New Boston Exhibition Tackles Urban Renewal

The Boston Redevelopment Authority admits past missteps at West End Museum show.

The corner of Green Street and Leverett Street in Boston’s West End neighborhood, 1959 (Credit: Historic American Buildings Survey)

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In what it admits is an “unlikely partnership,” the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the West End Museum have collaborated on an urban renewal exhibition, which opened at the museum last week.

The BRA, of course, is the agency behind the controversial demolition of Boston’s West End neighborhood in the 1950s, and the resulting displacement of residents in favor of new development and highways — all in the name of urban renewal.

“Regardless of how well-intentioned federal urban renewal may have been, the ultimate result for the West End was the complete destruction of a vibrant, tight-knit community and the displacement of thousands of families who called that neighborhood home,” said Duane Lucia, West End Museum curator, in a press release.

As the BRA is currently seeking approval to extend its urban renewal authority for the next 10 years, it sees the exhibition as an opportunity to acknowledge its past mistakes in an attempt to move forward. According to the BRA’s website, “the powers, which were last extended in 2005, provide the BRA with tools to support redevelopment and revitalization of Boston’s neighborhoods.”

“What happened in the West End is not something we’re necessarily proud of, but urban renewal by and large has had very positive effects for the city of Boston,” Corey Zehngebot, a senior urban designer and architect for the BRA, told Boston.com. “[Urban renewal] is definitely a phrase that people hear and have a visceral negative response to. We knew it would be challenging to go out and talk to people about a topic that has a lot of historical baggage.”

The exhibit is titled “Dewey Defeats Truman/The Housing Act of 1949,” which, according to Boston.com, “is a nod to an infamous headline from the Chicago Daily Tribune that incorrectly said President Harry S. Truman had lost his campaign for re-election. Truman actually won and would go on to establish the Housing Act of 1949 as a response to a nationally rising demand for housing. This was the federally funded start of the “slum clearance” urban renewal strategy, which took place in the West End.”

The exhibit will feature maps, archival photographs and documents about the urban renewal extension process. It will be on display until January 2016.

“Demonstrating urban renewal’s continued value and explaining our much different approach to using the tools nowadays is one of our biggest challenges,” said BRA Director Brian Golden. “This exhibit is a great way to showcase the evolution of urban renewal and share some of what we’ve heard at community meetings.”

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Jenn Stanley is a freelance journalist, essayist and independent producer living in Chicago. She has an M.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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Tags: urban planningboston

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