Planning, Slum Clearance and the Road to Crisis in Newark
By David Levitus

The late 1960s was a tumultuous period in the history of the United States and the world. The old order that had reigned since the close of the Second World War, marked by elite and popular confidence in the power of the state to advance the condition of society, crumbled violently. Millions of ordinary people took to the streets to express their discontent. But this dissent, often violent or met by violence, was not spontaneous: It had deep roots in anger over the ways in which the state acted upon society.

The case of Newark, N.J., illuminates how municipal power holders aggravated the problems of local society rather than alleviating them. Larger forces conspired against Newark, but the city’s own politics and policy exacerbated the problems it faced. Both the ethnic machine politics of patronage distribution and the progressive policy of planning for orderly urban growth failed to incorporate the voices of the public in preparing for a viable urban future. This disconnect, which occurred in the 1940s and 1950s, proved disastrous for the city and contributed to the anger that rocked the city in the summer of 1967.

The Great Depression brought great changes to Newark, particularly to its politics. In electoral politics, representatives of more recent immigrant groups like Italians and Eastern European Jews gained elected office. These groups, along with the Irish and African-American communities, turned to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Democratic Party. In municipal policy, Newark’s new governing coalition rallied around the New Deal outcry for systematic relief, reached out to labor and denounced the greed of some sectors of capital. The prior ideological consensus among the political elite in favor of limited government collapsed. In municipal administration, the fiscal discipline, which prevailed under the old business-backed regime, dissolved. Patronage became one of the key aspects of city politics. Although the new coalition was sympathetic to the needs of labor and immigrants, and willing to spend money on its supporters’ behalf, it did not encourage active participation of the citizenry in the daily affairs or the large decision-making processes of governance.

Dual crises of depression and mobilization for world war established the prerogatives of government action and brought about a demand for a planning process to coordinate this action. In Newark, the old-line civic establishment, consisting of organizations that represented the retail, financial, manufacturing, real estate, hotel and upper-class neighborhood interests in greater Newark, led by the Newark News, sought to apply the new governmental power and planning to achieve its vision of a city defined by orderly urban growth. Rather than confront ongoing deindustrialization, middle-class suburbanization, in-migration of poor southern African Americans and pervasive racism head on, these upper-class civic leaders pinpointed intensifying and spreading slum conditions around downtown as the source of the city’s problems—instead of the result of them.

The city planners whom the civic elite hired confirmed this conceit and affirmed that the clearance of slums and their replacement by new buildings were the solution to the city’s woes. In alliance with the local press, they promoted this solution until it became an uncontested fact of public discourse. Framed as the “War on Slums and Blight,” it drew upon the call to civic duty and martial rhetoric forged in World War II. As in the recent war against totalitarian enemies, civic pride demanded unity of purpose. Understanding the enemy was not a virtue. Surrender was not an option. Victory was seen as inevitable given enough exertion and America’s economic might.

During the 1930s and 1940s, public housing on the outskirts of Newark was quite successful. It fostered active communities with many social and cultural organizations and improved children’s health, behavior and education. There were huge waiting lists to get in. Still, there was a general exclusion of blacks (except for one inner-city project), and each project was essentially allocated to an ethnic group based on its political strength. West Newark was Irish; north Newark was Italian; south Newark was Jewish; central was African American.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, a civic consensus stood wholly behind the idea of slum clearance and redevelopment to revitalize Newark, even though the idea lay riddled with flaws. A mistaken assumption of future urban growth, founded in wishful thinking rather than in a sober analysis of demographic trends, led city planners to act as if land were becoming increasingly scarce. Instead of continuing to build garden-apartment public housing on the outskirts, as was done with much success in the ’30s and ’40s, planners adopted a rigid belief in slum clearance as the key to revitalization. Even though demolishing central-city housing would only aggravate the city’s slum problem by driving poor African Americans into already overcrowded housing in surrounding areas, thus creating another ring of slum conditions, a boosterish belief in continued growth blinded planners and politicians to the perils of destroying existing infrastructure in a city in economic decline. Newark pursued slum clearance as a good in itself, blind to its inevitable consequences of not having increased the housing supply.

Moreover, planners ignored the larger dynamics of capital flight rather than seeking government action to restrain it. Even more disturbing, almost no one highlighted the role of federal and state governments in fostering deindustrialization, suburbanization and urban disinvestment through their fiscal policies and infrastructure programs. Racial discrimination in housing and employment that forced African Americans into overcrowded inner-city tenements also received relatively little attention in the fight against slum conditions.

Economic and social transformations, and a policymaking process limited by a narrow view of the city with little openness to ideas from outside elite political culture, produced slum clearance as the most urgent policy option for Newark. The heightening of state power legally enabled this new action yet at the same time ushered in a system of patronage politics that blocked visionary policy programs. Add in the cultural legacy of having just fought a total war against a totalitarian enemy, plus an infusion of federal funds channeled straight to the local bureaucracy, and the recipe for future development was set.

In their selective vision, the architects of slum clearance and redevelopment in Newark focused their energy on local political factors. Patronage politics was the obstacle around which any program of redevelopment would have to maneuver, in particular because the local public housing authority would be key to any clearance program, and it was especially bound up with the patronage game.

In so many American cities at this time, a policy entrepreneur pushed himself forward to take advantage of this historically unique constellation of factors. The most famous of these men was Robert Moses of New York City, whose domain extended to parks, highways and public construction of all sorts across hundreds of miles, and whose power was unrivaled.

Newark’s “powerbroker,” the man who single-handedly integrated the demands of the policy vision and patronage politics and who leveraged the total war mindset, the fealty to expert wisdom and the availability of federal funds, was Louis Danzig. For Newark alone, Danzig exercised a power to shape a city that was unmatched by any other politician, planner or businessman. Throughout Danzig’s 20 years as head of the Newark Housing Authority (NHA), Newark had a clearance and redevelopment program that surpassed nearly every other American city in terms of federal money spent and acres cleared on a per capita basis. In qualitative terms, however, the program looms as a monument to the failure of impoverished ideas and uncritical politics backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government.

Neither Danzig nor Moses had created a policy vision for urban uplift. Each man’s distinction lay in adopting an existing vision as his own and then skillfully manipulating all the levers of power to turn that internalized vision into reality. The vision’s inherent flaws (in Newark’s case, acting as if slums were the source of urban decline rather than the product of racial discrimination, government programs with an anti-urban bias and unchecked capital flight) became fully apparent when the powerbrokers implemented their vision without regard for protests by affected citizens or evidence that slum clearance, for example, was actually hurting rather than helping the city.

Convinced of the righteousness of his cause, Danzig ignored the advice of others and dismissed objections from affected citizens as obstructions to progress. “Getting things done” became a goal in itself without regard to the question of what exactly was getting done. The need for power to get things done became the need for power for its own sake. No one, especially not elected politicians nor affected citizens, had the right to tamper with Danzig’s well-laid plans.

For more than a decade, Danzig made his vision a reality. In the city’s first “Urban Renewal” program under the Federal Housing Act of 1949, the NHA demolished Newark’s Little Italy, the nation’s fourth largest such enclave, and replaced it with high-rise public and private housing. Since the 1880s, the area had stood as the hub of residential, social, cultural, political and business life of the Italian community in Newark and northern New Jersey. Still vibrant in 1952, the restaurants, bakeries, groceries and seafood shops along the main artery of Eighth Avenue attracted people from all parts of the city and surrounding suburbs. Hundreds of social, cultural and political clubs lined the streets, forming and maintaining strong communities in the converted storefronts that housed them. Residents and property owners organized and fought to prevent the neighborhood’s demolition, but every authority, including all the powerful Italian politicians, rejected their pleas as obstructions to progress.

After the clearance had commenced, almost all the small businesses left the area, and a majority went out of existence permanently. Residents with the means to do so moved out to the suburbs. Many of those with less money had to move into substandard dwellings or into public housing, which often became substandard. In a neighborhood that was formerly safe and attractive to suburban dwellers, the new high-rise towers of public housing ushered in crime and a cityscape devoid of commercial or cultural attractions but full of jarringly empty lots next to inelegant, plain towers rising more than 100 feet into the air.

The story was similar in Newark’s entirely African-American Central Ward, where housing conditions were far worse than in Newark’s Little Italy. Many Central Ward residents looked forward to public housing but found the results of slum clearance severe. As in Newark’s Italian streets, hundreds of small businesses once again disappeared. The public housing towers that dotted hundreds of acres of cleared land degenerated into slum conditions only weeks and months after they were built. Trash built up in the hallways; rodents and insects infested the buildings. Worst of all, crime intensified. The narrow, unwatched hallways and closed-off elevators provided fertile grounds for violent robbery, assault and rape. The lack of commercial establishments in the wide-open spaces of the project grounds reduced casual surveillance of the city streets, increasing the danger outside the buildings.

When Danzig could no longer deny that the public housing towers had become a fiasco, he altered course by seeking to replace slums with institutional construction, middle-class housing and office buildings. Committed to the idea of slum clearance, Danzig was blind to the barren grounds of public housing projects and the vacant lots that littered the city as the result of wholesale slum clearance. Danzig ignored the tens of thousands of African Americans he was displacing with central-city clearance even though this action caused overcrowding in other areas of the city, thus rapidly transforming large areas of the formerly healthy South Ward into slums.

The dual political cultures of planning and patronage persisted in varying permutations throughout Danzig’s two decades on the job. Between 1953 and 1962, Mayor Leo Carlin, supported by business interests, reformers and the middle-class Jewish and Irish populations, backed the ideals of redevelopment and efficient administration. Even when he disagreed with Danzig over specific details, like the displacement of small businesses from the streets of the Central Ward, Carlin always gave in to Danzig, who alone could bring money into Newark and efficiently make the redevelopment vision into reality. Politicians among the affected Italian and African-American communities persisted in seeing redevelopment as they saw it before World War II—another form of patronage for ethnic groups. They took little time to think critically about the implications of redevelopment or policy for the city.

The election of Congressman Hugh J. Addonizio as mayor in 1962 represented the culmination of these politics of symbolic group uplift and patronage distribution. Because the city by this time had been shrinking rather than growing for several decades, progressively fewer people and institutions had a vested interest in urban uplift and conscientious policymaking. The Carlin administration, which ended in 1962, was the last gasp of the old policy-centered culture. The middle-class Jews of South Newark had largely given up on Carlin during his administration when his urban renewal programs caused the rapid downfall of their neighborhoods. Many Jews had already moved to homes in the suburbs. The Italian and African-American populations, never integrated into Newark’s civic life, had few expectations from their politicians regarding policies. They shared, however, an intense dislike for the displacement caused by urban renewal.

Hugh Addonizio took advantage of the failures of Carlin’s policy-centered culture to incorporate Newark’s dominant ethnic groups into his administration’s fold and to ameliorate the city’s socioeconomic troubles. He adeptly assembled a liberal ethnic electoral coalition, cultivated support by attacking urban renewal and contended that he would focus on “human needs.” To both African Americans and Italians, Addonizio’s election would symbolically confirm their demographic dominance. During his several terms in Congress, Addonizio had been seen as “the Negro’s congressman.” His congressional district had included the Central Ward. He had spoken out for civil rights and employed a black woman as his home secretary.

African Americans responded to the congressman’s promises of a school system free of racism and agreed with his attacks on Central Ward housing as “high-rise slums.” Italians, on the other hand, saw Addonizio as one of their own. He publicly recognized the failure of previous city policy to benefit them and campaigned on a promise to address the city’s growing social problems. When he won election, thousands of Italians drove down Broad Street honking their horns and yelling, “We’ve taken the town. The city is ours.”

When Addonizio came into office, it became clear that his campaign’s attention to social and policy problems had been just a means to his ultimate end of personal enrichment. He took a hands-off approach to government, except for ensuring that the patronage was spread wide enough to maintain his political preeminence. The mayor used Newark’s “big government” to profit himself and his political supporters to the detriment of the overall welfare of the city and of the black population in particular.

In the absence of active pressure on Addonizio from civic institutions and civil society, a policy vacuum opened up in which Danzig was free to operate. And because his biggest success was drowning the city in corruption, the mayor fell back on promoting accomplishments of Danzig’s Housing Authority, which fit with older notions of urban progress and which were tangible in terms of buildings erected and dollars spent. Addonizio won a second term as mayor in May 1966, brandishing urban renewal projects as tokens of policy success and touting his success in preventing a violent African-American uprising, something heretofore achieved through widespread patronage alone.

After his reelection, in one of his most massive clearance and redevelopment projects to date, Addonizio tried to bring the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry to Newark. To preempt the medical school’s concerns about sufficient land for a campus, the administration offered up 185 acres in the northwestern corner of the Central Ward. The move was highly political. Addonizio had his sights set on the governorship, and securing the medical college would mean attention and praise from throughout northern New Jersey, the mayor thought. Within the city, the project would offset Addonizio’s dramatic loss of support among African Americans. Clearance of the area would drive away some of Newark’s African Americans, complicate the voter residency requirements for those who remained and permit the gerrymandering of ward boundaries. Now government leaders abandoned the aim of progress, however confused that notion was, and aimed the power of the state at maintaining their own personal power—the destruction it caused be damned.

The medical college project became the straw that broke the camel’s back. Opposition to massive clearance had been gaining traction in the African-American community for several years, and when the school trustees requested a 50-acre site across from a large plot of already cleared land, the community was enraged. In all, 22,000 residents of the 185-acre site would have to leave their homes.

The force of grassroots opposition was stunning. After many years of suffering at the hands of a program in which they had no say, certain segments of the black community had begun to organize their opposition and push for power beyond patronage politics. Newark’s Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, politicians like Kenneth Gibson and black nationalist groups like the Black Liberation Army all fought the proposal fiercely by rallying opposition block by block. Through leafleting, block meetings and sound trucks, organizers made the medical center the major issue in the black community. In late April 1967, the broad moderate-to-radical coalition held a rally to protest the project. At the May 22 blight hearing, opposition from the black community was intense. After many impassioned speeches, the session ended abruptly when leaders from the Black Liberation Army overturned the stenographic machine and tore up part of the tape.

This fury among the black community was the prelude to the riots of July 1967, which began outside of the Hayes public housing project and swirled outward from there. Although many factors contributed to the riots, the abominable housing situation, the prospect of more massive displacement and the sense of powerlessness to affect their own fates were leading causes of the severe discontent among the African-American community.

The July 1967 riots signaled the failure of patronage politics, planning policies and a clever powerbroker to use a strong government to maintain a healthy urban society. Those destructive days expressed the frustrations of a black population long excluded from a policymaking process that affected their lives and communities so intensely.

The legacy of the Newark’s political cultures and policies are clear—the city’s response to social and economic change left it in a worse position than if the government had done nothing at all. Expressive but destructive riots left the city with deep physical and cultural scars. But out of this history, important lessons abound. Policymaking, at all levels of government, matters.

If cities seek to use their governmental powers forcefully, they must not blind themselves to unpleasant facts. No city could address the problems of slums without recognizing the powerful role of massive income inequality, the unchecked flight of capital and the pervasive racism in the marketplace and public programs. Especially in our time, we ignore an understanding of the movement, turbulence and inequalities produced by global capitalism at our own peril.

The same danger applies to overlooking the redistributive and distorting effects of policies such as subsidies to big agribusiness or exclusive suburban zoning. Policymakers must be attentive to the quality of their ideas about how society works, remain open to rethinking those ideas in the face of new evidence and, most importantly, stay sensitive to what ordinary citizens feel about the policies. Money matters, but money alone won’t fix most problems. Ideas alone, however, will fail to create effective policies without more meaningful and widespread political participation.

Ideas about helping ordinary people will founder intellectually without actual participation by people who can bring their daily realities to bear on understanding the problems. Politically, ideas need a base of support. Mass political participation seems to me the only way to avoid interest group-based politics that generally thwart policy initiatives for the public good.

But if Newark’s example teaches us anything, it is that policymakers, in the absence of an empirically grounded understanding of problems, should follow the physician’s rule: “First, do no harm.” Market forces and social pathologies cause enough harm on their own. When governments act to remedy them, they must take care that they do not create a whole new set of problems.

David Levitus, a magna cum laude graduate of New York University in May 2005 with honors in history, is a doctoral student in history at the University of Southern California. This article was drawn from his undergraduate thesis; he welcomes any comments about the piece at david.levitus@gmail.com. Posted September 2005.