Certainly the new zoning laws, which coincided with the rise in urban transit, helped. Zoning laws were created early last century before we understood the ecological costs of a highway-dependent society and at a time when women were expected to stay at home. These conditions have changed but our zoning laws have not kept pace. For example, today in homogeneous single-family, double-income neighborhoods whole blocks may be deserted during the day. We spend our Saturdays driving to distant malls in part because we have zoned shops and services out of our own communities, another monument to failed planning.
Among the effects of zoning - again, with the aid of the streetcar - was to dismantle the ethnically and socially connected - albeit not integrated - city. Where class and ethnicity might have once been divided by blocks, now the more successful could move safely several miles away. For example, Washington's Georgetown, where I lived as a child, reflected its pre-zoning origins despite segregation and restrictive covenants. My mother and father, he a middle level New Deal official, lived on a street that included a row of black shanties, one occupied by our mail man and half without indoor plumbing. My public school was segregated but my streetscape wasn't. Imagine a mid level Bush or Clinton administration official living on the same street as their postal carrier regardless of ethnicity and you can sense the change that has occurred.
Zoning wasn't the only thing happening. One of the New Deal's reforms was the creation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which provided federal guarantees for home mortgages. According to the historian Kenneth T. Jackson, between 1933 and 1936 alone, the HOLC supplied funds for one tenth of all owner-occupied, non-farm residences in the country. The FHA, and later the VA, took over the task. By the end of 1958, the FHA had enabled nearly five million families to own homes and helped more than 22 million to improve their properties.
At the same time, however, the legislation discouraged the construction of multi-family units and provided only small short-term loans for repair of existing homes. This meant, Jackson noted, that "families of modest circumstances could more easily finance the purchase of a new home than the modernization of an old one." Jackson continued:
"The greatest fears of the Federal Housing Administration were reserved for 'unharmonious racial or nationality groups.' The alleged danger was that an entire area could lose its investment value if rigid white-black segregation was not maintained. To protect itself against such eventualities, the Underwriting Manual openly recommended 'enforced zoning, subdivision regulations, and suitable restrictive covenants. In addition, the FHA's Division of Economics and Statistics compiled detailed reports and maps charting the present and most likely future residential locations of black families." In a March 1939, map of Brooklyn, for example, the presence of a single non-white family on any block was sufficient to result in that entire block being marked black. Similarly, very extensive maps of the District of Columbia depicted the spread of the black population and the percentage of dwelling units occupied by persons other than white."
Jackson noted that "black neighborhoods were invariably rated 'D.'" These were neighborhoods described with such phrases as "the only hope is for demolition of these buildings and transition of the are into a business district" or "this particular spot is a blight on the surrounding area."
"Residential security maps" were drawn up for every block of a city. These maps were available to lenders and realtors but were kept secret from the general public. Some of these maps, including those for DC, Jackson found to be missing from government archives.
The suburban bias of the FHA was extraordinary. For example, 91% of the homes insured by the agency in metropolitan St. Louis between 1935 and 1939 were in the suburbs. This practice would continue into the 60s and even the 70s. Jackson found that in 1976 the federal government had supplied three dollars in loans for suburban St. Louis for every one dollar to the city itself. Between 1934 and 1960, $559 million was loaned for suburban construction in the St. Louis suburbs but only $94 million for the city itself, a suburban per capita loan in 1961 of $794 vs. an urban one of only $126.
Behind such attempts was what Richard Sennett has called a search for "the purified community." Describing the psychology of urban planners in The Uses of Disorder, Sennett says, "Their impulse has been to give way to that tendency, developed in adolescence, of men to control unknown threats by eliminating the possibility for experiencing surprise."
This tradition continues to today and is already driving the plans for New Orleans.
My own introduction to the impact of urban planning came in the late 1950s as a radio reporter. I was sent to interview a woman who was refusing to move out of her house in DC's Southwest urban renewal area. Hundreds of acres had been leveled around her and still she clung on like a survivor of the Dresden carpet bombing. The project, the largest in the nation, had begun in April 1954 and five years later some 550 acres had been cleared. Only 300 families remained to be relocated. More than 20,000 people and 800 businesses had been kicked out to make way for the plan. Some 80% of the latter never went back into operation.
The design was hailed by planners and liberals; a 1955 report for the District was titled No Slums in Ten Years.... One of the leaders in the fight against SW urban renewal was Rev. Walter Fauntroy, later active in the civil rights movement. And in a 1959 report of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the Rt. Rev. Msg. John O'Grady said, "It is sad. It is not urban renewal; it is a means of making a few people rich. Instead of improving housing conditions, it is shifting people around from one slum to another."
The Supreme Court disagreed. In 1954 it had upheld the underlying law and in a decision written by none other than William O. Douglas, declared:
"It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled . . . The experts concluded that if the community were to be healthy, if it were not to revert again to a blighted or slum area, as though possessed by a congenital disease, the area must be planned as a whole."
Years later, a woman who had lived in Southwest recalled that when her mentally ill mother had a spell, there were always neighbors or relatives to take her in and shield her from what was happening. It wasn't until they were forced out of the community of Southwest and had to live alone that she learned how sick her mother was.
Today, the new Southwest is rarely cited as a model of urban living. It reflects the planning biases of the 50s - cold, boxy construction and a lack of convenient shops, thanks in part to the deal struck at the time with the now struggling commercial mall. Many people seem to prefer less planned communities, places whose character developed from those who live and work there rather than being imposed from without....
...In nearly every... instance it was either explicitly or implicitly assumed that the plan would attract a better class of people and business to the place being planned. The people presently there were at best an afterthought.