Urban Renewal in Charlestown is a key subject at the moment with a potential renewal process now ongoing, but no discussion of the matter can be had without delving into the past – and a new book about Urban Renewal pioneer Ed Logue will be the topic of just such a discussion in an online forum by the Friends of the Charlestown Navy Yard.
Author Lizabeth Cohen has authored the book ‘Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age,’ and will be the featured speaker on Oct. 29 in an online panel discussion moderated by Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker. The discussion is open to anyone who wishes to sign up.
Cohen, a Harvard professor of American Studies, said she became interested in the topic of Urban Renewal when she was studying how cities responded to the hordes of people who flocked to the suburbs between 1950 and 1970, and how many despised Urban Renewal plans, but they also did help over time. The book focused on Logue, the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) during the 1960s, because of his belief in the program and his long working career – as well as a treasure trove of primary documents left to Yale University.
“It really did change and develop over time,” she said. “Because Logue’s career was long and varied, he gave me a way of tracking it…I looked around for a good candidate. I decided to use Ed Logue. I’m using Ed Logue as a way to understand better how cities responded to post-World War II trends towards a massive suburbanization.”
The book follows Logue from his various posts, including New Haven, CT, before focusing a good deal of the publication to his work in Boston during the 1960s.
The Boston portion focuses on two areas – the Downtown/Faneuil Hall Urban Renewal, and then the neighborhoods like Charlestown.
“I looked at how it really played out very differently in each neighborhood,” she said. “It was always a negotiation between the BRA and the neighborhood. In many cases because of this community groups learned how to negotiate with people in power. They import those skills to other struggles in the city in the 1970s. In Charlestown, that was the groundwork for the busing struggle…I don’t think the first efforts didn’t have serious problems for the BRA, particularly with the first plans put forward by the BRA, but there was good in that communities were mobilized and learned how to get together to get things they wanted.”
That was primarily the case pointed out in Cohen’s book about Charlestown’s experience, with the Town being able to negotiate for things like the library and new schools – among other positives.
“In the book, I show the BRA had to budget time with Charlestown because they couldn’t find one negotiating partner,” she said. “The neighborhood was so divided…As a result of having no obvious group that was a leader, it took a lot more to get the community’s consent. That helped Charlestown a lot because the BRA had to negotiate more with the community.”
Even the old Charlestown Patriot (the predecessor of this newspaper) was used in the research, Cohen said, noting that large headlines at the time declared, ‘BRA Wins.’
“I think the current BPDA has learned a lot from Charlestown,” she said. “You have to realize Boston was in very tough shape. We don’t realize that today…There were deep-seated problems. The infrastructure was in bad shape. The living was sub-standard and in many cases without the proper plumbing.”
Charlestown, she said, lost one-third of its population before Urban Renewal even came about.
A final point on the matter is the change, where BRA worker Frank Delvecchio steers a new course with Logue to go out to the community and talk to them – winning them over in the personal way that Bostonians typically warm up to.
“He reached out to people and set up in the library and had a van to help him be mobile,” she said. “He talked to people one-on-one.”
That, in fact, was a change in the program where it began to be more about working with the community instead of dictating to the community – a story frequently told by the BPDA staff at modern Urban Renewal meetings.
To receive information on how to join the Zoom discussion Oct. 29, e-mail [email protected].