October 30, 2006
Urban Renewal's Final Implosion—A Commentary by Jonathan Finer '09
The following op-ed originally appeared in the Sunday, October 22, 2006, issue of The Washington Post.
Urban Renewal's Final Implosion
By Jonathan Finer
Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which for the past three decades has occupied -- some say blighted -- a downtown block of this oft-maligned city, is expected to be demolished next month. Most of the musty building is already gone, including the oddly furrowed walls that once shook with cheers of pro-wrestling crowds and power chords from the likes of rockers Pat Benatar and Iron Maiden. Two banks of red-and-blue plastic seats jut diagonally from a rubble-filled foundation; workmen pick at concrete pillars with jackhammers.
When the coliseum opened in 1972, New Haven officials had hoped that the 10,000-seat stadium would usher in a more prosperous era for a city with high rates of poverty and crime. But by 2002, after too many seasons with too few paying customers, the massive building was shuttered; local authorities projected that it would lose $50 million over 10 years, and that tearing it down would cost a fraction as much.
The coliseum's destruction will be a depressing coda for Urban Renewal, the controversial nationwide movement that reshaped dozens of American cities from the late 1940s through the 1970s, claiming large swaths of rundown neighborhoods for huge government public works projects. Its foremost laboratory was New Haven, where officials spent $745 per resident on urban renewal projects from the 1940s through the late '60s, more than twice as much as the next most ambitious city (Newark, $277). The coliseum was the showpiece.
Urban renewal spread quickly after a 1949 housing act authorized and partly funded the taking of private land by eminent domain. Flush with federal money, states and cities rushed to adopt the model perfected by Robert Moses, a mid-20th-century power broker responsible for most of New York City's modern infrastructure of bridges and tunnels, parkways and highways. His imitators around the country seized entire neighborhoods, bulldozed them flat, and constructed new roads and grandiose civic buildings.
The goal was to provide "a decent home and suitable living environment" for all Americans by demolishing downtown slums, but the result was something different. Hundreds of thousands of residents, many of them black and poor or recent immigrants, were forced out. Much of Boston ($218 per resident, third on the list), including the historic West End neighborhood, was demolished to build apartment towers, a sprawling City Hall plaza and a giant elevated highway (the recent notoriously overdue and over-budget Big Dig was a costly effort to bury that roadway). Pittsburgh ($160, fourth place) built most of its downtown "Golden Triangle" during this time. In the District ($94, eighth among U.S. cities), acres of the southwest quadrant of the city were razed and rebuilt in this manner during the 1950s, with only a few stray markets, churches and townhouses left intact.
In New Haven, as elsewhere, the results were mixed at best. In a book about the city's architecture written shortly after the coliseum was built, historian Elizabeth Mills Brown wrote breathlessly of its "gigantic scale" and the spectators' "experience of sheer spatial intoxication." But long before Bob Hope crooned at the building's debut concert, locals had already begun to carp that its design was a monstrosity, drawn from an aptly named architectural movement called Brutalism. Its three-story rooftop garage cast a bizarre silhouette on the skyline, and the spiral-shaped concrete parking ramps proved difficult to navigate. Two planned department stores never really took hold, and are now vacant. Today, the area is the deadest part of New Haven.
"The day it was built," the Coliseum "already almost had the feel of a ruin to it," said Douglas Rae, author of a recent book about New Haven and urban development and a professor at Yale, whose leafy Gothic campus is half a mile up the street. "It is really an appalling thing to look at."
Even so, the building's imminent demise has drawn sharp protests from groups with little other common ground except that they grew to love it. Preservationists and tweedy academics saw a historic landmark, albeit an ugly one, worth salvaging. Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, reportedly equated demolition plans with "architectural murder." Meanwhile, metalheads and jersey-clad fans of the New Haven Nighthawks hockey team lamented that the city would be left without a major sports venue. The faithful hung a banner from the building's roof proclaiming "Game Not Over" and began lobbying the government to reconsider. "A lot of us spent some of the best nights of our lives in that old barn," said Joe Chieppo, who worked at the coliseum for 17 years, starting as a teenage stock boy in 1985.
At a series of public hearings in recent years, backers of the coliseum pitched redevelopment plans. But toward the end of a 2003 gathering, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. took the microphone. "Be realistic," he implored. "It never created any economic activity around it. It didn't even sustain a bar on the corner."
As in many Northeastern cities that were once industrial centers, the coliseum's plight was but one symptom of the city's economic crisis. Even the gun manufacturer that made New Haven famous -- the U.S. Repeating Arms Co., producers of Winchester, "the gun that won the West" -- has finally ended a 140-year association with the city by closing a factory that was once the largest local employer. It was New Haven's last remaining major manufacturer.
These days, theories of urban renewal have themselves been modernized. Urban planners now advocate community-oriented approaches to development, in which residents and business and political leaders are more involved in decision-making.
But New Haven officials are still in love with the Big Idea. The latest large-scale scheme to transform the city is the $230 million Gateway Downtown Development Project, slated to include a sprawling community college campus, a theater and a hotel complex. There are also plans to spruce up nearby streets with wider sidewalks and antique lampposts, in the hope of reviving street life. "The city keeps putting all of its eggs in one big basket," Rae said. "I'd be happier if they subdivided the land the coliseum is on, sold it off and aimed lower -- shoe stores, bars, that kind of thing."
Beny Mezza, who runs Coliseum News, a small cafeteria across George Street from what's left of the arena, said: "Whatever they put in here, I hope it gets this place going, or I'm out." During the noon lunch hour one recent weekday, there was one customer -- an elderly man watching raptly as the lottery numbers were announced on a wall-mounted television.
Jonathan Finer, a Washington Post staff writer, is on leave to study at Yale Law School.