Peter H. Rossi and Robert A. Dentler, The Politics of Urban Renewal: The Chicago Findings , 1961

From its initial pages, Peter H. Rossi and Robert A. Dentler identify the primary impetus behind their work, “The central question of this study is what did citizens contribute to an urban renewal planning operation in Hyde Park-Kenwood.” (2) With this in mind, Rossi and Dentler use the Hyde Park-Kenwood urban renewal of the mid to late 1950s as a model for other urban communities’ experiences. Fundamentally, The Politics of Urban Renewal: The Chicago Findings focuses on the interplay between civic associations, block organizations, private institutions (most notably the University of Chicago), and municipal government in developing a plan for Hyde Park – Kenwood’s attempts at “neighborhood conservation”.

Much of Rossi and Dentler’s attentions focus on the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference formed in 1949. Hyde Park- Kenwood residents exhibit several key attributes that perhaps made their example unique among them high levels of community participation, a generally liberal viewpoint including some level of interracial integration, resources (human and otherwise) that other communities lacked, and the presence of the University of Chicago which enabled the planning process to proceed at faster speed than normal. Members of the HPKCC also illustrated overlap into other institutions or associations active in the community. By the 1950s, Hyde Park-Kenwood residents clearly identified themselves with the local community and its “upper middle class” image. According to Rossi and Dentler, the HPKCC served two vital functions. Early on it stimulated and organized citizen concerns regarding perceived “detoriation” and helped to determine the community’s goals in the face of such difficulty. However, after the city gave the University of Chicago Planning Unit local authority and the municipality created an array of agencies to handle urban renewal issues, the HPKCC’s most vital service lay in its ability to connect civic groups to each other and to city officials. The HPKCC’s role assuaged resident fears while encouraging dialogue between the city and Hyde Park – Kenwood’s civil society. This greatly lessened political conflict though certainly did not avoid it. The proliferation of organizations and municipal agencies, each dealing with specific aspects of renewal, illustrates the complex nature of development. Rossi and Dentler repeatedly note that ultimately such renewal programs will make some residents unhappy since renewal often requires the dislocation of at least some of the local population. Some organizations such as the South East Chicago Commission were viewed by many as simply unofficial arms of the University, engendering mistrust by some. In contrast, the HPKCC operated with a greater familiarity and trust in the community, however, its role in renewal differed greatly from that of the SECC. Public relations and an articulation of the broader public interest emerge as key aspects to mid century urban conservation efforts. Such efforts facilitate quicker decisions and actions.

Hyde Park- Kenwood renewal efforts led the community, in the guise of the HPKCC, to debate what exactly conservation meant. In the end, the effort to “stabilize” or “conserve” the area required a commitment to an upper and middle class orientation. According to Rossi and Dentler, class trumped race such that if a black resident could afford to dwell in Hyde Park – Kenwood, few barriers existed. Moreover, the decision to privilege Hyde Park’s middle class nature meant the removal of populations that failed to fit into this economic demographic. Predictably, blacks suffered most visibly from this decision. The efforts of the Southwest Hyde Park Neighborhood Association illustrates this distinction. Led by preminent sociologist and author Clair St. Drake, the SWHPNA attempted to prevent the acquisition and clearance of several buildings that had been determined to be “dilapidated” by local planning commissions. The University of Chicago hoped to replace them with student housing (specifically for married couples, perhaps a political ploy to promote domesticity so prevalent in the 1950s). The effort failed, though not after numerous acriminous exchanges and soul searching within HPKCC itself, which had begun to feel that what had happened to SWHPNA lacked some level of justice. Still, Rossi and Dentler acknowledge some discrepancies by planners (notably that several buildings labeled dilapidated might not have been and that the community had made efforts to improve those buildings that might have detioriated somewhat … interestingly they use a relational approach in explaining that many residents of this part of Hyde Park settled after pulling themselves out of hard scrabble conditions in the city’s Black Belt, thus what might seem like overcrowding and less then ideal housing conditions to local middle class residents, seemed a vast improvement to these newer arrivals.) but ultimately blame the local apathy in SW Hyde Park that prevented them from relevant participation in the planning stages (though this too was disputed by some residents).

Contrasting the failed resistance of the Southwest section of Hyde Park with the successful negotiations carried out by its Northwest counterpart (which notably featured an interracial population though one that could be identified as small but solidly middle class ), Rossi and Dentler remain devoted to the idea that class trumped race. Led by the Northwest Hyde Park Redevelopment Agency and the Drexel Block Group (which in turn was led by Victor Townes an African American porter who served as the local “mayor”, playing a key role in community upkeep and relations), residents of the area effectively altered plans to their benefit through negotiation and compromise. Unlike the hastily organized SWHPNA, the NWHRA and the Drexel Block Group were established local institutions, thus, they had built relationships within and outside their neighborhood. Moreover, the leadership of this community carried status and experiences that greatly improved their chances of success.

Criticisms

— The book ends with the end of planning so the actual carrying out of the plan is not featured here. This is an obvious flaw since plans often change when actually implemented. Arnold Hirsch’s work addresses some of the same ground as The Politics of Urban Renewal but with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight

— the Authors place great faith in government especially the Daley government. Of course, some of this is due to the fact Daley was in the process of consolidating the machine but when they suggest that with the “exception on the issue of relocation, the municipal administration thus attempted to meet almost every widely circulated objection to the renewal plan.” (258). Moreover, the authors dedicate very little space to a discussion of the realities of Chicago politics.

— Often the authors seem to see it as the citizens duty to get involved with planning more than the city’s duty to engage local residents on such issues. While certainly civic responsibility doesn’t rest on the shoulders of only one group, institution, or individuals, at times the authors seem to engage in a blame the victim type discourse most notably in the case of South West Hyde Park’s protest. Also, they fail to account for the racial discrimination that penalized nonwhites looking to purchase a home. A good example of this would be Drake St. Clair and his frustrations over his difficulties in purchasing a home and then having it designated “dilapidated” such that it was part of the acquisition area to be removed. To be fair however, Rossi and Dentler do note that many white homeowners unfairly voted for clearance in the SWHP area since though they were located in the area their homes were not part of the acquisition. As well, they also note that several African Americans gave in b/c they believed that fighting the University was a losing battle. Thus, they do conclude that University secrecy retards renewal efforts, creates mistrust, and in the SWHP case gives the appearance of “Negro Removal”.

— Finally, several times its noted that relocation issues were one of the only subjects not fleshed out. Interestingly enough, as Hirsch and others have illustrated, this ended up being a key failure of urban renewal in Chicago. Few residents found relocation in viable neighborhoods, rather many found themselves in overcrowded and economically depressed sections of the city. A situation that repeated itself in the late twentieth and early twenty first century with the destruction of public housing, where many residents were promised housing in the new buildings but were excluded or the process took too long that they settled in other areas and no longer had the resources to move back.

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