Urban Renewal?

By Etingoff, Kim | U.S. Catholic, June 2016 | Go to article overview

Urban Renewal?


Etingoff, Kim, U.S. Catholic


Urban renewal programs were meant to usher in an age of new, modern cities. But change is not always for the better, and what were once vibrant Catholic communities are now parking lots and office parks.

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 cafes. 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. …

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