” Cohen’s history is important in part because it shows that the failures of urban renewal had less to do with government itself and more to do with who officials did and did not include in their decision-making. Local businesses and chambers of commerce had ample seats at the table; representatives of ordinary people did not. Logue revised his urban philosophy throughout his career—after New Haven, he stopped displacing people—but he didn’t really learn how to build with and for a community until the very end, when he ran the South Bronx Development Office.
In the late ’70s, the South Bronx was the country’s poorest neighborhood. Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway had devastated the area and displaced an astonishing 60,000 residents. “Arsonist” was a lucrative side gig, as landlords hired people to burn down buildings so they could cash in their insurance; in a feature called “The Ruins Section,” The New York Times provided a daily update of the number of Bronx buildings that were on fire. The area’s poor African American and Latino residents mostly relied upon community organizers. Father Louis Gigante ran social services in Hunts Point; Genevieve Brooks founded a community organization called the Mid Bronx Desperadoes.
Logue’s tenure running New York’s Urban Development Corporation had ended poorly, thanks to the Westchester controversies, not to mention a few others, so in 1978 Mayor Ed Koch hired him for the South Bronx position. Brooks and Gigante, along with many residents, were very skeptical of Logue when he arrived. But Logue was humbler now, and Brooks and Gigante recognized that he brought along needed resources, connections, and expertise. When Logue got in touch with Gigante, Brooks, and others with long ties to the neighborhoods, they, in turn, worked with him.
Cohen characterizes Logue’s work in the Bronx as Logue being Logue, because he prioritized the development of affordable housing. His most famous project was Charlotte Gardens: 90 prefabricated, single-family homes, replete with white picket fences and little yards in the back. The houses, all raised ranch style, contained 1,152 square feet and had three bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, and a full basement. Logue secured federal subsidies so that each home cost $50,000, less than half the construction price. Buyers put 10%, or $5,000, down. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s $12,000 today.) They also promised not to sell their homes for at least 10 years. When Logue opened two model homes for viewing, in 1983, the waitlist grew to over 2,000 people, all of whom were members of the lower middle class: teachers, bus drivers, mechanics, and cops. Brooks and Gigante helped select the 90 buyers: half were black, half were Latino, and none had ever owned a home before.
Charlotte Gardens was a success. But it also represented a significant change for Logue: This time, he worked closely with grassroots community organizers. In addition, he didn’t fetishize high design or academic expertise, both of which looked down on low-density, suburban housing styles.
Logue in his heyday had made a practice of hiring elite architects because he believed that everyone, rich and poor, deserved to live in well-designed spaces, but also because he enjoyed the social status conferred by working with celebrated Modernists. Charlotte Gardens, on the other hand, was decidedly lowbrow, but that was not to its detriment. The homes were solidly built and affordable, and their style was meaningful to the people Brooks, Gigante, and Logue were building for: working-class families of color from the South Bronx. They had been excluded from the suburbs for decades. A house with a backyard meant something.
Lessons Learned (and Overlooked)
In the book’s final pages, Cohen identifies a few general lessons from Logue’s career, including the dangers of privatization and the importance of state and national governance. These lessons ring true, but they also feel rather obvious and slight, given the substance of her analysis. Cohen shows that many of Logue’s least successful projects, including his efforts to build affordable housing in the suburbs, ran up against structural barriers—segregation, privatization, zoning—that only state and federal policymakers, voted into office, could have confronted. She also shows that Logue’s most successful projects included the voices of lots of regular people. This doesn’t mean that planners, architects, and officials relinquished their own roles or expertise. But it does mean that they realized ordinary people had knowledge worth heeding.
Logue’s story has an unexpected lesson, then. It suggests that rethinking city-making—and dispatching with our misguided mythologizing of the “Jacobs v. Moses” narrative—can’t be done by lionizing another, different person. It’s a strange message to take away from a biography—one that Cohen didn’t seem to anticipate. Although she never claims that Logue represents the solution to today’s urban crises, her impulse to make him the focal point in a story about saving cities is, ultimately, at odds with the work that needs to be done now. She never really reckons with this dissonance.
It does seem fitting that Logue ended his career in the Bronx with the small but instructive Charlotte Gardens. One reason that the project worked is because it tapped into multiple networks and sets of resources across multiple scales of government. Logue, Gigante, and Brooks worked with one another and with bureaucrats and residents, respectively, over many months and years. They built new homes, rebuilt a neighborhood, and changed the way things got done. As far as new mythologies go, it’s a good start.