Master city builders, like presidents, acquire reputations that veer back and forth as the generations pass. Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the man who gave us modern Paris, was reviled in his own time as a destroyer of community life and hounded from office, but eventually came to be seen as the creator of the most impressive city in the Western world. Robert Moses, lionized in his pre-World War II years as the brilliant and incorruptible designer of badly needed New York parks, parkways and beaches, was widely viewed at the end of his life as an arrogant bully who obliterated neighborhoods to build expressways that hastened the city’s decline.
Edward J. Logue was no Haussmann, and he was no Moses. But in his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, he had a near-hagiographic national reputation as the wizard redeveloper of New Haven, Boston and beyond. Today, less than two decades after his death, few outside the urban-planning world even think about him. Those who do generally regard most of his huge projects as failures.
That makes it all the more remarkable to recall the things that planners and critics said about him half a century ago. The Washington Post called him America’s “master rebuilder,” Life magazine called him the “bold Boston gladiator” and one writer compared him to Pericles of Athens. Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz described Logue’s redevelopment of New Haven as the “greatest success story in the history of the world.” This was said at a time when Logue himself admitted to serious mistakes in New Haven that he would try not to repeat in other places.Lizabeth Cohen’s “Saving America’s Cities” is not an attempt to rehabilitate the master planner’s faded reputation. She finds much to admire in his ambition and idealism, yet freely admits that the ultimate scorecard doesn’t come out in his favor. She has not only taken the measure of a complicated man, but also provided an incisive treatment of the entire urban-planning world in America in the last half of the 20th century.Urban planning has become, especially in recent years, a highly polarized subject. Practitioners and critics tend to either believe in grand-design ideas or reject them entirely. By avoiding the ideological poles and giving each side a fair hearing, Cohen, a professor of American studies at Harvard, has created a more enlightening book than has appeared on this topic in quite some time.Logue was a tough Philadelphia Irishman, a working-class graduate of Yale who believed all his life in a hardheaded liberalism not far from that of the Kennedys, whom he admired. He was demanding and imperious with colleagues and collaborators alike. And he never stopped thinking big. Taking over urban planning in New Haven in 1953, at the age of 32, he vowed to create a “slumless city — the first in the nation.” That was a nonstarter.Most conspicuous among his New Haven projects was a downtown renewal plan. Its heart was Chapel Square Mall, essentially a suburban-style shopping center in the middle of the city that embraced virtually all the dubious planning ideology of the 1950s. Chapel Square was a boxy fortress that faced inward and deadened the adjoining city streets. It made no provision for mixed uses, so that there was no residential component to strengthen the commercial side. Its long, monotonous superblocks discouraged pedestrian activity.Where Logue really succeeded was in luring federal money to his projects. In the Logue years, New Haven took in more redevelopment aid per capita than any city in America. But the money was not a cure for anything. Chapel Square showed modest signs of life in its early years but was a conspicuous failure by the 1980s. Logue’s second major effort in New Haven, an attempt to distribute public housing across some of the stable white ethnic neighborhoods of the city, fell apart amid the angry opposition of the people who lived in those neighborhoods.To his credit, Logue drew lessons from his failures. He realized that he had neglected to give the ordinary citizens of New Haven any role in the planning process. When he moved on to Boston in the early 1960s, he coined a new slogan: “Planning With People.” And he embraced preservation, something he had never done before, telling audiences that his new goal was “rehab, don’t demolish.”Logue’s mandate in Boston was so sweeping that Architectural Forum called it “the most massively centralized planning and renewal power that any large city has ever voted to one man (other than New York’s Robert Moses).” Now he not only had the urge to do something spectacular — he had the power to do it. The first thing he did was to demolish the city’s seedy Scollay Square enclave and replace it with the monumental Government Center, consisting of city, state and federal office buildings and retail space to go with them. Government Center has to be reckoned at least a partial victory. Employment in the immediate area jumped within a few years from 6,000 to 25,000. Century-old buildings were retained in the mix.To most Bostonians, however, the essence of Government Center was (and continues to be) the brutalist modern city hall that seems to them ugly and repellent on the outside and grossly inefficient on the inside. The building is surrounded by a vast, windswept and underused concrete plaza of the kind that planners stopped creating shortly after Logue was finished.As in New Haven, Logue faced militant opposition from the neighborhoods where he wanted to place integrated scattered-site public housing. Little of Logue’s agenda came to fruition. On this crusade, Cohen says, Logue’s initiatives “failed as badly in Boston as they had in New Haven.”Logue left Boston in 1968 with his social liberalism still intact, and with an idea of how he might be able to implement it: through a grant of power even greater than the ones he had before. In the New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller, he found a collaborator who not only agreed with him on housing and integration, but shared an enthusiasm for enormous projects. Logue was made the head of a statewide Urban Development Corporation with the authority to override local zoning laws.Over seven years, Logue’s U.D.C. did build quite a bit of public housing — 117 separate developments in 49 cities and towns, 33,000 dwelling units for 100,000 people, about a third of them low-income. But at the end of his New York tenure, Logue was known primarily for two more huge failures. One was his utter inability, despite his formal powers, to bring integrated housing to the wealthy suburban communities of Westchester County, where he had chosen to concentrate. The other was the administrative mismanagement that left many of his projects unbuilt and ultimately resulted in the agency’s default in 1975.That was the end of Logue’s grand ambition. In the 1980s, he did manage to develop a modest townhouse complex in the Bronx that won him professional awards, wide popular approval and personal satisfaction. But when he died in 2000, it was with the reputation of a man who had been seized with big ideas and big plans, and missed the mark on nearly all the important ones.There are other lessons to be learned from Logue’s career. One is that his insistence on building on a grand scale often meant that not much was built at all. When Boston experienced its dramatic revival in the 1990s and 2000s, it was under the stewardship of Mayor Thomas Menino, an uncharismatic, often inarticulate man as different from Logue as a public figure could be. Menino worked on Boston neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, sometimes storefront by storefront. Logue believed in the clichéd architectural advice to “make no little plans.” Menino made little plans one after another, and he stimulated a city.An equally important lesson is that Logue stumbled repeatedly over his conviction that architecture and physical design could solve social problems. He never stopped believing this, but his long career, as Cohen admirably recounts, offers plentiful evidence that he was wrong. Social problems are far more complicated than Logue thought, and more complicated than many of his successors have been willing to admit.