In 1950s New Haven, Connecticut, the streets of the Oak Street neighborhood are filled with the fragrant smell of tomato sauce. Church bells ring, calling parishioners to Mass. The streets are lined with dozens of small grocery stores, drug stores, and cafés. It’s a working-class, dynamic community, and it feels like home.
Today, it’s impossible to find that scene in Oak Street. Instead, the neighborhood is home to parking lots, empty streets, and office buildings.
New Haven was once one of the most Italian, and most Catholic, cities in the United States. The 1950 census indicates that just under 10,000—or approximately 1 in 17—of New Haven residents were born in Italy, with many more American-born Italians living in the city. South and west of downtown, the Oak Street neighborhood was a center of Italian and Catholic life.
According to Anstress Farwell, president of the New Haven Urban Design League, “Each New Haven neighborhood was essentially a village that had its church . . . churches centered the community.” Today, however, the church-centered villages are all but gone. Present-day New Haven is neither particularly Catholic nor particularly Italian, though some vestiges remain.
Consider St. Anthony’s, a Catholic church in the former Oak Street neighborhood. It was once a thriving parish at the center of a bustling Italian community. Today, it sits in the middle of a sea of parking lots, cars, and unattractive office buildings. There are rumors that St. Anthony’s may close, sending the church’s remaining Italian parishioners to St. Michael’s, several blocks away.
Farwell recalls one of her earliest memories living in New Haven: St. Andrew’s feast day. In the late 1970s, the celebration included a lavish parade, where “troops of people marched up and down the streets,” she says. Hundreds turned out to watch, and the neighborhood was filled with a festive atmosphere. Over the years, the parade has gotten smaller and smaller, and the age of the participants has crept upwards. The days of a large, strong, and vibrant Italian Catholic community are gone.
The story of New Haven’s transformation is explained in large part by the massive influence of urban renewal during the 1950s and ’60s. In theory, urban renewal was meant to demolish slums, or neighborhoods that were deemed unsafe and unsanitary because of substandard housing. These neighborhoods were supposed to be replaced with modern developments, meant to usher cities into a new age. But while New Haven city government and many business owners may have considered neighborhoods like Oak Street to be slums, residents of these communities disagreed.
Many consider the term urban renewal to be misleading. Ralph Marcarelli, a former New Haven resident who was heavily involved in both Catholic life and the fight against the city’s renewal efforts, believes a better nomenclature would be urban destruction. Beginning in 1957, the city destroyed houses and tenements, demolished businesses and churches, and obliterated entire neighborhoods. Marcarelli puts it baldly, saying, “I saw it was taking this very stable city, with its mosaic of nationalities and races, and turning it into a wasteland.”
The Model City
New Haven was considered the poster child for urban renewal policies in America. It is often referred to as the Model City, since it played such a prominent role in urban renewal’s rollout around the country and served as inspiration for President Johnson’s Model Cities program in the 1960s and ’70s, a program that aimed to eliminate poverty and develop new forms of city government.
Urban renewal was made possible by several federal laws that allowed the government to take private property for public use; they only were required to pay landlords and homeowners a pittance in return. As a result, displacement—or forced migration of individuals and communities—swept across the United States, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Cities small and large were dramatically transformed as slum neighborhoods were demolished to make way for highways, massive public housing developments, and modern mega-buildings. Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago, Newark, New Jersey, and Rochester, New York are just a few of the hundreds of cities that today look drastically different than they did 50 years ago.
New Haven Mayor Richard C. Lee was an ardent supporter of urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s. In an archived recording available through Yale University’s Life in a Model City project, Mayor Lee speaks at length about the benefits of urban renewal.
“We already have a better tomorrow,” he says. There are “glistening apartments rising from the slums, impressive buildings springing up out of the rubble of the past, and spacious highways replacing the crowded and filthy alleys. I’m very proud of this new city of ours, and I know you are too. This is, indeed, our dream come true.”
It may sound like progress, but urban renewal was certainly not a dream come true for the many residents displaced by Mayor Lee’s efforts. They would have preferred to have been considered a part of the vision of a new city rather than a hindrance to it.
While it’s true that some of the housing conditions were deplorable, many residents of these so-called slums were heavily invested in their vibrant and close-knit communities. Ralph Marcarelli fondly remembers the Italian sounds and smells of his neighborhood growing up. He says simply that the New Haven of his youth was a “wonderful, wonderful city.”
To the federal government and city officials, slums contained housing that was “dilapidated or lack[ed] one or more of the following facilities: hot running water, a flush toilet for private use, and a bathtub or shower for private use.” To outsiders, slums could look like terrible places to live, lagging behind the modernization of the rest of the country. But while some housing was in fact crowded and unsanitary, Farwell notes that many people who lived in these neighborhoods owned their own homes, a once-critical part of the American Dream.
“There were lots of teeny-tiny houses, but they were owned by the people who lived in them. This was the first step in improving your life,” she says. Immigrants were able to gain a foothold in these neighborhoods and build a community with others who came from the same background or even the same towns in the old country.
Urban renewal projects were meant to encourage people to move out of slums to nicer neighborhoods. But projects were also often aimed at wealthier commuters or visitors who needed to travel to cities instead of those who actually lived in those city neighborhoods and were directly affected by the new policies. Looking back, it’s apparent that leaders were more interested in protecting the image of a city than its residents.
Today, one of the most visible changes in New Haven is in the physical infrastructure. The old Oak Street neighborhood is completely changed from its former vitality. Photos depicting the before, during, and after of demolition show a maze of small streets and buildings that simply disappeared, a flat patch of destruction in the middle of the city.
Stretches of land that used to be a vibrant neighborhood with small businesses, churches, and apartment buildings were never “renewed”—they were destroyed and replaced with parking lots. The homes, businesses, and churches of Oak Street were replaced with a highway spur and massive developments that changed the scale of the neighborhood to an unrecognizable degree.
Huge buildings—like a brand new sports arena, which was eventually shut down and demolished for being too expensive to maintain—were all part of the new setting, rather than new, improved homes or small-scale commercial sites. Perhaps most tragic, many parcels were never redeveloped at all and still sit vacant to this day, covered with crumbling asphalt or brown, withered turf.
The view from the ground
Less visible perhaps, but even more damaging, is the effect on local communities. Since the late 1950s, many of New Haven’s Catholic churches have disappeared, victims of urban renewal and the forced displacement of their parishioners. Italian, Irish, Polish, German, and Lithuanian churches have all suffered.
Marcarelli is able to recite an exhaustive list of New Haven’s Catholic churches: St. Michael’s, with its estimated heyday count of 10,000 Italian parishioners; St. Francis’, serving the blue collar Irish; St. Joseph’s, with its lace curtain Irish population; and St. Martin de Porres Church, the black Catholic parish, among many more. Most of these churches—and their parish communities—succumbed to destruction or loss of participation. The church closings were “like a disease spreading,” says Marcarelli. One by one, they all shut their doors. “It’s a tragic state in which the church now finds itself,” Marcarelli says. “You find in churches there’s nobody there.”
In New Haven, 3,000 people—886 households—were displaced in Oak Street alone. Altogether, urban renewal programs displaced more than 25,000 people across the city. The communities affected, for the most part, were the people with the least amount of power—African Americans, immigrants, Jews, and poor whites. They were the least desirable urban residents and the least able to fight back.
Over and over again, New Haven residents describe urban renewal as causing an exodus. For many, the displacement was a traumatic experience. In a 2004 interview for the Life in a Model City project, Theresa Argento recalled being kicked out of her Wooster Square home. “I remember coming home from the office one day, and my mother was in tears,” she says. “The man from the state came again, and we [had] to get out by a special date. They gave you a deadline to meet.”
As residents were pushed out of the city, they moved to surrounding towns, in accordance with their economic means. In fact, urban renewal did at least partially achieve its goal of moving people to better housing. Marcarelli says, “If urban redevelopment did any good inadvertently, it was by causing the suburbs to come to life.” However, for many of the people forced to move, more amenities and better housing did not necessarily equal a better life.
Argento describes the house her family moved to after looking for more than a year: “It was lovely there,” she says, “we had all the meadows, it was really beautiful—but my mother was so unhappy.” Marcarelli also remembers the psychological toll on displaced residents. “Some of those old ladies died brokenhearted,” he says.
Many residents could not understand why they were forced to move, especially in light of what happened after their displacement. To add insult to injury, New Haven never actually developed many of the parcels they had demolished, an affront to the displaced.
“I suppose [Mayor] Dick Lee thought it was going to be good,” says Argento, “but I think the answer would have been preservation more than just demolishing. They said that New Haven was going to be a model city. It was not. We still have parking lots of property that was demolished, beautiful homes. Why didn’t they think of preserving the beauty of those homes? But it was complete chaos.”
New Haven made a show of receiving public input in the urban renewal process. Marcarelli recalls public hearings, but he believes these were mostly for show, meant to provide a place for residents to vent, but not to change the course of events. Often, residents were surprised and bewildered and had no time to organize. “It was hard for the community to pin together and solve common problems,” says Anstress Farwell. Churches, a potential source of unified strength, also did not step in to organize residents.
In a very few instances, people were able to band together and fight back. Some neighborhoods were able to preserve some of their historic buildings, despite the fact that many residents still had to leave. But neighborhoods like Oak Street were a complete loss.
The injustice of displacement
In 1986, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter titled “Economic Justice for All.” The letter states, “Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person . . . We believe the person is sacred—the clearest reflection of God among us.” Catholic social teaching tells us that displacement from established communities isn’t just about where people live, but it affects health, food, economic means, and other human rights.
William O’Neill, a professor of social ethics of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, explains, “At the heart of Catholic teaching is always the dignity of persons. . . . This is a key question for Catholic policy: Whose equal dignity and rights are unequally threatened? Who has least recourse to the safety net? How do we realize the dignity of everyone, especially the most vulnerable?”
The physical and emotional ripping apart of communities for the sake of progress tore at human dignity directly and sometimes irrevocably. “Economic Justice for All” says, “Human dignity can be realized and protected only in community. . . . How we organize our society—in economics and politics, in law and policy—directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community.”
Unfortunately, Catholic thought was just beginning to consider these questions as urban renewal was playing out. Community organizing groups arose as a way to transform gospel into practice. O’Neill points to the many faith-based community organizing groups today—groups that didn’t exist when people like Marcarelli and Argento had their lives turned upside down. “They are able to organize through parishes and are able to work in effective coalition beyond just individual parishes,” O’Neill says. The PICO National Network, based in Oakland, California, is one such group. PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) empowers its member congregations to tackle the issues that affect them, including displacement and loss of housing.
O’Neill believes the Catholic Church and the work it has inspired provide a powerful framework for understanding the sorts of justice issues involved in urban renewal. “It’s a powerful teaching that we don’t always live up to,” he adds. But understanding the justice implications of urban renewal is one thing; preventing similar injustices from happening again in our cities is another.
Have we learned our lesson?
Today, urban renewal’s effect on communities, churches, and Catholic life in New Haven is still playing out. The churches that remain serve a continually dwindling population. “There has been a real sense of abandonment as churches have been knocked down,” says Farwell. Not only did urban renewal leave a landscape devoid of its former Catholic lifeblood, it failed to provide healthy, safe, and vibrant neighborhoods for those that remained or moved in to New Haven.
The history of cities is often a story of transition and transformation, one wave of residents replaced by another. So-called slums are often transitional neighborhoods, allowing waves of immigrants to find a foothold and move on and up. While the Italian and Irish immigrants have moved to the suburbs, New Haven now has a large African American population and is increasingly home to new immigrants from Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. The real tragedy is not necessarily that the city’s neighborhoods are no longer Italian or Catholic, but rather that residents were forced out by a process in which they had no say.
The cultural position of cities is now very different than it was in the middle of the 20th century. Cities are desirable places to live, and people are flocking to them in droves rather than fleeing them. The empty parking lots and outdated buildings that make up some areas are increasingly an encumbrance for cities such as New Haven, but also an opportunity for economic and cultural change, usually in the form of large, new developments—a modern-day version of the urban renewal projects of the 1960s.
Today, cities—New Haven among them—are scrambling to build new, walkable, attractive neighborhoods. In New Haven, the Downtown Crossing project is meant to undo some of the damage of urban renewal, rebuilding the area with mixed-use development and reconnecting it to the rest of the city.
Big questions remain on who will benefit from newly renewed neighborhoods. For the most part, cities have not learned enough lessons from the urban renewal of the 20th century. Projects such as Downtown Crossing can ultimately displace the people living in or near them, people in an awfully similar situation to New Haven’s old Italian population, pricing them out as the people who can afford to live in desirable, newly designed neighborhoods move in.
And, for many of the residents who were forced out of New Haven, the damage has already been done, no matter what happens to their old neighborhoods now. Although they have built new lives and families elsewhere, they look back wistfully and regretfully to the tight-knit communities they enjoyed on Oak Street and other New Haven neighborhoods. Marcarelli says, “I who loved that city . . . I can’t tell you with what repugnance I visit today. It isn’t a shadow of its former self.”
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