The killing of America’s cities – in one photograph

Phoenix Mutual Life Building

Downtown Hartford CT, Constitution Plaza, mid 1960s

This is the moment it happened. … BANG!

Our great cities did not inevitably decay after WW2 and inexplicably become hollowed-out, concrete wastelands. Deliberate, misguided policy decisions in the mid-20th century killed them. What’s more, our cities were not destroyed by brown people who invaded and wrecked them; the policy-makers of the era were all white guys. Their actions set in motion the demise of urban centers, wrecking both the cities’ physical structure and the lives of their latest arrivals.

Above is a picture of downtown Hartford Connecticut, taken about 1966. The new Phoenix Mutual Life Building, rising from Constitution Plaza, dominates the area. In the background are a few of Hartford remaining gritty old industrial and commercial buildings. Also in the background is Interstate Highway 91 running along the Connecticut River. The whole scene is a tribute to the discredited vision of Le Corbusier and Robert Moses: a city devoid of pedestrians, dominated by towers, highways, and automobiles.

This photo captures the moment of Hartford’s execution, just as the famous picture of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting the Viet Cong prisoner in the head.

Front Street in the Thirties

Hartford, Front Street with pushcarts in 1930s

Hartford, Front Street with pushcarts in 1930s

Up until the late 1950s, the area of downtown Hartford between Front Street and the river was a largely Italian, working class neighborhood. It was filled with retail stores, homes, small businesses, and the other parts of a living city. But it was close to the river and subject to flooding. Its people were lower income, not the influential WASPs who ran Hartford’s insurance companies and the city as well. Front Street was considered a “blighted slum.”

After World War Two, the national trend was “urban renewal,” which turned out to be a euphemism for urban destruction. Suburbs, cars, highways, were the thing. Robert Moses, the now-infamous New York City planner and builder, set the example there for the rest of the country: build highways, build towers, accommodate automobile traffic, and tear down anything in the way of such so-called progress.

And so they did in Hartford. Like Joni Mitchell sang, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The Front Street neighborhood was wiped out and replaced with Constitution Plaza, whose elegant raised concourses emphatically had nothing to do with the city streets below. Nor did the office workers, who drove in from the suburbs in the morning, parked in the garages, and scooted back in the evening, unsullied by the city.

The Ship Building
The details of the photograph testify eloquently about these events and their results. Start with the Phoenix Mutual Life building. Taken by itself, it’s clever, beautiful, and spectacular, “the world’s only two-sided building,” we used to call it. Its shimmering, continuous, glass windows reflected the surroundings. You can actually see the reflection of the snowy cityscape in its tall, curving surface. Standing tall and proud in its square plaza and sunken courtyard. Notice that the building is not set obviously in the middle of the court, but is neatly offset, spanning both levels. As an isolated work of architecture, it’s impressive.

Quite a few cars were moving through Hartford that winter day. Four in the foreground, on State Street. A dozen cars zip along I-91 in the background. About fifty more were parked in the empty lots along Front Street. More garages came later.

Not one pedestrian clutters up this microcosm of the “city of the future.” But wait, you say, there is one human being, on the wide, snow-covered sidewalk in the foreground. Look more carefully. He is not a user of the city; he is a maintenance worker, pushing a snow-blower to clear a pathway, a path to nowhere and for no one, from the looks of things. I wonder if they even bother any more to clear the snow from the empty concourses of Constitution Plaza. Who would know?

In the background, some old buildings sit forlornly, awaiting the wrecker’s ball in a year, or ten.

And so it went. Hartford Connecticut was killed, along with scores of our other cities.

It did not have to be so.

Interstate Highways
The interstates could have still been built, but could have gone around cities, instead of cutting through them, like I-84 in Hartford, the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York, and dozens of other city-maiming highways. I-84 is not shown in this picture; it runs a few blocks away, severing the North End (Hartford’s Black neighborhood) from the central city. Could it have been tunnelled under the city? Or less expensively swept around to the northern fringe of the city? Note that I-91, running along the river and existing train tracks on the city’s periphery, did less damage. An interstate highway system needed to be built in the 1950s; we still need it today. But it could have gone around, not through, the hearts of our cities.

Phoenix Mutual, Travelers, and Hartford’s other big employers wanted office space. Nothing wrong with office buildings; jobs are a good thing for cities. Plop the buildings right down in the middle of city neighborhoods. It’s called “mixed use.” (And replace whatever buildings necessary; office buildings can’t float in the sky.) With an inhabited, actual city around, the office workers would have a place to eat lunch. And perhaps even be able to live nearby; living in the suburbs would not be the only reasonable option. And Front Street? What if was all gentrified, and re-made into some silly “Old Riverfront Little Italy,” replete with overpriced restaurants, boutiques, and yuppies converting brownstones into condos? … Compared to what has happened, that would be great.

It’s a sad statement on human nature, or perhaps just on American postwar urban governance, but what happened to our cities was not pre-ordained. Central cities could still be vibrant, safe, attractive places where middle class people live and raise families.

Here’s just one policy decision. In 1949, Congress passed a Housing Act; its Title I provided for Federal funding for urban renewal, i.e. slum clearance and provision of better housing for the people. Sounds good. But what happened? Title I money funded places like Constitution Plaza, which did not provide any housing, just office space. There were many more influential policies that literally drove middle-class people out of the cities.

While this single photo illustrates many of the issues, one blog post cannot begin to cover the topic. For more on the subject, read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker – Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Or watch New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns for PBS television, especially episodes 5, 6, and 7.

I posted several “Then and Now” photos of Hartford on this blog. Not merely to idealize the “Good Old Days,” but to show the city buildings and streets that could have been built upon and added to, rather than obliterated. As for Constitution Plaza, it went into foreclosure in July, 2012. Maybe it should be torn down and replaced with mixed-use, low-rise, pedestrian-friendly, brownstone buildings.