Redevelopment Wrecks: New Haven, Connecticut

New Haven, Connecticut

A dynamic industrial town with a large population of first-generation Americans well into the 1920s, New Haven was hard hit by changes in the economy and denied new residents under government-imposed immigration policies.  Until Mayor Dick Lee took office in 1954, local politicians took a decidedly hands-off approach to private development.  Changing course, Lee promised to procure and use as much federal funding as possible to promote economic development.

In his eight terms (16 years) in office, he delivered federal money, but not revitalization.  He razed entire neighborhoods, kicking hundreds of residents out of their homes and businesses in the name of alleviating poverty, and 50 years later, there is little to show for what LBJ’s Secretary of Labor dubbed “the greatest success story in the history of the world.”[1]

One case study epitomizes the theme.  Convinced that in order to renew a neighborhood, it would be easier to destroy it and start from scratch, Lee had the 42-acre immigrant, working-class Oak Street Neighborhood demolished.[2]  All told, 886 households were displaced and over 3,000 people were forcibly moved to make way for nicer homes, wealthier shops and a highway.  Yale Professor Douglas W. Rae estimates that one-fifth of New Haven’s population left for the suburbs or reluctantly relocated to public housing in other parts of the city.  Today, only a small portion of the highway originally proposed has been completed and the residential and retail developments never actually came to fruition.[3]  Thus, it’s not surprising that at the end of his tenure in government, Lee changed course entirely and frequently said, “If New Haven is a model city, God help America’s cities.”[4]

[1] “Life in the Model City; Stories of Urban Renewal in New Haven,” available at: (June 16, 2006).

[2] Harry Siegel, “Urban Legends: The Decline and Fall of the American City,”Weekly Standard, March 15, 2004.

[3] Avi Salzman and April Rabkin, “When the Bulldozers Never Arrive,” The New York Times, August 14, 2005.

[4] “Life in the Model City; Stories of Urban Renewal in New Haven,” available at: (June 16, 2006).