Some news

Christina Smith has stepped down as a Trustee for personal reasons, and we have been fortunate to appoint Mallory Baches in her place. We thank Christina for her time on the Board. Mallory has such vast experience and deep passion in shaping our communities, and she and I have had many long conversations about communities and the best way forward. We are so happy to have her on board!

In other news, we unfortunately have withdrawn from our planned activities in the Galapagos. Long story short, we ran into a local political obstacle that we are not able to overcome. This was devastating news after devoting so much energy and effort over the last few years to the future of the Galapagos. I truly hoped to continue this important work, but we now turn our focus elsewhere. In this vein, we are now developing a strategy to raise awareness for the importance of land use planning to nature conservation. In the developed and developing worlds, so many of our valuable natural assets have been destroyed, damaged, and disregarded as a result of a lack of or poor land use planning and development. 

Lastly, some exciting news to report. We can say Atlas Collaborative Foundation is officially a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. It was a long but straightforward process, and I am happy that we have achieved this important step. It was one of our first goals when we first set up Atlas. What this means is that we can now more actively and directly pursue grant opportunities to assist communities. Watch this space!

The Divided American Dream

The Washington Post has published a series about the inequality of the housing recovery of the last several years. The website is interactive, and I highly recommend checking it out. The series reinforces the idea that the recovery has been spiky, spatially. It has been a recovery for some but not all. Neighborhoods with high percentages of the poor and minorities are stagnant or in decline. Which, as I have discussed previously (at length), is a direct result of bad policy over many decades. See here. We are in a spatial fix – where the majority of the country lives separate from those who make different incomes, have different skin color. There is no mixing anymore….



Influencing the Next Generation

This past fall, I participated in a ground-breaking program run by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art in New York City. The New Heights program’s intent was to spread appreciation of classical architecture and its place in contemporary society to 8th grade students from at School. From the ICAA’s own description:

Working with ICAA educators, architects, architectural historians, and specialists, Marymount students engaged in a dynamic study of classical architecture through meaningful observation, critical thinking, interactive studio experience, and guided field studies… [S]tudents visited sites in New York City, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, historic mansions of Fifth Avenue, and Marymount’s own Beaux-Arts building.

I put together two classes: one on the elements of Classical Architecture and one on the City. It was SUCH a challenge to distill these topics so that they could be accessible and digestible by the students.  In the end, the students were enthusiastic, curious, and intelligent.

Education is a critical element in the re-shaping of how we see, plan, and build our surroundings. Most of the students on this course will not go into architecture or planning but for sure they will take this experience into their own careers. They will now be able to understand a little better why they like Grand Central Station over Penn Station, for example. Beauty is imperative and should be accessible to all of society. These types of programs, as early introductions, are key investments to ensure a future built environment.

More insight is here.

U.S. Urban Failure, Part 3: What We Have Done? – Washington Park as Case Study

NOTE: This post is the third part of three dedicated to exploring how American cities ended up like they have. Part 1 is here, which explored Federal highway how policy paved the way for white flight. In Part 2, we looked at how housing policy greatly favored suburbia, leaving the city to decay

A Community in the Heart of the ‘Black Belt’ on the Southside

So where have all these decades of government intervention gotten us? Let’s take a look at the Washington Park neighborhood in Chicago, which has suffered from the worst of transportation and housing policy. The neighborhood is bordered on the east by the massive Washington Park, designed by famed landscape architect Frederic Law Olmsted in the 1870s, truly a jewel of an urban park. Just east is the University of Chicago and the slightly sleepy neighborhood of Hyde Park.

Washington Park, one of Olmsed's great park designs
Washington Park, one of Olmsted’s great park designs

In the early part of the 20th century, the Southside of Chicago consisted of numerous thriving, all-black communities, though to be sure there were areas of overcrowded, dilapidated building stock in close adjacency to polluting industry. By 1950, the Washington Park neighborhood was active, dense, and had a population of around 57,000 people. 

The Regal Theatre, in heart of "Black Manhattan" on the Southside
The Regal Theatre, 1940. In the heart of “Black Manhattan” on the Southside

Body Blow #1

In 1939, Washington Park was classified in the “D” group in the secret Home Owners Loan Corporation Residential Security Map [full map here]. These ‘redlining’ maps influenced where banks should be loaning money for mortgages. The “D” group typically was considered “hazardous” due to the concentration of blacks, the existence of small houses, and a mix of commercial properties. In fact, most of the southside was considered “D”. 

In the detail of the HOLC map below, you can see the red for “D” to the west of Washington Park. To the east, Hyde Park and the University get a “C” and B” with a bit of “D” along the railway, where many seedy hotels had popped up to serve the World’s Fair of 1893 (see The Devil in the White City).

Detail of 1939 HOLC map of Chicago showing Washington Park and Hyde Park
Detail of 1939 HOLC map of Chicago showing Washington Park and Hyde Park

So this designation set these urban areas on a negative trend, especially after World War II ended and the economy, and house purchases, took off. This post-War growth was nearly exclusively in new construction in suburbs, a direct result of the negative ratings for urban and black neighborhoods in Residential Security maps.

Body Blow #2

The second big blow to Washington Park was the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway and adjacent housing projects. After the success of two other expressways, the City sought to connect downtown to the south. Whole swaths of neighborhoods were cleared, and the highway was completed in 1962. The original path of the highway ran south along the railway through the predominantly white neighborhood of Bridgeport. Those familiar with Chicago will recognize Bridgeport as the home of the most powerful family of 20th century Chicago, the Daleys. Richard J. and Richard M. were father and son Mayors who both used their clout to get what they and their constituents wanted. Mayor Richard J. Daley successfully had the path of the highway moved to the black neighborhood to the east, effectively avoiding white Bridgeport (source).

The diagram below plots the path of the highway on a 1950 City of Chicago map that identified the racial makeup of the city [full map here]. Each racial group is identified with a different color. You can see Bridgeport as blobs of green, orange and pink and marked as 60. Blobs of black hatch are black neighborhoods. Washington Park has a circle around it and is marked as 40. As you can see, the highway comes south, then turns to the east, avoiding Bridgeport, then turns back south, cutting through black neighborhoods of Bronzeville and Washington Park. 

Diagram showing placement of Dan Ryan Expressway

It is worth noting that most of this area, including Bridgeport, was classified as “D” area in the 1939 Residential Security map. That the white establishment would be able to move the highway out of a white neighborhood and into a black neighborhood is not surprising. As discussed in Part 2, white aldermen were also able to avoid placing housing projects in their ward – a full 95% of housing projects built in this era were in black neighborhoods. It is also not surprising that Bridgeport is much the same as it was in 1950, if not improved: a dense, active, and relatively safe enclave. 

On top of clearing the way for the highway, the City used slum clearance for new housing projects in what has to be the biggest failure in US urban history. Along the highway, 28 high-rise towers were completed in 1962 as storage containers for poor blacks. After three disastrous decades, demolition started in 1996. So in the course of forty years, State Street, for example, went from a dense street of small-scale buildings to one of towers of desolation to one of large expanses of….nothing.

Before and after
Before and after

The Aftermath

So what about Washington Park today? The population has dropped from 57,000 in 1950 to just 11,717 in 2010. It ranks number 6 of 77 community areas in violent crime. Below are key stats that tell the story:


1.  Source. Source.   2.  Source.   3.  Source

All of this devastation can be seen in the diagram below. It scrolls from the HOLC 1939 Map to a Figure Ground map from 1939 to a Figure Ground map from 2010. Figure ground maps blacken only buildings, efficiently show density, scale, and urban form. As you can see, in 1939, the neighborhood character was dense, urban and efficient. By 2010, it is easy to see the effects of the Dan Ryan and the birth and death of the housing projects (toward the left in the diagram), as the neighborhood has been hollowed out over the course of sixty years.


Washington Park is just one of hundreds of urban neighborhoods that have experienced complete destruction through federal housing and transportation policies. Shane Hampton, from the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Quality Communities, has compiled a devastating collection of before/after imagery here.


Ultimately, the federal government has nullified access to the American Dream for a large portion of our population. The damage done to large urban areas and their poorer residents is still felt today. In fact, according to a study by an economist at Brown University, without urban highways, cities would have experienced 8% population growth from 1950 to 1990 instead of the 17% net loss they experienced, a difference of over ten million people (Source). This does not take into account the other anti-city, anti-poor federal policies that pushed people out to the suburbs. Urban highways cannot be looked at just in terms of servicing the suburban economy. In fact, there is an argument that they do not even do that efficiently. Highways may indirectly undermine economic growth, promote ethnic or social homogeneity, and create a “spatial mismatch” of job locations and labor residences (Source). 

The situation in our communities is described well in Robert Putnam’s book, Our Kids (link).  As Putnam explains, poor kids do better when they attend school with classmates who come from a mix of socio-economic situations. Poor families do better when they live in mixed neighborhoods. Our America is becoming more and more segregated along class lines, whether it be in urban or suburban areas. And this spatial fix sadly makes it more and more difficult for poor kids to move up. And as Putnam touches on in the last part of his book, the societal costs for ignoring this continue to stack up.

Would there be suburbia if government had not pushed so strongly for it? The evolution of American society favoring suburban living was inevitable. For more than a century, people have moved from city to suburb. Originally, the move was a combination of a push out of the crowded city and into the suburb for more space. Ultimately, development patterns follow transportation patterns. So when government married automobiles in the 1950s, massive suburban expansion was bound to happen.

At this point in history, we have experienced more than seven decades of government promotion and subsidy of automobiles, roads, suburbia, and consumption. We have fully realized President Eisenhower’s worry of the “wastefulness of thousands of motorists driving into the central area and taking all the space required to park the cars” while highways have paved the path out of cities for whites and middle class blacks. Organic, free market migration from city to suburb started in the 19th century. But what is clear is that a spatial paradigm shift occurred as a direct result of government intervention, starting in the 1930s. Initiatives to jumpstart the economy became vehicles for the exacerbation of existing racism, segregation, and oppression of the poor. It set the US economy on a production/consumption path that has proven itself unsustainable again and again.  And combined with destructive urban highway projects, it has created the spatial fix that has eroded our communities, hardened our prejudices, and created an unequal playing field for millions of Americans.

U.S. Urban Failure, Part 2: Suburbia – The Perfect Antidote for Economic Malaise


NOTE: This post is the second of three dedicated to exploring how American cities ended up like they have. Part 1 is here. Part 3 will connect these histories to present day problems.

1  Background

America entered the 20th century with an archetype home and a society that was drifting away from the city.

For most of the 19th century, attached row houses within a grid of streets was the typical urban form of American residential development (Warner 141). At the same time, in the first part of the 19th century, the American farmhouse was idealized as the base from which the lives of each family member played a part. The house was in the middle of fields, the heart of the existence of the early American farmer. Beginning in the 1940s, mirroring the shift away from the glorification of toil, Americans began to replace the American farmhouse with the English cottage as the ideal American home (Stilgoe 30). The American farmhouse was big, busy and kind of complicated. The English cottage was a “simple house, a place of rural virtue”, surrounded not by fields, but by an enclosure sacred to it (Stilgoe 32). It became the archetype.

The dirty, dense city

Influenced by the Romantic Movement, the rural ideal and continued densification of the city shifted the market away from the attached row house and toward the detached cottage. Streetcar systems enabled land to be developed more quickly than before. Streetcars freed up land for development, which was developed, and homes were purchased at a phenomenal speed. While the urban row house became a “symbol for financial failure and bad neighborhoods”, the detached house became an expression of individuality (Warner 144).

Attracted by this individualistic ideal, the middle class migration to the suburbs created a physical division between social classes and accelerated existing class divisions. The creation of the suburban market divided society into two groups: those that could afford what the economy was producing and those that could not. Because there were no real checks in place to provide assistance for the lower classes, one part of society prospered and another fell into a downward cycle. This created xenophobia and an intolerance among the middle class toward lower classes. So, already by the turn of the century, city/suburb and haves/have nots divides were the norm. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that this became an ongoing social engineering experiment, facilitated by the Federal government.

2  Housing in the Great Depression & the New Deal

After the of the stock market crash in 1929, the country fell into the Great Depression, which lasted for the most of the 1930s. This was the first time government got into the business of housing. Home foreclosures rose from 68,000 in 1926 to 250,000 in 1932, and housing values declined dramatically as well (Jackson 193). Home building collapsed as well, falling 95% from 1928 to 1933 (ibid).

President Herbert Hoover saw housing as both an obstacle to the nation’s recovery and a potential source for creating jobs. He convened the President National Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership in 1931. In his opening address he made it clear the State’s intentions:

‘I am confident that the sentiment of home ownership is so embedded in the American heart that millions of people who dwell in tenements, apartments and rented rooms…have the aspiration for wider opportunity in ownership of their own homes.’

Construction of new houses on new land inherently requires more labor than modernizing a house in an urban setting. With this in mind, it is easy to see why government promoted the construction of new homes in the suburbs. Before the 1930s, the choices of where to live and to buy or rent were made without much government interference. Because of the great influx of immigrants of the previous seventy years, people tended to settle with people of their same culture. De facto separation of classes and culture occurred over time within cities, and suburbs were reserved for those who could afford it. Beginning in the 1930s, government institutionalized and nationalized the status quo, which was before local and personal phenomena, and created an environment in which suburbia was attainable to the middle class. As Kenneth Jackson writes, “suburbanization was an ideal government policy because it met the needs of both citizens and business interests and because it earned the politicians’ votes” (Jackson 216).

So to get the housing market going, President Hoover sought to address the existing obstacles to higher home ownership rates through the creation of long-term, amortized mortgages; the encouragement of low interest rates; the institution of government aid to private efforts to house low-income families; and the reduction of home construction costs (Jackson 194). Hoover’s actual policies over the next couple years were ineffective, and it was his successor, President Franklin Roosevelt, who created positive momentum in the industry. The Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration were the two New Deal policies that created this paradigm shift.

2a  Home Owners Loan Corporation

The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) immediately helped people on the brink of foreclosure refinance their mortgages. For the first time, home ownership became accessible. The HOLC standardized the 20% down payment, fixed interest, 30-year, amortized loan, which is still the standard today. The HOLC was not necessarily set up to take on bad debt, and as the program rolled out, some of the refinanced mortgages were still going into foreclosure. So the HOLC sought to predict the potential for default by appraising properties. HOLC appraisers “divided cities into neighborhoods and developed elaborate questionnaires relating to the occupation, income, and ethnicity of the inhabitants and the age, type of construction, price range, sales demand, and general state of the housing stock” (Jackson 197). This rigorous process set the standard for real estate appraisal for the private market as well. From these appraisals, the HOLC developed secret “Residential Security Maps” that divided cities into neighborhoods with each neighborhood given a rating based on quality. The rating system was as follows:

First grade (or A or green)
“best”” areas defined as new, homogeneous (defined as
“American business and professional men”) and “in demand as
residential locations in good times and bad”

Second grade (or B or blue)
“still desirable” areas that had “reached their peak,” but were expected to remain stable for many years

Third grade (or C or yellow)
“definitely declining” areas

Fourth grade (or D or red)
“hazardous” areas “in which the things taking place in C [Fourth
grade] areas have already happened” (Jackson 197)

In Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson uses the St. Louis area as an example of how these ratings were used in practice. The metropolitan area generally consisted of the suburbs of St. Louis County and the central city of St. Louis. For decades, the well-to-do of St. Louis had been moving out into the suburbs from the previously fashionable central city. St. Louis County mostly had neighborhoods with high home values and very few “D” regions. One “D” region of note was a recently built area with decent quality homes called Lincoln Terrace that had recently developed into a black neighborhood. The HOLC stated in its assessment that the houses had “little or no value today, having suffered a tremendous decline in values due to the colored element now controlling the district” (Jackson 200).

In contrast to the mostly “A” and “B” regions of suburban St. Louis County, the central city contained proportionally more “C” and “D” ratings. In addition to the HOLC’s obvious wariness of black inhabitants, its anti-urban bias was clear in giving a “D” rating to the all-white neighborhood of Fairgrounds Park because, in part, the “lots are small, houses are only slightly set back from the sidewalks, and there is a general appearance of congestion” (Jackson 201).

HOLC Map - Detail of southside of Chicago
HOLC Map – Detail of southside of Chicago

The HOLC did not explicitly use these ratings as basis for lending, but they influenced banks which had access to the ratings maps and used them in their loan application evaluation processes. More importantly, in terms of scale, the HOLC rating methods were a precursor and a large influence on the appraisal methods created by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

2b  Federal Housing Administration

The FHA was established in 1934 as part of the National Housing Act, part of “an effort to get people back to work,” in President Roosevelt’s words (Jackson 204). The FHA, and later the Veterans Administration (VA), revolutionized the home mortgage market. The FHA continued and enhanced the mortgage terms standard set out by the HOLC, and it also took on much of the risk of lending money from the bank. This risk had previously added much to the basic cost of buying a home, but with this government guarantee, the cost greatly reduced. Housing starts rose from just 93,000 in 1933 to 619,000 in 1941 (Jackson 205).

Elements of the FHA activities reveal an anti-city bias, similar to the HOLC. Terms for loans to improve existing properties were not favorable to the borrower, which made buying a new home more attractive. A prerequisite to any loan guarantee was an “unbiased professional estimate”, which, unlike the HOLC, directly affected which neighborhoods could qualify for an FHA loan and to what degree terms were favorable. The 1939 FHA Underwriting Manual also instructed underwriters that “crowded neighborhoods lessen desirability” and “older properties in a neighborhood have a tendency to accelerate the transition to lower class occupancy” (Ibid). The Manual created requirements for lot size, setback from the street, and separation from neighbors. The Manual also endorsed restrictive zoning, which forbade any facilities that could lead to the adaptation of a single-family house to office, store or rental unit. Taking cues from the established HOLC guidelines, it was clear that homogeneous, white neighborhoods were the only neighborhoods that were economically stable and protected from adverse influences. The evaluation guidelines also encouraged the use of appropriate covenants and subdivision regulations, which were used often to prohibit black occupancy.

A distilled example of the consequences of these racially discriminatory policies involved a block near Eight Mile Road in Detroit. In 1941, white owners on this block could not qualify for FHA mortgages because the block contained homes occupied by blacks. So the developer built a concrete wall between the black-owned and white-owned properties. The FHA appraisers then approved mortgages on the white properties (Ferguson 249).

Every city contained heterogeneous neighborhoods or homogenous, black, but stable, neighborhoods. Each contained densely built neighborhoods full of older buildings, of various shapes, sizes and widths, that contained an inherent flexibility. Therefore, through FHA underwriting guidelines and standards, the government aggressively discouraged investment in the city. It also literally made it cheaper and easier to buy a home in the suburbs than to rent or buy a home in the city, which greatly contributed to mass exodus of the white middle class from the city, which began in the 1930s. And the middle class did leave. Kenneth Jackson’s analysis of data from 1937 confirmed that in cities like St. Louis the migration to middle class suburbs came directly from stable “B” urban areas. Jackson also compiled data from various metropolitan areas in the first three decades of the FHA, from 1933 – 1960, and he consistently found much more FHA mortgage activity in suburbs relative to their respective central cities.

Density of mortgages in Newark (Jackson)
Density of mortgages per county in Newark, 1933-1960 (Jackson)

2c  Fannie Mae

The FHA was not the only government entity that facilitated an easy exodus to suburbia. The Federal National Mortgage Association, commonly known as Fannie Mae, was established in 1938 as a government sponsored enterprise, and its aim was to create a secondary mortgage market. This would free up more capital for banks to continue to extend even more consumer mortgages, effectively expanding the market. By sheer number of loan volume, the FHA and Fannie Mae set the market. The standards of the FHA and Fannie Mae were explicitly directing the market to suburbia, and this became the industry norm.

3  White Flight

Migration from central cities had started in the 19th century and the government focus on new housing had accelerated it in the 1930s. But starting in the 1940s, booming population and economic growth caused rapid migration and set in place a physical segmentation that remain in place today. Between 1944 and 1954, an estimated nine million people relocated to the suburbs (Jackson 238). The first government intervention was continued involvement in home mortgages, through the G.I. Bill. This provided a package of benefits for returning veterans, including free higher education or vocational training, access to zero down, low interest home mortgages and other continued veterans’ benefits. On paper, it was color blind, treating black veterans the same as whites. Unfortunately, in practice blacks did not benefit equally from the provisions of the G.I Bill (Turner & Bound). This was the start of what became two tracks of life after World War II where the black middle class was unable to keep pace with its white counterparts. In the 1950s, 20% of blacks paid 8% or more for mortgage interest while no whites paid more than 7% (Ferguson 250).

The ease of mortgage lending, combined with the anti-city, racial discriminatory standards of the mortgage underwriting, continued to push the middle class from the city to the suburbs. In 1950, half of all jobs and population were in the central cities of the large American metropolitan service areas (MSAs). By 1990, the same central cities only had a third of the jobs and less than a third of the population (Baum-Snow 23).

Starting in the 1940s, cities began to link urban highways to the idea of renewing their existence. At every turn, they saw an exodus of people to the suburbs and an erosion of their tax revenues, which made it more difficult the meet the obligations for basic services. In 1941, President Roosevelt appointed a committee to analyze the idea of urban highways. This led to the idea that highway building could be used to “mold the declining American city while reviving it” (Goddard 170). Highway advocates convinced city governments that urban highways could be a solution for what became known as ‘urban renewal.’ Cities could be renewed and updated by highways that would clear blight and slums, provide access downtown to suburbanites, and provide ‘towers in the park’ as replacement housing for everyone the highway displaced.

While the federal government was helping fund urban highways through cities as part of urban renewal, they did not mandate where and how much public housing should be provided. Also, the federal government did not require all municipalities to provide affordable housing. If a city wanted to provide affordable housing and receive federal monies for the construction, it had to set up a housing authority to deliver and manage of the units (Jackson 225). It did not require every city, town or suburb do this. Obviously, large cities like Chicago and Detroit had no choice but to set up housing authorities. Suburbs avoided setting up housing authorities; some even outlawed the construction of any affordable units. Despite the massive migration into the suburbs, fewer than 1% of the poor lived in the suburbs by 1959 (Kaplan 212). Additionally, the federal government mandated the elimination of one slum unit for every unit of public housing constructed (Jackson 226). This not only discouraged adaptation of decent existing structures, it disqualified communities who did not have slum properties but needed affordable units. So the policies forced the public housing units into the city center and not into the suburbs, where cheaper land and construction could have enabled more or better construction of units.

The prevailing architecture solution, the ‘tower in the park’, was seen as perfect for the problem of provision of public housing. Le Corbusier was a leader of the modernist movement to create better living conditions and a better society through housing concepts in the 1920s, when cities had become crowded, polluted and unsanitary. His ‘tower in the park’ concept was meant to allow city dwellers to access green space and fresh air. The concept was adopted by American city governments charged with constructing a massive amount of affordable housing in the 1950s even though critics had been already been critical of his theories of the city.

Robert Taylor homes
‘Towers in the park’, Chicago

In Chicago, nearly 150,000 people were relocated to these tower blocks between 1948 and 1963 (Hirsch). The country’s largest housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes, contained 28 identical 16-story concrete slab buildings. Nearly all of the relocated were black – white aldermen banned the construction of these towers in their predominantly white wards. 95% of Chicago’s housing projects were located in poor, black wards (Jackson 228). Regionally, cities that created housing authorities became magnets for poor people, which exacerbated the growing racial segregation and the perception that only poor people lived in the cities. The construction of housing projects in urban areas carried on from the 1940s through the 1970s. From the beginning, it was clear that without careful consideration of the actual livability, comfort of the units and buildings, the housing projects would become dangerous places, “dumping grounds for the poor” (Jackson 228). The housing projects reinforced the lack of opportunity for poor minorities and the perception of an ‘inner city’ that people sought to take refuge from in suburbs.


In the mid-1960s, federal urban policy shifted away from physical ‘renewal’ to emphasize redistribution of wealth, as physical renewal had resulted in social and political instability. As the urban crisis worsened, the State created departments such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), established in 1965. This set off a period of growing investment by government in public housing, subsidizing both ownership and rentership that lasted until funding was cut by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s (Feldman & Florida 41).

The gradual exodus from cities was accelerated by the federal government involvement in home mortgages and the establishment of a large, unending pot of funding for highways. There is one more important factor to white flight: the consequences of Brown v. Education of Topeka, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that banned government-sponsored segregation. Ultimately, Brown paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. While Brown did ban segregation in schools, de facto segregation persisted due to the existing spatial segmentation of race, especially in states where integration was passionately resisted. Brown did not specify any penalty for avoidance, so a city could just choose to close a school instead of integrating. More importantly, the decision did not guide cities on physical placements of new schools. And lastly, cities were free to choose where to place schools. For example, a city could place a school within a homogeneous neighborhood instead of placing it between two racially different ones. Similar to the federal government’s decision to not intervene with public housing provision, Brown perpetuated and perhaps exacerbated existing race and class divisions, especially given how much new construction of housing, schools and other public facilities happened in the 1950s and 1960s. Nearly all that construction happened in the suburbs.

Organic, free market migration from city to suburb started in the 19th century. But what is clear is that a spatial paradigm shift occurred as a direct result of government intervention, starting in the 1930s. What began as a movement to jumpstart the economy became a vehicle for the exacerbation of existing racism, segregation, and oppression of the poor. It set the US economy on a production/consumption path that has proven itself unsustainable again and again.  And combined with destructive urban highway projects, it has created the spatial fix that has eroded our communities, hardened our prejudices, and created an unequal playing field for the game of life.


Baum-Snow, Nathaniel. “Did Highways Cause Suburbanization?” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2007, 122(2): 405-423. Print.

Feldman, Marshall M. A., and Richard L. Florida. “Economic Restructuring and the Changing Role of the State in U.S. Housing.” Government and Housing, Urban Affairs Annual REviews. 36. (1990): Print.

Ferguson, Niall. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Penguin Paperbacks, 2009. Print.

Goddard, Stephen B. Getting there: the epic struggle between road and rail in the American century. University Of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

Gramlich, Edward M. Subprime Mortgages: America’s Latest Boom and Bust. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute Press, 2007.

Hirsch, Arnold. “Urban Renewal.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Jun 2011. <;.

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Kaplan, Samuel. The dream deferred: people, politics, and planning in suburbia. Seabury Pr, 1976. Print.

Stilgoe, John R. Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820-1939. Yale Univ Pr, 1990. Print.

Turner, Sarah E. and John Bound, bound “Closing the Gap or Widening the Divide: The Effects of the G.I. Bill and World War II on the Educational Outcomes of Black Americans.” July 2002. Web. 6 June 2011. <;

Warner, Sam Bass. Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, (1870-1900). Boston: Harvard University Press, 1978. 

U.S. Urban Failure, Part 1: Highwaymen – Collusion, Racism, and the Roots of Urban Decay

NOTE: This post is the first of three dedicated to exploring how American cities ended up like they have.

Storage units for black people

Each summer growing up, my family would drive to Illinois to spend time in a tiny speck of a town where my Mom grew up. As we passed through St. Louis and Chicago, I would be glued to the window as decaying tower after tower passed by. I remember thinking, people live in those things? This is what it means to be poor in America? My ten year old brain couldn’t compute. Why are such huge roads going through cities? And why do these people have to live to them?

Years later, I had the opportunity to delve deep into these issues while getting my Master’s in London a few years back. I knew government was involved in aspects of all of this, but I wanted to get into the details of transportation and urban housing policy. And as I have been back in the US for over a year now, it seems more important than ever to understand how we got here. Segregation, inequality, lack of community and access to jobs, growing distance between classes – the list goes on and grows everyday. The first area I will address is transportation. Then I will look at housing policy in Part II, and finally I will attempt to demonstrate how these histories relate to the current condition in Part III.

1.  Transportation – Context and Background

In the early 20th century, the prevailing urban mode of transportation was streetcar or rail, not car. The car was for the wealthy man. But the public had a love/hate relationship with streetcars and railroads. They were “symbols of coercion and the power of big business” (Goddard 121), and toward the end of the 1910s, riding the streetcar had become socially passé.

This was the backdrop for the emergence of groups promoting an automobile agenda, which started with the Good Roads Movement. Magazines and other influential sources of the day began to criticize railroads and glorify automobiles (Goddard 56). Railroads had opened the horizon to man, but only linearly, and automobiles were seen as the ultimate expression of freedom. By 1910, automobiles had become a big business, and bad roads were in the way of progress. There were 1600% more cars in 1910 than there were in 1900, but not even double the amount of road mileage (Goddard 57). After Thomas Harris MacDonald’s (Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads) success in getting 1916 and 1921 legislation through, he relentlessly drove home his most impassioned belief: “use of public roads is an inalienable human right, as opposed to use of the private rails, which is a privilege based on a fare” (Goddard 109).

Car advertisement, 1905
Car advertisement, 1905. See ya’ later, silly railroads….
Car advertisement, 1910s
Maybe. Just maybe.

This era marked the start of the highway-motor complex, a cycle of collusion involving government spending and industry with direct benefit from that spending. By the end of the 1920s, building roads had become a $100 million a year proposition (America’s Highways 123). But most of these roads were rural in nature. More people lived in cities than in the country for the first time in the 1920s, and the highway-motor complex sets it sights on motorizing the city.

2.  Transportation – The Battle for Urban ShareDetroit Streetcar system, 1941

Detroit Streetcar system, 1941. Yes, really.

The transition from streetcar systems to bus lines in cities has been under debate for sixty years. Some have said that GM and its industry affiliates conspired to destroy urban mass transit, and replace it with an inferior bus service so bad that riders would be forced to buy automobiles (Snell 1974, Kwitny 1981, St. Clair 1981). Others have said that GM simply stepped into a market in which its main competitor was already dying, and GM took competitive, fair advantage of the situation (Slater 1997, Bianco 1998). It may be the easier thing to play conspiracy theorist and blame the big, bad corporation for destroying what can be seen as for the public good. The truth, however, is not so simple.

The country entered the Great Depression with the federal government fully in support of subsidizing roads, cars, buses and freight trucks, influenced by decades of encouragement from Thomas MacDonald and the highway lobby. Rail was limping along but decaying cars, unstable finances, and an inability to adapt or change due to regulations made it extremely difficult. After failures in attempts to take over streetcars in the early 1930s, GM realized how politically thorny it was to have their brand attached to takeovers of the streetcar systems. So in 1936, they found a way to achieve their goal of motorizing cities while staying out of the fray in partnering with an uneducated, yet savvy small business owner, Roy Fitzgerald (Goddard 124). Fitzgerald had founded National City Lines (NCL) in 1920, and, by the 1930s, he had successfully set up bus services all over the middle of the country, winning an artificially unfair competition with the interurban railways (Goddard 125). By the late 1930s, Fitzgerald’s growing company would own twenty-nine transit systems (Goddard 133). GM’s business model was to invest in NCL and then get out after bus service had been established.

It is important to understand the condition of streetcar systems in the 1930s. In the face of sparser densities on routes due to suburbanization and rising automobile use, an aging fleet of streetcars, and burdensome regulation, the franchises had three options for survival by the mid to late 1930s. They could invest in a larger, faster and more modern version of the streetcar, known as the PCC car. They also could switch to electrified trolley buses, which still used the existing overhead wires but were less expensive than the PCC car. Lastly, they could scrap the idea of electric streetcars or trolleys and go with auto buses. The final blow to the streetcar was the passing of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (PUHCA), which was passed to break up utility holding companies. Utilities were forced to divest of any business unrelated to the main utility business (e.g. streetcars). Suddenly, many decaying streetcar systems were on the market. It was a buyer’s market, and this accelerated motorization of cities’ transit systems to almost exclusively GM-produced buses.

GM magazine advertisement
GM magazine advertisement

GM’s involvement with NCL and streetcar systems would come under fire with indictments for conspiracy in the 1940s. The case charged GM, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil and others with conspiring to buy streetcar systems with the expressed desire to replace them with motor buses. While they were not convicted on this charge, they were convicted of conspiring to monopolize the supply chain by requiring NCL to buy all of its supplies from the GM-led consortium. The supplier contracts went further to say that NCL could not purchase non-gasoline or diesel fuel equipment.

While the larger conspiracy could not be proven in court, it is clear through various court testimonies and other evidence that GM and its consortium knew they could make a lot of money by creating an urban market for cars. It is clear they saw streetcars in the way, and they avoided having their name be associated with the companies that were motorizing buses. At the same time, streetcar systems were in bad shape and susceptible to takeover bids. In America, greed is not illegal, and GM took advantage of its capitalized position to take streetcar systems over and become a “sole source supplier to captive customers” (Bianco 16).

Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, government’s main transportation man, Thomas MacDonald, maintained the dubious argument that the growth of automobiles, trucking, and highways would not affect the railroads. His influence delayed any action within government to balance the competition until it was too late for rail to survive. The revolving door between the private and public sector was prevalent as well. Share-holding industry executives came into government and openly pushed Federal dollars toward policies that directly lined their pockets (Goddard 115). This was before Congress created stricter conflict of interest rules. Roy Chapin, one of the founders of the Hudson Motor Company, became Secretary of Commerce. Charles Wilson, President of General Motors (GM), later became Secretary of Defense. Francis du Pont wore both hats as member of the Delaware State Highway Commission and as a major shareholder in General Motors (Goddard 116).

This was government’s role in the fight for the future of American transportation in the 1920s and 1930s. This battle led to a complete change in American society, toward the placement of the car at the center of our society.

Pacific Electric Streetcars, awaiting destruction
Pacific Electric Streetcars, awaiting destruction

3. Transportation – Highways and the City

By the 1950s, the idea of a national highway system had been thought about for decades. The trick was trying to figure out how to pay for it. In 1939, President Roosevelt began pushing for its development in Congress in earnest. His idea was to charge tolls for the highways, but MacDonald objected. MacDonald submitted

Thomas H. MacDonald
Thomas H. MacDonald

a report to Congress arguing that it was not fair for the driver to effectively pay taxes twice. It was not until President Dwight Eisenhower came into office in 1953 that real momentum for a national highway system began again in Washington. Eisenhower had a particular interest in the idea of a highway system. He had been part of a very slow 1919 Transcontinental Transport convoy, organized by the military to demonstrate the need for good roads for military transport across the United States. Eisenhower also had admired Adolph Hitler’s autobahn system during his time in Europe. Eisenhower suggested a $50 billion highway network that would “solve the problems of speed, safe transcontinental travel, intercity communication and provide access highways, farm-to-market movement and offer relief to metropolitan congestions, bottlenecks and crowded parking” (Leavitt 28).

There were numerous Congressional hearings to explore the development of an Interstate Highway System. It was clear that the hearings were less about if there should be a national highway system and more about how big it was going to be, should it go through cities, and how was it going to get funded. Testimony from any expert that contradicted the prevailing thought that national highways were needed was more or less ignored. One of the main proponents of the Interstate Highway System during the hearings was Francis V. du Pont, former Commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads and a lifelong GM shareholder. As the discussions began, he had resigned to work for Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks. Free from what would have been a position of clear conflict of interest, he was now free to lobby for the program.

Francis V Du Pont
Francis V Du Pont

Starting in the 1940s, cities began to link urban highways to the idea of renewing their existence. At every turn, they saw an exodus of people to the suburbs and an erosion of their tax revenues, which made it more difficult the meet the obligations for basic services. In 1941, President Roosevelt appointed a committee to analyze the idea of urban highways. This led to the idea that highway building could be used to “mold the declining American city while reviving it” (Goddard 170). Highway advocates convinced city governments that urban highways could be a solution for what became known as ‘urban renewal.’

The German Autobahn, 1936
The German Autobahn, 1936

Even though Eisenhower’s vision was to replicate the German autobahn, which stops at the city’s edge, the only way it would pass politically was to include urban highways. Just like streetcars fifty years earlier, highways acted like “conduits for decentralization, helping to channel urban growth in some places rather than others” (Boarnet & Haughwout 9).

Even though the bill was presented as a rural, through-traffic and defense solution, it was clear that the urban highways would bring in the most revenue from gas receipts. The idea that the highways would go through cities was glossed over when the bill actually passed.

For the most part city and state governments could ignore public outcry for a highway project until the mid 1960s when new federal legislation made all proposed highways include environmental and social impact assessments, and no highway could go through a historic area unless “there [was] no feasible and prudent alternative” (Wikberg 16). Until these laws emboldened communities with the real ability to fight the highway proponents, the urban highway proposition was solely judged in the context of its purpose, with no consideration given to the huge social, economic and environmental consequences of urban highways. Because the highway funding was mostly coming from outside, it was difficult for cities to accept any analysis of impact without bias (Boarnet & Haughwout 15), especially given the huge political carrot for local leaders that 90% of the funding would come from federal coffers.

The battle for urban highways in Washington, D.C. epitomizes the highway fights of the 1960s. On one side were government officials and organizations representing business interests that would profit from urban highways, as well other petroleum-funded organizations. On the other side, there were a vast number of D.C. citizens who would be displaced or whose whole livelihoods would be adversely affected by the construction of a highway.

Proposed housing project atop proposed highway near Catholic Univ in Washington, DC
1964, proposed future failure near Catholic Univ in Washington, DC, unrealized

Washington, D.C. is a special case because they did not have proper community representation in the decision to build highways. From the beginning, groups of citizens against urban highways lobbied and rallied for their cause, and at each step they were met with resistance. The committee within Congress charged with deciding on transportation funding for the District was decidedly pro-highway, to the point that the chairman held proposed subway funding ransom in exchange for highway funding approval (Leavitt 108). The governing bodies that were supposed to represent Washington’s citizens were also pro-highway. In fact, a member of one of the councils that governed the District, Charles M. Duke, was also a member of the Army Corps of Engineers, which was in charge of the District’s Highway Department. Duke was questioned if voting on proposals that he had put forth was a conflict of interest, and he said it was not because he was sure it was for the public good (Leavitt 95).

Back and forth the debate went, with hearings, lawsuits, judgments, appeals, and declarations. In an appeal of one the lawsuits, the Federal Court of Appeals sided with the citizens of D.C., stating that “these projects generally affect more people and larger areas of the District than any other type of street, and therefore are potentially more destructive of aesthetic values and fundamental property rights.” (Leavitt 101). Despite these obvious democratic objections, Congressmen pressed ahead, and to avoid potential defeat of the bill on its own, attached the D.C. freeway bill to the larger 1968 Federal Highway Act, which promised large amounts of federal funding throughout the country in an election year. In the end, the citizens of Washington, D.C. managed to win some but not all of the fights against urban highways. In nearly every city in America, highways tore through neighborhoods and forever altered the physical shape and social and economic potential. We will examine the way cities connected highways to housing policy, but first we will look at automakers and their booming influence on American society in the 1950s and 1960s.

4. Transportation – The American Dream and The Open Road

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when the majority of major highway decisions were made, businesses and organizations that would profit from greater automobile use did a very good job of promoting roads and highways. They created how-to guides for local pro-highway supporters and commissioned propaganda films. We’ll Take the High Road was one in which the fictional, idyllic Hillsdale is convinced of the benefit of a proposed highway. This continued a decades-old tradition of industry-funded propaganda films promoting cars, suburbs, and good roads.  Another film was called Freedom of the American Road, produced in 1955 by the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford II starts the film before handing it over to requisite bureaucrat storyteller who ties roads and automobiles back to American freedom and individuality. Describing downtown Pittsburgh as “dead and gone now, with no one to mourn for it”, the man displays new plans for highways through downtown as “a new horizon…the American road going through Pittsburgh is being opened up, being made free” (Freedom of the American Road). A consistent theme emerges from these films: out with the old (cities, transit, old buildings, small streets) and in with the new (cars, highways, suburbs, parking).

Trust me. Honestly, trust me.
Trust me. Honestly, trust me.
Still from film short about GM, 1927
Truth in advertising.

Cities could be renewed and updated by highways that would clear blight and slums, provide access downtown to suburbanites, and provide an imported European model of replacement housing for everyone the highway displaced. Without real alternatives, the carrot of 90% federal/10% local monies that was too hard for local officials to turn down. In other words, this was seemingly the only solution to solve their ills, and it was really cheap. The Federal government made it really easy for cities to build urban highways, which made it really easy for people to leave the city who had the means to leave the city. Competition for federal dollars, which were capped each year, put more pressure on cities to act, and act more broadly than they might have. Having the carrot of federal money created a monster that did not stop until the late 1970s, when city officials began to realize what the programs were doing to cities. 

The potential for social engineering through highway construction was noted in 1939 by Wilfred Owen, who President Roosevelt selected to head the National Resources Planning Board. Owen argued that decisions on highways should be made by locals and only after consideration of all other consequences. If this does not happen, “the work of single-minded highway engineers would dictate what the plan shall be”. Owen recommended establishing a federal body to “synchronize road building with housing, recreation and agriculture” (Goddard 170). Similarly, as President Eisenhower was winding down his second term as President, he realized that his “Grand Plan” had been taken over by special interests. His idea for American highways was what he saw in Germany, where the highways stopped at the city’s edge. He realized the colossal repercussions, remarking on the “wastefulness of thousands of motorists driving into the central area and taking all the space required to park the cars” (Goddard 194). Unfortunately, Owen’s warnings and recommendations were ignored, and Eisenhower’s observations came true.

Part II Housing comes next week………


America’s Highways, 1776-1976. Washington, D.C.: Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, 1976.

Bianco, Martha J. “Kennedy, 60 Minutes, and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of the Decline of Urban Mass Transit.” Center for Urban Studies, College of Urban and Public Affairs, Portland State University, 1998. Print.

Boarnet, Marlon G., and Andrew F. Haughwout. “Do Highways Matter? Evidence and Policy Implications of Highways’ Influence on Metropolitan Development.” The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, 2000. Print.

“Freedom of the American Road.” Internet Archive. Web. 5 Jun 2011. <;.

Goddard, Stephen B. Getting there: the epic struggle between road and rail in the American century. University Of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

Kwitny, Jonathan. “The Great Transportation Conspiracy.” Harper’s. February 1981: Print.

Leavitt, Helen. Superhighways – Superhoax. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1970.

Snell, Bradford, Testimony in U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, The Industrial Reorganization Act: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly on S. 1167, Part 4A, 93rd Cong., 2d sess., 1974, 1839. <;

St. Clair, David J., “The Motorization and Decline of Urban Public Transit, 1935-1950,” Journal of Economic History 41. September 1981: 579-600

Wikberg, Terry. “Baltimore City Interstate Highway System.” University of Maryland, 2000. Print.