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Urban Villagers By Herbert J. Gans Essay, Research Paper
Urban Renewal in Boston
the West End and Government Center
Boston’s West End is the most well documented neighborhood destroyed by urban “renewal,” made famous initially by Herbert Gans’s book, The Urban Villagers, 1962. Although approximately 63 percent of the families displaced by urban renewal were African-American or Hispanic, this Boston community was mainly inhabited by working class Italians. It was a little piece of Italy, with narrow winding streets alive with urban social life. Too crowded and unAmerican for the middle class tastes of City planners, it fell to the bulldozer in 1959 and was replaced by high rise, expensive apartment buildings.
It is difficult for me to isolate the impact of *URBAN VILLAGERS*. In
my experience it was but one contribution to growing criticism of urban
renewal in the early 1960s and, with that, the physical orientation of
urban planning that urban renewal represented. Shortly after it was
published I was both a writing my dissertation in urban geography at
Clark University and a project director in urban renewal, so I
witnessed the impact in both urban renewal planning circles and in the
more academic arena. It was part of the drum of criticism that led to
the 1966 Model Cities Act and the redefinition of urban renewal and
rethinking of the field of urban planning.
I think the impact of the *URBAN VILLAGERS* might best evaluated as
part of a creeping barrage of critical writing led off by Jacobs and
*Death and Life . . .* in 1961. *Urban Villagers* was published in
‘63 and Martin Anderson weighed in from the right in ‘64 with *The Federal
Bulldozer*. At the same time planners such as Paul Davidoff (”Advocacy
and Pluralism in Planning” JAIP, 1965) were mounting a critique within
the field of planning. (Jay Stein’s *Classic Readings in Urban
Planning* 1995 includes some writing from this period.) In 1965,
The National Council of Mayors published *With Heritage So Rich* which
documented the destruction of historic buildings caused by urban renewal
and served as the mandate for the National Historic Preservation Act of
1966. Although not concerned with urban renewal directly, Blake’s
*God’s Own Junkyard* (1964) was a popular and graphically arresting
treatment of the trashing of the built environment. My own memory is
that so much was being written that we were responding to the larger
trend more than to specific books.
At the same time the Federal urban renewal program was trying to move
away from the great emphasis on redevelopment by demolition with the
initiation of the Community Renewal Program (CRP) in 1959, which was
more neighborhood and socially oriented. And the final element I will
throw in this stew is the Highway Act of 1962 which started the
metropolitan transportation studies, the goal of which was to bring the
interstate system to cities. Many cities such as Hartford tried to
coordinate the urban interstate system with urban renewal; elsewhere
the transportation planning of the state and the local urban renewal
planning was not well coordinated.
I would say, speaking from being in the trenches at that time, that the
*Urban Villagers* did not have a big direct impact on urban renewal in
cities but, along with others, laid the groundwork for changing
programs and practice. Urban renewal was a juggernaut, and work such as
Gans and others may have intensified urban renewal as its adocates and
supporters sensed they had a limited time to get their work done. The
value of Gans’ book was that it moved some of Jacobs’ generalizations
into a specific neighborhood and ethnic context that could be related
to other areas. To those of us working in Massachusetts who knew the
history of the BRA and the North End, it was a particularly scathing
I hope this helps. I would be very interested in what you find because
I think the *Urban Villagers* has become as important for its symbolism
as for its insights into community.
David L. Ames
Professor of Urban Affairs and Geography
University of Delaware
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