Reforming Urban Renewal

Bond assumed the top post of ARCH during a public demonstration led by militant activists on the organization’s front steps at 306 Lenox Avenue in the summer of 1967. The son of a prominent family of educators, Harvard University-trained, and an expatriate in liberated Ghana, Bond had recently returned to the United States. His installation denoted the new ambitions that swept through Harlem with the rise of Black Power. Yet while Bond’s ascent brought a symbolic and strategic shift in ARCH’s work toward the goals of racial self-determination, this new direction would unfold within an institutional framework that had been put into place by his predecessor, C. Richard Hatch, a white architect who had founded ARCH three years earlier. Hatch had launched the organization in 1964 in response to Harlem’s history as a site of constant postwar redevelopment.Through ARCH, Hatch sought to provide architectural and planning services to a community that had few resources to oppose disruptive modernist planning. Instead of simply stopping urban renewal, however, ARCH volunteers hoped to reorient redevelopment for the benefit of Harlem’s predominantly low-income residents. Nevertheless, the advocacy approach that Hatch espoused would soon run against the demands of the emerging Black Power movement. Despite supporting community control, Hatch found his position increasingly untenable in a new era. In launching ARCH, however, he had created a platform that would soon come to support Bond’s more radical approach to community-based urbanism.

Harlem was by no means the only New York City community transformed by urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, but it represented a favored site for officials seeking ambitious redevelopment of the built environment. Urban renewal underwrote the transformation of hundreds of Harlem’s acres in the postwar era. It also brought the displacement of thousands of the neighborhood’s residents. Central Harlem, for example, was the site of three new public housing complexes in these decades - the Polo Grounds Houses, Colonial Park Houses, and St. Nicholas Houses - and two middle-income housing developments that remade 24 acres along the neighborhood’s Lenox Avenue. In West Harlem, officials built another middle-income complex, Morningside Gardens, and two adjacent public housing developments. The transformation of East Harlem unfolded on an even larger scale. Here, New York City invested over $250 million to build a string of projects housing 62,400 residents. These developments claimed massive spaces within the grid. The James Weldon Johnson Houses, for example, which opened in 1948, encompassed six city blocks. Their scale was grand but not atypical. By the time of the completion of the 15th public housing project in East Harlem, the city had reconstructed 162 of its acres.2

Such efforts grew from a range of motivations, many quite benign, but with devastating social consequences. Officials hoped that redevelopment would keep cities viable amid widespread suburbanization, would reverse physical deterioration, and would decently house a wide range of New Yorkers. This approach embodied a mid-century liberal faith in the merits of governmental intervention and monumental thinking.The public good exceeded the potential disruption to individuals, officials argued, in a view embodied most famously by Robert Moses, the power broker who remade vast stretches of New York City. Yet harm to people and communities could be profound, and the broad promises of redevelopment projects often fell short. Residents watched their neighborhoods deteriorate amid the delays that preceded clearance, were frequently displaced without sufficient rehousing assistance, did not qualify for new housing, or waited years for a spot to open in new developments. Public housing, underfunded and undermaintained, became rife with physical and social problems. By the mid-1960s commentators, policy-makers, and residents widely agreed that urban renewal had often worsened the conditions it promised to improve. Critics argued that large-scale redevelopment had only decreased affordable housing, created isolated urban enclaves, undermined and undervalued the social structure of existing neighborhoods, and failed in its promise to enhance the physical environment of cities.3

Though architects and planners had done well by urban renewal, many younger designers joined the growing critique of its means and ends. Hatch, who had called an October 1964 meeting of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, leading to the formation of ARCH, agreed with many observers that the gap between design expertise and the public had grown too vast. As a result, most urban plans followed textbook orthodox)' but did not meet the needs of actual city residents. Hatch acknowledged the faults of his profession, hoping to direct knowledge to new ends. “We in the profession who have followed the pattern of urban renewal (or Negro removal, as it is sometimes called) across the country know what Harlem residents are up against,” he explained. “We know that technical knowledge equal to or superior to that of the government agencies is necessary to a successful fight. We hope to be able to provide that assistance.” Hatch proposed a new kind of practice that promised to combine professional expertise with Harlemites’ vision for their community.4

Architects and planners conscious of the paradoxes of the liberal aspirations of renewal had offered their services to communities in Harlem and elsewhere on a limited basis since the late 1950s. But ARCH was most likely the first effort to institutionalize this function, to provide a physical space accessible to an entire neighborhood where residents affected by official plans could access professional services otherwise out of reach. This concept would come to be known as the “community design center.” Its role in Harlem was revealed in the preposition that Hatch had chosen for the organization’s name. ARCH was not “of” Harlem but “in” Harlem. Staffed with architects and planners who came from throughout the city, ARCH pledged to be accessible to residents, at their service and in their midst.

Hatch’s vision for ARCH had roots in a range of sources. One was a personal motivation, informed by the broader context of the mounting African American freedom struggle. Hatch had grown up in a conservative Long Island family but maintained far-left sympathies, representing the American Labor party in Great Neck and documenting poverty in the town for the Suffolk County News in the late 1940s. He studied architecture at Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s, and in the 1960s he became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Hatch watched tides of young people leave to join the civil rights movement in the South but realized the extent of the problems that persisted in the North - an awareness that focused his energies on New York City, where he was working as an architect. In 1963 and 1964 Hatch became acquainted with Harlem civil rights leaders such as James Farmer, Jesse Gray, Marshall England, and Roy Innis. In this milieu, he began to consider alternatives to renewal in its typical form.5

Hatch likewise drew from the broader public discourse on participation that was gaining momentum at this time. President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 in August, bringing the Community Action Program to reality along with the promise to ensure “the maximum feasible participation of the poor and members of the groups served” in its activities. While several months would pass before the first War on Poverty money reached Harlem, Hatch, like his fellow activists across American cities, found in Johnson’s initiative both a political opening for his civil rights ambitions and new financial support that would help efforts such as ARCH get under way. The War on Poverty fueled experiments in participatory democracy and new campaigns for local autonomy not only by residents of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds but also by outsiders such as Hatch, who sought to organize communities that had suffered without self-determination. Many of these efforts took on radical dimensions over time, as would be the case in Harlem. In these early days, however, ARCH’s mission and work shared the larger aspiration of the Great Society to respond to demands for grassroots democracy without fundamentally overturning existing institutions.6

To this end, Hatch and the activist planners and architects who made up the founding ARCH staff, most of whom were white, collaborated with Harlemites to confront disruptive redevelopment proposals. In already-mobilized communities, residents requested ARCH’s assistance in drafting alternative plans that reoriented urban renewal for their benefit. West Harlem, where in 1964 the city announced a plan to clear most of the blocks east of Morningside Park as part of a larger redevelopment effort, offers a representative example. Here, where 99 percent of residents were African American, city planners claimed that an astounding 375 of the 393 structures were unsound and unworthy of rehabilitation. They envisioned clearing nearly 80 percent of this stretch ofWest Harlem. Faced with their demise, community groups turned to the recently formed ARCH. While acknowledging the need for reinvestment in a neighborhood with decades-old homes that had deteriorated without adequate upkeep, ARCH staff opposed the widespread use of demolition. With its community partners ARCH prepared an alternate plan that called for the expansion of the redevelopment area so the potential benefits of reconstruction would encompass more Harlemites. But ARCH embraced physical rehabilitation, not clearance, as a means of upgrading West Harlem’s homes, estimating that three-quarters of the neighborhood’s buildings required only code enforcement or modest reconstruction to enable residents to remain in place.7

In West Harlem and other neighborhoods - such as the East Harlem Triangle, a predominantly African American, low-income community north of 125th Street that officials planned to bulldoze to build an industrial park - ARCH joined Harlemites in pursuing alternatives to disruptive redevelopment from within the structure of urban renewal. Similarly, while calling for a new democratization of planning, ARCH maintained a central role for professional expertise. As Hatch explained in 1965, his objective was “to turn the consumers of architectural goods - the poor - into clients.” ARCH staff would “develop their ideas into physical plans and concrete proposals for social action.” Architects and planners would retain a primary responsibility as intermediaries in the process,“as advocates for the poor.” His words anticipated those of the planner Paul Davidoff, whose seminal November 1965 article “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning” set out the principles of what came to be widely known as “advocacy planning.” “The planner should do more than explicate the values underlying his prescriptions for courses of action,” Davidoff argued. “He should affirm them; he should be an advocate for what he deems proper.”8

This approach offered a new vision for planning that provided avenues for participation while reinforcing the importance of the professional expert. In the case of the East Harlem Triangle, for example, long-standing community leaders frustrated with the city’s disruptive plans and the neighborhood’s continued deterioration decided to take on planning themselves. In mid-1966 they asked ARCH to serve as their consultant. ARCH, in turn, asked residents to form a planning committee, a nine-member group that met with an ARCH staff member daily throughout the summer. This committee symbolized the broader community, with mostly low-income members, several receiving welfare assistance or living in landlord-abandoned buildings. As they crafted a vision for their 14-block neighborhood focused on retaining and rebuilding low-income housing, their process embodied the ideal of the advocacy model. ARCH’s planner, June Fields, who had previously worked in the New York City Department of City Planning, translated residents’ ideas into concepts and forms.9

Advocacy planning enabled Harlemites to resist official proposals with plans communicating their own interests, but ARCH’s embrace of this approach would become problematic as the decade progressed. Harlem was a hotbed for the emergence of Black Power and the pursuit of community control. Indeed, the 1966 protests over community control of schools, a seminal battle in which demands for racial self-determination broke to the surface, unfolded in the East Harlem Triangle, the very neighborhood that ARCH was assisting, and included many of the community leaders with whom ARCH worked. Those protests, sparked by parents’ demands for control over Intermediate School 201, attracted Stokely Carmichael to Harlem.The arrival of Black Power’s symbolic leader demonstrated the degree to which radical ideals had already become widespread in the neighborhood. But Black Power’s emerging calls for racial self-determination and community control did not coexist easily alongside the advocacy model practiced under Hatch. The persistent role of white expertise in ARCH’s work - exemplified by its leader - clashed with rising demands for radical participatory democracy and the movement’s heightened racial politics.10

As the wave of Black Power rose in Harlem, it soon lapped at the base ofARCH. The organization was an ally of many of the most vociferous proponents of Black Power’s ideals and likewise espoused an appreciation for the residents of Harlem. Even so, Hatch understood that the transforming civil rights movement required that ARCH transform too. At first this evolution was gradual. Hatch sought to diversify the organization’s leadership and joined efforts to introduce new institutional models that would support local movements for self-determination. In 1967 Hatch invited Kenneth Simmons, an African American architect from San Francisco, to join ARCH. Simmons hailed from an affluent Oklahoma family and had attended Harvard College with Hatch, but he brought a new perspective to ARCH. In San Francisco he was, as ARCH staff announced, “a CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] militant.” He held a distinctly nationalist vision. “We are a group apart and obviously we are an interest group. We have our survival as a common interest,” Simmons wrote. He also channeled the discourse of community control. “We must also control our land; control our geographic community.”11

Likewise, in 1967 ARCH staff joined many Black Power movement leaders, including Preston Wilcox - an intellectual father of community control - and Roy Innis, who had overseen the radicalization of CORE, to found Harlem’s first community development corporation (CDC).The Harlem Commonwealth Council (HCC), as the corporation would be called, was to raise capital through the sale of modest five-dollar voting shares to low-income Harlemites; the money would fund business ventures to create employment and fill unmet retail needs in the neighborhood. In time, founders imagined, the effort would extend to housing, education, and social services, creating an alternative to public aid. HCC was one of more than 70 urban CDCs that grew out of the Black Power movement by the early 1970s, alongside other early efforts in Brooklyn, Cleveland, and

Philadelphia. Though individual CDCs differed in their strategies and ventures, they aligned in their efforts to foster economic self-sufficiency and neighborhood autonomy. CDCs offered a means of institutionalizing Black Power’s most ambitious principles, putting community control and self-reliance within reach.12

If radical activists agreed with Hatch and others that Harlem could be both a thriving community and one that belonged to its low-income residents, however, they disagreed over who would see it to that point. The most radical voices in Harlem were no longer willing to wait for gradual transition. Amid the growing influence of Black Power, Hatch had begun to feel out of place. He sensed suspicion from community members who had once welcomed ARCH. In June 1967 Hatch appointed Simmons as the co-director of the organization. Hatch soon reached out to Max Bond, suggesting that he return from Ghana to become ARCHs sole director. While Hatch hoped for a peaceful succession, however, Simmons had grown impatient with the pace of change. In late summer, therefore, Simmons staged a boisterous demonstration - a “palace coup,” Hatch called it - outside the organization’s front door. Assembling protesters for the spectacle and attracting a crowd, Simmons installed Bond as the first African American director of ARCH.13

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