Book review: Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age

By Lizabeth Cohen and reviewed by Andrew Riely

20 Feb 2020, 3:27 p.m.
Andrew Riely

Saving America’s Cities book cover

Book review: Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age

By Lizabeth Cohen and reviewed by Andrew Riely

New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019; 560 pp.: 978-0374254087, US$ 35.00/£ 27.23 (hbk)


Many historians consider mid-century efforts at urban renewal, designed to counteract the drain of inhabitants and capital to suburbia, a failure. Robert Caro’s (1975) biography of Robert Moses, probably the most influential book on the topic, convincingly portrayed the ‘master builder’ as an unyielding servant of an abstract public good, whose youthful idealism was perverted by prejudice and a contempt for ordinary experience. Moses was blind to the unintended consequences of slum clearance and over-reliance on the automobile. Worse, he embraced creating vertical public housing ghettos that intensified concentrated poverty. Along with interstates, Federal mortgage insurance, and redlining (Jackson, 1985), urban renewal bears the blame for what Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton (1993) referred to as an ‘American Apartheid’.


Lizabeth Cohen’s Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age challenges the accepted narrative, uses Ed Logue, an influential planner whose legacy has largely been obscured by Moses’ large shadow, to challenge the accepted narrative. Logue’s self-confident persona and leadership of several East Coast urban renewal efforts suggests some similarities to Moses, but he is a far more sympathetic character in Cohen’s telling. Motivated by a steadfast commitment to social integration, Logue believed unswervingly in the need to marshal Federal resources to deal with a national-scale urban crisis. Cohen argues, however, that while Logue favoured centralised planning, he adapted with circumstance, learning to negotiate with and include citizens’ groups. His later career tracked the transition from a Keynesian to a neoliberal economic regime, after which planners have had little choice but to adjust their strategies. Cohen addresses her argument to urbanists living in an age when cities have regained political centrality. A simplistic interpretation of urban renewal, she suggests, will hobble contemporary urban advocates.


Beginning at the New Haven Redevelopment Authority in the mid-1950s, Logue, in conjunction with the first of several political patrons, Mayor Dick Lee, developed what Cohen calls a ‘pluralist democracy’ planning approach, incorporating the perspectives of local citizens while still relying heavily on expert design and opinion. Like Moses, he argued that appointed bureaucrats, partially insulated from the caprice and prejudice of the voting public, could better represent the public interest than elected politicians or, for that matter, private business.


Not surprisingly, Logue’s ambition and faith in expertise alienated some of the people he sought to help. In New Haven, his inattentiveness to securing temporary housing for those displaced by clearance engendered significant opposition, especially as the political environment became more radical. Cohen shows that New Haven’s black establishment favoured Logue’s plans, but many poorer blacks, especially those who suffered displacement, began to question the integrationist ideal. Residents challenged Logue’s pluralist approach with demands for a more participatory model that would provide them with a larger role in defining the goals and forms of development.


When Logue arrived, with much fanfare, to run the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 1961, he touted his ‘planning with people’ approach. In a city that had stagnated economically for 40 years, his plan to clear the Scollay Square honkeytonk district and replace it with the massive modernist ‘Government Center’ complex met with acclaim. Unlike in New Haven, Logue preserved some of the area’s older architecture, most notably Quincy Market, which would subsequently experience a renaissance as a ‘festival marketplace’. The result, Cohen asserts, was a ‘negotiated cityscape’ (p. 391) that mixed old and new architecture. To many contemporary Bostonians, however, Government Center evokes a bleak, massive and dehumanising aura (McMorrow, 2013). The entire complex, which consolidated municipal, county and state offices, unquestionably had an effect both practical and symbolic on local economic growth following its construction, but Bostonians never embraced it.


In the city’s residential neighbourhoods, Logue’s housing agenda came to fruition when he negotiated with local community groups, whose ideas he held in increasing respect. Cohen’s description of his success in Roxbury, a neighbourhood with a high proportion of African-American residents, poses a sharp challenge to the conventional wisdom that urban renewal was intrinsically racist (indeed, Roxbury provided him with his strongest base of support in his doomed 1967 mayoral campaign). Logue’s efforts ran into the strongest resistance in the notoriously parochial, white Charlestown neighbourhood, where he was unable to cultivate an effective partner among local community groups.


Logue moved on in 1968 to New York State, where the liberal Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, persuaded him to lead the new Urban Development Corporation (UDC). Like Moses in his prime, Logue now controlled a public authority that could raise its own funds by issuing bonds, thus avoiding accountability to voters, and override local zoning exclusions. He pursued an ambitious array of housing developments, three of which were based on European ‘New Town’ principles – most notably Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island – but met his match when, acting on the principle that urban housing issues could only be solved at the regional scale, he tried to compel nine towns in Westchester County to accept a share of low-income housing. The plan was defeated, confirming Logue’s misgivings about the durability of public support for neighbourhood integration. Disastrously, in 1972 the Nixon Administration issued an unexpected moratorium on Federal housing subsidies, forcing Logue to slow his aggressive building plan while he searched for new sources of capital. Investors in UDC bonds now questioned whether the agency would fulfil its obligations; newly elected governor Hugh Carey intervened and requested Logue’s resignation. A new era of devolution and cutbacks to social services had begun, with Logue becoming one of its first casualties.


Despite the embarrassment, Logue re-emerged a few years later as the leader of the South Bronx Development Office (SBDO), organised by New York City officials in the wake of President Jimmy Carter’s famous 1977 visit to a burned-out neighbourhood in the South Bronx. Now, in the dawn of neoliberalism, Logue’s old ability to secure Federal funding for housing development was obsolete. Instead, he partnered with local community development organisations and national non-profits to build industrial parks and cheap housing. Recognising the need to provide practical structures that would appeal to working-class Bronx natives, the SBDO erected 90 ranch-style houses in the derelict Charlotte Street neighbourhood. Some former co-workers were dismayed by Logue’s abandonment of sophisticated architecture, but the prosaic form proved popular with locals. The project’s success convinced Mayor Ed Koch to initiate ambitious plans for residential redevelopment in the Bronx; Cohen credits Logue and the SBDO with breathing the first sparks into the South Bronx’s stabilisation and revival. It is notable that the local scale of the SBDO’s projects facilitated Logue’s full embrace of participatory planning in this late phase of his career. In this case, the public interest was synonymous with the local interest, obviating the need for a disinterested bureaucracy that could stand up to NIMBYism.


Cohen, who has written previously on the New Deal (1990) and the emergence of post-war consumer culture (2003), clearly admires her subject, though she points out the blemishes in his record and character. A competitive and masculine figure of his time, Logue nonetheless hired an unusually diverse workforce at every stage of his career and sought to employ construction companies whose workers reflected local demographics. He was an early advocate for making structures accessible to people with disabilities, particularly in his project on Roosevelt Island. Although his track record of achieving integrated housing is distinctly mixed, he believed wholeheartedly that the built environment could foster inclusion. He sought out ambitious modernist architects because he believed their cutting-edge designs conferred dignity on the people who lived and worked in their buildings, whatever contemporary tastes may make of those styles now.


The argument does not refute but rather complements and refines those of Caro and others who have critiqued the era of urban renewal. The stakes in this debate are high. Cohen faults Jane Jacobs’ (1961) much-lauded critique of urban renewal for its complacent attitude toward neighbourhood segregation. Cohen implies that progressives cannot successfully reckon with today’s pressing urban issues if they fail to draw on the resources of the Federal government. Doing so requires a more nuanced, and more accommodating, perspective on this past era when Federal urban policy was more robust. Readers will likely disagree over whether such a reinterpretation is warranted based on their attitude toward the role of centralised government in ameliorating social ills. Cohen presents impressive statistics to show the scope of Logue’s impact on housing development, particularly in New York State, but, except in her chapter on the South Bronx, she does not meaningfully address the experience of people who actually live in those dwellings. The enduring unpopularity of the Government Center complex and the failure of Logue’s keystone commercial project in New Haven, the Chapel Square Mall, indicates the risks of large-scale municipal redevelopment. It would tell us a great deal about the long-term quality of Logue’s residential structures if inhabitants of cities where competition for housing is not ferocious – New Haven, for example, or in upstate New York – still choose to live in and appreciate them.


If the US Federal government does transcend current limits to its activities in American cities, its proponents must acknowledge a set of issues that Ed Logue would recognise as familiar, at least in their general tensions. Can regional-scale planning, particularly around public transit, truly be participatory? What is the appropriate balance between amenities and cost in affordable housing? When is the use of eminent domain to seize private property justified to protect the general public against fires and floods unleashed by climate change? Answers to these questions are likely to severely divide the public in coming decades. People who want to grapple with them sincerely should consider the experience of Logue and his peers in urban renewal as they prepare to address them.




Caro, RA (1975 [1974]) The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Vintage Books.
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Cohen, L (2003) A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Alfred A Knopf.
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Cohen, L (2008 [1990]) Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Jackson, KT (1985) Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Jacobs, J (1993 [1961]) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Modern Library Edition.
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Massey, DS, Denton, NA (1993) American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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McMorrow, P (2013) Boston’s City Hall should be torn down. 24 September. Available at: (accessed 24 November 2019).
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