Monday, January 16, 2006

Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose...

Remember "Urban Renewal"?

No, not the Tower of Power album from about 1972--the grand 1950s and '60s project, backed by the best planning thought of the time and buckets o'Federal bucks, that would--as in Vietnam--save our cities by destroying them.

Only it wasn't pitched that way. It was pitched as removing "blighted" neighborhoods so that new development could take place more easily on the acres of land thus cleared.

Well, the funny thing was, many of the people who lived in these "blighted" neighborhoods considered them anything but. These people were almost always poor or working class, and usually members of minority groups. Some of them raised a stink about what was happening, but nobody listened--or at least nobody listened in time to throw the engine of Progress into reverse. So they were removed, their houses condemned and bought for a song, and replaced some cases, nothing. In others, light industry. And in those few "successes," among them Philadelphia's Society Hill, rich people. At least in Philadelphia, they took the neutron rather than atomic bomb approach: They left the buildings standing, most of them.

But everyone agrees that "urban renewal"--or, as some black activists put it, "Negro removal"--was a mistake in hindsight.

Or do they? For we are fighting the same battles again.

Consider this tale out of Camden summarized in the commentary section of today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

The setting is Cramer Hill, a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Camden's north end. If you read the article, it seems like the only "blight" in the neighborhood is that the residents can't keep their properties up to upper-middle-class standards.

Or, I guess, pay upper-middle-class taxes on them. Which is reason enough for the City of Camden to back a developer's proposal to replace the neighborhood with new housing, shops and a golf course.

Legal Aid attorneys are helping the residents fight to save their neighborhood. But this also seems like one of those eminent domain abuse cases that have produced the odd spectacle of right-wing and libertarian activists riding to the defense of the little folk. I imagine it's only a matter of time before one of the conservative legal foundations weighs in on the side of the residents as their argument goes to court, as it is sure to do.

We can only hope this happens. "Urban renewal" was a mistake then, and it's a mistake now. And the Supreme Court decision that made it much easier needs to be revisited, and soon.