A City without Slums: Urban Renewal; Public Housing and Downtown Revitalization in Kansas City, Missouri

Article excerpt

KEVIN FOX GOTHAM [*]

ABSTRACT. Most scholarly efforts to understand the political economy of postwar urban redevelopment have typically viewed urban renewal and public housing as "housing" programs that originated with the "federal" government. Yet this view is problematic for two reasons. First, it fails to specify the key actors and organized interests, especially real estate officials and downtown business elites, in the programmatic design and implementation of urban renewal and public housing. Second, this view does not fully acknowledge the dislocating and segregative effects of urban renewal and public housing on central city neighborhoods and the role these private-public initiatives played in shaping demographic and population patterns in the postwar era. I draw upon archival data and newspaper articles, real estate industry documents, government reports, and interviews to examine the origin, local implementation, and segregative effects of urban renewal and public housing in Kansas City, Missouri. I explore the role of the ideology of privatism--the underlying commitment by the public sector to enhancing the growth and prosperity of private institutions--in shaping the postwar "system" of urban economic development in which urban renewal and public housing were formulated and implemented. Focusing on the interlocking nature of race and class, I identify the critical links between urban renewal and public housing, and the long-term impact of these programs on metropolitan development in the decades after World War II.

I

Introduction

THIS PAPER EXAMINES THE ORIGIN, LOCAL IMPLEMENTATION, AND segregative effects of post-World War II urban renewal and public housing, using a case study of Kansas City, Missouri. During the 1930s and later, many American cities began to experience increasing physical deterioration of their core neighborhoods and commercial districts, forced concentration of inner city blacks into crowded areas, and loss of population and industry (Banfield and Wilson 1963; Silver 1984; Mollenkopf 1983; Teaford 1990). In the middle 1930s, urban leaders and real estate industry spokespersons, especially those affiliated with the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB), began calling for the federal government to curb the ruinous effects of urban decay, revitalize the central city, and protect downtown real estate investments. Much of the real estate industry's lobbying efforts from the 1930s through the 1950s included the development of a series of policy proposals that could facilitate public acquisition of slum land in blighted areas for clearance and resale to private builders (Davies 1958, pp. 182-185). These proposals included state acts empowering municipalities to redevelop blighted areas, close public-private coordination of urban land-use and control, long-term federal loans to cities at low interest rates, and generous tax subsidies and write-offs for local redevelopers-proposals that in time would become a hallmark of urban revitalization schemes throughout the nation and profoundly affect population and demographic trends and the spatial transformation of central cities in the postwar era (Barnekov, Boyle, and Rich 1989, pp. 38-39; Gelfand 1975, pp. 151-156, 275-276; Hays 1985, chapter 5; Kleniewski 1984; Weiss 1980; see Wilson 1966 for an overview).

Up to now, most scholarly efforts to understand the political economy of postwar urban redevelopment have typically viewed urban renewal and public housing as "housing" programs that originated with the "federal" government (Hays 1985; Teaford 1990; Anderson 1964). In many accounts, scholars argue that federal officials and policy makers designed urban renewal and public housing to improve the living conditions of the poor and that the programs "failed" to meet their objectives (Bauman 1987; Von Hoffman 2000; Teaford 2000, 1990). I argue that this view is problematic for two reasons. First, it neglects to identify the key private actors and organized interests, especially real estate officials and downtown business elites, in the formulation and implementation of urban renewal and their opposition to public housing. …