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The Politics of Urban Renewal: The Chicago Findings, by Peter H. Rossi and Robert A. Dentler

Planning and Power

The Politics of Urban Renewal: The Chicago Findings.
by Peter H. Rossi and Robert A. Dentler.
Free Press. 308 pp. $6.00.

A major problem facing any central agency in charge of a plan for urban renewal is to make certain that the plan will, finally, answer not only to the broad community interest but also to the needs and desires of the individuals who live in the area. Citizen participation in the planning process traditionally has been relied on to synthesize—somehow—these two sets of interests—often conflicting. But Rossi’s and Bender’s case study of the role of citizen participation in the renewal of the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood in Chicago suggests that the desired synthesis is not always achieved.

About ten years ago, the University of Chicago, which is located in the Hyde Park-Kenwood district, decided that the rapid deterioration of the adjacent residential areas was partially to blame for its declining student enrollment and steady loss of faculty. Eventually, the city of Chicago commissioned the University itself to carry out a giant renewal project for the neighborhood. The University plan was to restore Hyde Park-Kenwood as a middle class neighborhood by removing the pockets of blighted and overcrowded housing. The cleared areas were to be replaced by middle-and high-cost housing, and this, in effect, meant that the University was calling for the removal, in part at least, of the working-and lower-class occupants of the area, who would not be able to afford the higher rent.

In developing its plan, the University worked with all existing citizen groups, but chiefly with the leading one, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference. Rossi and Dentler have studied just how effective the activities of these groups proved in shaping the final plan, and from their careful description of what happened, some conclusions may be drawn about the role of citizen participation in urban renewal—and all city planning.

What becomes immediately evident is that citizen participation is hampered by two major limitations: since it is largely a middle class activity, it tends naturally to speak for only its own section of the population; but even then, it cannot, all by itself, summon the political power to implement its wishes.

The University of Chicago, with its great intellectual reputation in the community—not to speak of its huge capital investment and influential Board of Trustees—had no difficulty in getting the municipal decisions it needed to carry out its over-all plan. But the citizens’ group—the Conference—was, after all, a voluntary organization and it proved too weak to persuade either the University or City Hall to accept its recommendations for this plan. Even though it had succeeded in enlisting amazingly large numbers of active members from the neighborhood, it finally lacked the time, money, and manpower to maintain the day-to-day negotiations needed to influence the University. And politically, as far as the city administration was concerned, the Conference was only one organization in one neighborhood, covering only parts of two wards in the city’s fifty. There is a lesson in the fact that citizen participation was far more effective in getting some significant, if small-scale, changes incorporated into the final renewal plan for another section of Hyde Park-Kenwood where the University of Chicago had no direct interests. No single institution or power bloc was dominant here and the Conference and other citizens’ groups were able to get the cooperation of the smaller colleges, hospitals, and public agencies in the area.

To sum up, then: this study—and observations of other renewal projects—suggest that citizen groups in themselves generally lack the political power needed to implement their wishes and must thus work with other influential elements in the community. This is complicated by the fact that the ideology of citizen participation is usually apolitical or even anti-political, and in any case, not always adaptable to accepting the compromises inevitable in the large city power structure.

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Partly, of course, it is the usual middle class character of citizens’ groups that inherently limits political effectiveness by limiting representativeness. Pretty much like all such groups, the Conference, moving along by organizational and social skills alien to working- or lower-class people, was unable to enroll the non-middle class population in its system of block organizations. The plain fact is that, despite the rhetorical claims of citizens’ groups to be even more widely representative than any political party, their actions suggest they respond above all to the special interests of their dominant middle class membership. This eventually happened in the Hyde Park-Kenwood renewal. When the Conference was asked to support the University’s plan, it had in effect to sanction the latter’s relocation of large numbers of poor Negroes—a matter contrary to the group’s declared racial convictions.1 It took several long soul-searching meetings before the Conference yielded to its class interest—the desire to see the neighborhood a middle class one—and reluctandy pledged support to the University’s scheme. Unable in the earlier years to enlist the participation of poorer residents, the Conference branded them as apathetic; but when, on the plan’s being made public, some of these “apathetic” elements rose up in a militant protest movement, the Conference then rejected the action, refusing to call it “citizen participation.” Now, the University planners were more genuinely sensitive to the welfare of the total community, including the lower-class residents, and the Conference was more genuinely democratic and knowledgeable than is usually the case among neighborhood groups. If they did not succeed in reconciling conflicting interests and protecting those of their lower-income neighbors, what citizen planners could?

In the light of this experience—that the traditional citizen participation alone cannot assure that plans will meet the needs of all community residents—public officials must learn to accept the uninformed, often hostile, and usually non-organizational protest of poor people as a valid expression of their interests. These interests are so obvious that they should be taken into account even when there is no formal citizen participation. Local and federal officials should anticipate the needs of the low-income population in their planning: rehabilitate neighborhoods without large-scale relocation, or where the latter is necessary, have low-cost housing ready and grant substantial bonuses to the relocatees. But such radical changes in housing policies are not brought about in a vacuum; they require political pressure. Unfortunately, the low-income groups that are unheard locally are just as much unheard in Washington. This clearly means that low-income people are not likely to receive adequate recognition of their needs until they resort to more of their form of citizen participation—such widespread and even violent protest, that politicians will be forced to pay attention.

Rossi’s and Dentler’s analysis raises a question on another level: was the University’s renewal plan to begin with the wisest solution for the University, the neighborhood, and the larger community? The authors do not address themselves to this question, and any definitive answer at this point would be premature. But this reviewer, himself once a resident of the area, cannot resist some comments.

Declining student enrollment and the exodus of key staff members of the University, essentially caused by University policies themselves, were aggravated, it is true, to some extent by the physical deterioration of the area and the social downgrading that accompanied it. Even so, Hyde Park-Kenwood was far from being a slum. Nor was it the declining physical and social status of the area that so affected students and faculty: it was the threat to their safety from robberies, purse snatchings, and rape that were inflicted by a small minority of the lower-class newcomers. The University planners hoped that by clearing slum buildings in the areas where crime was most prevalent, they could make the neighborhood safer.

To my mind, it is questionable whether the tearing down of buildings, however dilapidated, can solve a problem which is the by-product of the widespread deprivation that blights the lives of those who live in the slums in—and especially around—Hyde Park-Kenwood. In fact, many of the assaults I have mentioned were perpetrated by people living outside the neighborhood; 56 per cent of them according to data collected for 1958. While the subsequent clearance has brought about the removal of resident offenders, it obviously cannot guarantee a permanent solution of the crime problem. Indeed, renewal has brought greater riches to the neighborhood : there might well be an increase in the number of assaults and robberies, especially since many of the offenses are known to be committed by drug addicts. True, the crime rate has been reduced significantly in the last few years: but mainly because of a massive increase in police patrols.

All this suggests, not that slum clearance and rehabilitation were not desirable, but that the removal of lower-class residents was not the only means to achieve the University’s ends. If the same amount of effort and money invested in renewal had been spent on attacking the crime and narcotics problem, the end result might have been more beneficial for all concerned: including the innocent low-income residents who came to Hyde Park-Kenwood in the first place to upgrade themselves.

I am aware that such a policy, easy to suggest, might have been extremely difficult—perhaps impossible—to implement. Rossi’s and Dentler’s book gives adequate testimony to the difficulties involved in the simpler renewal project. Also, the University administration needed—or thought it needed—dramatic and immediately visible changes in its surroundings to restore the morale of the campus. Although its way of solving the problem was far from the best solution, it was offered no incentive to do otherwise, and one can understand why it was in no mood to experiment with a Utopian if eminently rational solution.2

At the time, almost nothing was known of the social aspects and consequences of this kind of renewal planning, so that the warnings of far-sighted planners and social scientists seemed mere speculation. The lessons learned in Hyde Park-Kenwood and other clearance projects have made it perfectly clear that our greatest urban need is to solve the basic economic and social problems of the people condemned to live in slums. It is interesting that some of the very University officials who took a leading role in the renewal project are calling now for a direct attack on the poverty and deprivation, in their present neighborhoods, of those who were unwillingly relocated from Hyde Park-Kenwood.

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Footnotes

1 Since about 60 per cent of the relocatees were Negroes, the University was accused of planning for “Negro clearance,” although in actual fact it was willing to maintain the already widespread racial integration of the neighborhood, as long as the population was predominantly middle class.

2 Lawrence Kimpton, who replaced Robert Hutchins as chancellor of the University in 1951, and who involved the school in this planning, wanted to improve its status in order to attract the children of the wealthy, rather than the budding but declassé intellectuals who had dominated the student body during the Hutchins era. Given this goal, the University's plan was perhaps more rational than I have suggested. Whether it was rational—or desirable—for the University to become just another training ground for the upper-middle class and to give up its distinctive role as one of the few excellent centers for the education of intellectuals is another question. As an alumnus of the University during the Hutchins administration, I do not think so.

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