Author: The Transformation of San Francisco
How do you amass
large enough parcels to clear a slum if, in fact, there are hundreds,
possibly thousands of owners of the property? One basic piece of
legislation was the concept of eminent domain, which is in the Constitution.
The government has the right to go in and forcibly take property,
with compensation. Regardless of whether the owner wishes to sell
the property, they must sell it to the government in order to accomplish
some kind of public good. A major element of urban renewal is the
right of a local redevelopment agency to use the government's eminent
domain powers to gain control of an entire neighborhood, or part
of a city. And the role of the Redevelopment Agency, therefore,
was to take this land by eminent domain, assemble a large enough
parcel, and then give it to a private developer to supposedly do
something in the public interest.
On the Goals
goals were largely economic and not social: to increase the city's
tax base, to push out users who were not considered the best use
of the land. Many of the areas that were torn down were not necessarily
slums by any objective definition. And there were certainly areas
that could have been improved rather than cleared. Nor did the redevelopment
process in San Francisco take very good care of the people who lived
there. Presumably, if you want to clear a slum, it is not just for
the benefit of the city, it's for the benefit of the slum dwellers
who are being negatively affected by their living conditions. In
city after city, there were occasional studies done of what happened
to those people afterwards: you would consistently find that people
who were displaced were worse off after urban renewal than before.
Basically the underlying motive for all of the urban renewal projects
in San Francisco was to use the urban renewal powers to get those
people out of there and do something better with that land, as far
as the city was concerned.
San Francisco Redevelopment Archives
was an extraordinary practitioner of the urban renewal game. He
knew the Federal legislation because he had come from the Housing
and Home Finance Agency: the equivalent of today's Housing and Urban
Development Agency. The Redevelopment Agency was weak and understaffed.
Herman knew he had to build a competent and strong agency. He reminds
me of Robert Moses in New York, Edward Logue who worked in New Haven,
and later in Boston. These were cities that had massive and effective,
in the sense of getting a lot done, urban renewal programs, largely
because of the talent and aggressiveness of these particular men.