Monday, January 19, 2009

Comment: Remembering 'Urban Renewal' in a Time of 'Change'

Longtime residents of Middletown will remember the old City Hall on Main Street, pictured here in 1910 (this image is from ebay via Wikipedia, but the original photograph from 1910 can be seen at CT History Online; search 'Middletown' and 'Municipal'). This grand structure, along with many others around the downtown, was torn down to make way for 'urban renewal' in the 1950s. In fact, the 'urban renewal' mentality of 'out with the old, in with the new' continued right through to the 1980s and beyond, and even persists into the present albeit in a muted form. This is one of the many lessons learned from a briefing document recently authored by Michiel Wackers of the city's Planning, Conservation, and Development office, 'Redevelopment in Middletown, Connecticut' (December 2008, revised January 2009), available on the city website.

Wackers' retrospective report should be required reading for all Middletown residents, especially those taking part in the 'community conversations' tomorrow. It's not long -- only thirteen pages. But it packs quite a punch. The list of historic structures demolished in the name of 'slum clearing' and 'revitalization' is chastening. What made it possible? The availability of a massive cash infusion from the federal government was a big part of the equation. But so were misguided policy assumptions. And, of course, our ever-increasing addiction to the automobile played a key role, aided and abetted by another, greater mountain of federal funding.

The lesson for those who are eager to get their hands on the public-works 'stimulus' money soon to be emanating from the Obama administration? Be careful what you wish for.

I should note that Wackers' report is agnostic on the quality of the various 'urban renewal' projects over the years. His conclusions pertain to lessons about the nature of the process rather than whether the results were good or bad. This is entirely appropriate. The balanced tone of the report allows, indeed encourages, members of the public to draw their own conclusions. As will be obvious to readers, my conclusions are largely negative, which is why I have labeled this post a 'comment'. But, again, I urge readers to study the document for themselves.

My 'favorite' quote is the one by former mayor Stephen K. Bailey, justifying the demolition of old City Hall: 'large chunks of plaster [were falling] down on the heads of the just and unjust alike' (p. 3). (This and several other choice observations come from Liz Warner's excellent Pictorial History of Middletown, but Wackers also sprinkles in copious quotations -- sometimes deliciously ironic -- from The Hartford Courant, as well as numerous dollar figures from the city's Redevelopment Agency files).

What is it about crumbling plaster that scares people? Bailey apparently associated it with the view from his office window: 'The Mayor’s office in the Old City Hall … was on the fourth floor overlooking the dilapidation between Main Street and the River. The scene was a daily depressant … I had made fire inspections with Frank Dunn, and had seen and smelled the dismal overcrowding. I had cruised the area at 2:00 a.m. with Johnny Pomfret [Middletown’s Chief of Police] … and had seen and had picked up derelicts and drunks … I knew that the concentration of our urban pathology was within the four blocks that I could see from my office window. I knew that slums were cancerous.'

It is hard to read this quote without cringing. Bailey looked out the window. The view depressed him. He had toured those buildings, and they and the people in them smelled bad. He 'knew' that slums were cancerous. So he tore them down, along with the building with the crumbling plaster that afforded him the view. Then he left Middletown (see below).

What Bailey didn't know was that he was the tip of a public-policy wedge that would lead to another and perhaps more entrenched kind of metastasizing cancer, much more expensive to correct: suburban sprawl.

Bailey's quote is from his 1971 address to the Chamber of Commerce, also to be found in Warner's Pictorial History (I think the earlier quote about plaster is too, but I can't find Warner's book in my clutter). Bailey was mayor in 1952-54 before going on to greater things. Is it possible that Bailey was seeking in his 1971 address to explain to his audience -- and perhaps to himself -- how he and others could have chosen to destroy such a noble structure? (Liz, if you're out there, would you care to comment? Or Michiel?) In any case, that many in town soon came to regret the demolition of the old City Hall is evident from the fact that the current police station on Main Street, built in the late 1990s, incorporates several design features from the old building.

Parenthetically: Stephen Bailey was on the Government Department faculty at Wesleyan from 1946 to '54. His last two years at Wesleyan University, 1952-54, coincided with his term as mayor. He then went on to direct the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. Bailey's career puts me in mind of the question asked by John Milardo, 'what has Wesleyan done for Middletown?', about which I wrote last week. Clearly one thing Wesleyan has done, or rather one prominent member of the faculty has done, is take a leading part in the destruction of the historic urban fabric of the city. Of course, the symbiosis between Wesleyan and Middletown over nearly two centuries cannot be reduced to one individual, or even a few decades of misguided policy. Truth be told, just about everyone in town (save John Reynolds and the good folks at the Greater Middletown Historic Preservation Trust) was drinking the 'urban renewal' cool-aid, and that cool-aid had a lasting effect. How else to explain the fact that, as Wackers notes in his report, Wesleyan was a willing institutional partner in 'urban renewal' projects as late as the 1970s, including the one that created the 'High Rise' apartment-cum-dormitory on William Street.

Tom Condon's recent op-ed in The Hartford Courant began with a question: 'Does it not feel as if the first half of the 21st century will be spent correcting the mistakes of the last half of the 20th?' I hope he's right: that we will be correcting the mistakes, that we won't simply be compounding them. In any case, it's possible that a lot of federal cash is going to be heading toward Connecticut's decaying urban infrastructure. Middletown has proven adept at getting its municipal fingers on a fair portion of that kind of cash in the past, the most recent example being the federal Department of Transportation money to improve the city's downtown parking. Given the sordid tale of redevelopment in Wackers' report, it's not clear that we are nearly as good at spending those dollars with any degree of common sense.

[Full disclosure: I'm married to a member of the current, much defanged, Redevelopment Commission (the Common Council wrested authority away from the Agency in 1984 and turned it into an 'advisory' commission -- see p. 7).]


Middletown Community Conversations said...

It would be interesting to count the number of times the image of the old city hall appears in offices, restaurants and retail establishments around town. In my experience, it's ubiquitous. I wonder how many times you can find the image displayed in our current (and very ugly) City Hall.

I'll embrace the cliché and quote Joni, "You don't know what you got 'til it's gone."

The warning about taking stimulus money, for money's sake is a serious one.

Let's put that money to good use.

Check out Liz Warner's excellent book and you'll see lots of photos of trolleys.

Time to put reliable mass transit back on track.

Anonymous said...

Interesting,I grew up in the mid 50's on Court St. living between MHS and the college. My brother delivered the Courant on lower Court St. an I remembder the whole area was all bars and a package store.

johnwesley said...

Overall, I agree with you Ed. I was appalled by the wholesale replacement of the old-fashioned storefronts on the south end of Main when I returned for visits in the early nineties. I have to say, however, that my attitude has mellowed a bit over the years. The establishments on that end of Main St. seem to be doing very well with the Inn acting as an anchor.

Speaking of the Inn at Middletown, that was also a Wesleyan joint-venture.

As for the Williams Street Hi-Rise, there was nothing on that site but an empty tire plant, as I recall. Wesleyan bought one half and, the other half went to the town to do with whatever it wanted. It built Traverse Square.

But, again, the point of your Comment is well taken: let's take better care of the structures we have left, particularly as we head into this rather nasty recession.

johnwesley said...

Overall, I agree with you, VIJAY.

Anonymous said...

Mayor Bailey's view was myopic. The redevelopment of downtown Middletown was not something that was arrived at by consensus but was fought tooth and nail. There was strong opposition to the destruction of the old Town Hall building. There was strong opposition to the decision to destroy the east side neighborhoods which were predomininatly Italian-American ghettos.
Poor blacks living in the Union Street area suffered the most with truly substandard housing conditions which were subject to annual flooding of the Connecticut River. Following a fire in that neighborhood in the early 1950s people were forced to live in tents for an extended period.
The replacement of a once thriving set of downtown neighborhoods by a Sears store and big parking lot helped create the impetus for housing development in Westfield, but did little to revitalize the urban core.
Foot dragging in the Redevelopment process in the South End of Main Street paralyzed progress for more than a decade and escalated costs.
Development of the South End without a plan to assist the urban poor that had lived in the housing units in the South End resulted in a move into the North End Main Street buildings once the final demolition of what is now the Metro Square area took place.
Middletown's North End went through a series of private development failures. Eventually the majority of the buildings in the North End were taken over by institutional and non-profit entities. Arrigoni Hotel acquired by the Cotter group was converted into approximately 78 SRO apartments with terrible conditions for residents, most of whom were outpatients and in rehab.
Following Cotter's death under mysterious circumstances the City of Middletown stepped in and worked with CHFA to help create the coalition group which eventually took over and improved the building to its current configuration.
Johnson School (aka Green Street School and late St. Sebastian School) became the home for CAGM and later was developed into the arts center for the North End.
Current progress with Its Only Natural taking over the old Teddy Tine gas station location with its new store and future developments by the Community Health Center are promising to make the North End a good place to live and do business.
Concerns should now be focused on the residential neighborhoods to the west and north of Main Street where problems of the urban poor and serious drug and criminal activity are begining to ramp up.
Middletown Police Department should have a dedicated patrol to make sure these neighborhoods enjoy the same quality of life as the rest of the community

Liz Warner said...

Wonderful summary, Vijay. My favorite comment by Bailey was the smell of poverty in the Center Street area... was it spaghetti sauce? His comments and attitude indicate he had a real issue with Italians and with the African American community downtown!

Mayor Bailey's vision took on a life of its own, and continued so long after he left. He used Middletown to feed his ego and test his theories. But it was the folks who took over after he was gone that bear much of the responsibility. Even after GMPT was organized, Redevelopment adamantly stuck to the plan created in 1952. Take a peek at the model created in the early 1950s, and it is amazingly familiar, right down to River's Edge.

Danny Cienava was one of the exceptions. He worked hard to bring GMPT into the loop near the end, in the early 1980s, to mitigate the damage still planned for the south part of Middletown. And Mayor Marino joined the fold near the end, as well, recognizing the value of saving our historic resources.

I have trouble believing that architects and city planners didn't know what made the streetscape look "right" in 1960... that we required any new buildings to have the same scale and massing to not make it look like a strip mall (i.e. Metro South). But "new, modern" won over design and beauty.

But let's look at the present and future and NOT make the same mistakes. The housing project on Ferry indicates we didn't learn much. Let's not demolish Green Street one building at a time. Or tear down everything for new parking lots (even though we've learned to hide them behind Main Street frontage). Let's not be guided by parking needs, which still seems to be the driving force behind all planning.

Let's make it so that retirees can move downtown and have a decent place to live within walking distance of shops and services. Let's make some of those empty lots on Main Street add to the character of our lovely downtown. The police station shows us that we can do it right!

Let me add another positive influence from Wesleyan... Nancy Campbell, wife of President Colin Campbell. She started the Wesleyan Landmarks Board and was influential with GMPT. She had a positive influence on Middletown development.

David Bauer said...

Liz, thanks for starting up the wayback machine on the Eye. I sure wish Vijay's commentary surfaced much more often.