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).]