Thematic Window: Urban Decay in the 1960\'s close window
Urban Decay in the 1960\'s


When John Gardner formed the Urban Coalition in 1970, he and his co-founders were responding to a dramatic turn in the state of America's cities. A combination of factors had converged to undermine cities' strength as economic engines, their desirability as places to live, and their overall stability.

In 1965, a race riot erupted in the Watts section of Las Angeles, leaving 34 people dead. This was the first of many riots that erupted across the country over the next four years. In 1967, devastating riots also happened in Detroit and in Newark, New Jersey. The following year, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. rioting erupted once again, including in the nation's capital. Often sparking these riots was one incident, usually involving the white police force and an African-American resident. Yet, the root causes of these disturbances are much more complex.

In the years after World War II, massive federal investment in highway construction and low-interest loans to GI's helped to make the suburbs an attractive place for more people to move. At the same time, manufacturers -- now with the ability to ship their products more easily -- could build new plants outside of cities and in areas of the country were labor was cheaper, such as the South. This de-industrialization hurt those who relied on relatively good-paying, secure, and low-skilled jobs. For the cities of the North and Midwest, this burden fell particularly hard on the more than 2.75 million African-Americans who migrated from the South to the North between 1940 and 1960. Discrimination -- explicit and in more subtle forms -- also kept African-Americans in poorer neighborhoods with poorer schools, out of the best jobs, and without the loans and mortgages necessary to improve one's home or move to a new area. Finally, efforts to renew cities and remove blight resulted in neighborhoods being razed for new highways, new housing towers, and other developments. Often, the neighborhoods that were most affected were minority ones; not just buildings, but communities were destroyed.

Although African-Americans in the North did not suffer as those in the South, the civil rights movement which began in the 1950's affected them as well. At the very least, it raised expectations, and often the movement was unable to address the difficult economic concerns of African Americans in the North. It was this as a backdrop that the urban riots of the 1960's took place. And sadly, the riots in turn only made the situation worse.

Neighborhoods that already were in decline were in many cases ruined and burned by the rioters. With rioting also came an explosion in crime. In addition, this violence accelerated "white flight" as residents who could flee cities did. With the population of cities getting poorer and in need of services, cities raised taxes in order to cover these expenses, but they were trying to raise money off of a smaller and less well-off population. These high taxes, in turn, drove more businesses and residents from cities. Some scholars also argue that the effort to secure welfare programs for the poor as a "right" and the consequential de-stigmatization of accepting such assistance eroded values of work and responsibility, fostered a culture of joblessness and dependency, and eroded two-parent families. Others believe that continued and persistent discrimination still works against African-Americans and the cities in which many live. Either way, the proliferation of and new relaxed attitudes toward illegal drugs only served to make matters worse. Trying to overcome these complex and intricate problems was a daunting task.

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