Saving our cities from the wrecking ball

July 12, 1999|By Robert Wilson

YOU LIVE in a battered neighborhood in an aging city -- Buffalo or Baltimore, Hartford, Conn., or Detroit. Next door or down the street is an abandoned house where crack is being sold or squatters congregate or fires are set. If you complain, the chances are pretty good that your local government will respond by tearing down the house, using federal grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, state demolition money or even city revenue.

Obviously an empty lot is a better next-door neighbor than a crack house. But what happens when the crack house moves across the street, then three houses down, then over on the corner, and local officials, eager to spend those demolition dollars on eager local demolition companies, obligingly follow? Soon your street begins to look like a Halloween pumpkin's smile. The lots become trash-strewn, and another ailing city neighborhood goes into cardiac arrest.

Is razing the answer?

At a time when some of the news from U.S. cities gives cause for hope, when many governments at all levels are solvent enough to spend their money to clean up even their worst neighborhoods, we have to ask ourselves whether these distressed neighborhoods are so bad that we have to destroy them to save them.

I worry that we are moving too quickly and going too far in taking down abandoned housing. A decade from now, we could sorely regret the loss of sturdy buildings that we might have stabilized now at a fraction of the cost of restoring or replacing them later.

Although there's evidence that demolition is increasing, especially in Rust Belt cities that are losing population, New York is one city that doesn't have a policy of demolishing abandoned housing because rebuilding from scratch is more costly than renovating. Besides, much of the city's housing stock, from brownstones in Brooklyn to Art Deco apartment houses on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, is irreplaceable.

"The cost of trying to replicate such buildings is impossible," says Bill Traylor, a senior program director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national nonprofit group that helps rebuild neighborhoods.

The city has committed $5 billion since 1986 to restoring its housing stock, affecting 120,000 units. Much of the money has gone to the moderate rehabilitation of existing buildings, but some of it has gone to reconstruction where multifamily buildings had been torched or become so decrepit that rehab was impossible.

As a result of this investment in existing housing, Mr. Traylor says, parts of the city, like the South Bronx and Central Harlem, which lost more than half their populations in the 1960s and 1970s, are growing again. He points to a study done for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation that found that three distressed New York City neighborhoods have seen employment go up by 11 percent and the number of businesses increase by 13 percent since 1989.

Demolition spending sprees

Many other aging cities, however, have a plan of attack that seems to be the opposite of New York's. For example, Detroit received a federal loan last year of up to $60 million for "an accelerated demolition initiative."

Buffalo spent $1.9 million last year to demolish more than 200 houses. Hartford has received $4.8 million in state demolition money in the past two years. New York State has earmarked $5 million this year and in 1997 New Jersey appropriated $20 million to help local governments tear down vacant buildings, including housing.

Many people defend urban demolition in such places as Buffalo and Baltimore by saying that some cities are simply smaller than they once were, that they have more housing than they need.

But when you look at the peripheries of such cities, you see that new housing is being built. The question is how to draw people to housing where infrastructure already exists, where density makes the delivery of services easier and where new construction doesn't promote sprawl.

As we know, the answers to these questions are complicated, involving at a minimum people's attitudes toward race, crime and education. But what can be said with certainty is that if there's too little housing in cities, people will live elsewhere.

New York City's success at beginning to revive its most distressed neighborhoods has many sources, public and private, all of them related in some way to good economic times. But even in cities where times haven't been so good, where population continues to decrease, it cannot be smart to tear away at fragile residential neighborhoods.

We may in fact be undergoing stealth urban renewal, a leveling of city neighborhoods that will appall us as much in the future as the urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s appall us today.

Whether many shrinking cities will ever really come back is an open question -- unless we demolish the housing that people might have come back for. Then the future is clear, and grim.

Robert Wilson is the editor of Preservation magazine. He wrote this for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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