Protecting Places: Historic Preservation and Public Broadcasting

To Plan or Preserve? Historic Preservation in the Wake of Urban Renewal

Following World War II, the federal government sought to invigorate the national economy after almost two decades of economic depression and war. Consequently, Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949 and the Urban Renewal Act of 1954, which provided federal funds to purchase and clear “blighted” urban neighborhoods. These city neighborhoods were filled with older buildings, which seemed, to policymakers, the antithesis of the modern, vibrant urban centers cities hoped to become.17 Policymakers’ faith in urban renewal and other forms of large-scale city planning is evident in the dedication ceremony of a New York City West Side Urban Renewal Project in 1964, recorded by public radio station WNYC. Robert Moses, the nation’s most famous champion for urban renewal, used public radio to justify slum clearance for large city planning projects in New York City.18 Though his methods levelled neighborhoods largely populated by people of color and decimated healthy communities, he was unfazed by the resulting protests. In this recording, Moses advocates for the demolition of eighteen Upper West Side blocks, justifying the displacement of thousands with the phrase “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Public broadcasting gave a voice and a face to those displaced by urban renewal in city centers. “Are the poor being pushed out by urban renewal?” asked a 1965 episode of WNYC’s Community Action. This question reverberated around the country, from San Francisco, where a 1962 radio broadcast from the Pacifica Radio Archives confronted the failures of urban renewal, to Boston, where, in 1975, WGBH explored the effects of urban renewal on Charlestown.

Public broadcasting helped make clear that residents and government officials often valued cityscapes for different reasons—and that, as a result, they took different stances on whether it should be preserved or transformed. While city officials prioritized redevelopment, local residents emphasized the value in preserving familiar, smaller-scale streetscapes. This tension, described in Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 1966 With Heritage So Rich, reframed the conversation about preservation. Rather than defining preservation as an attempt to save historically or architecturally significant structures, Americans increasingly began to see it as a tool of community revitalization.19 We see this changing attitude towards preservation and urban renewal in Robert Kennedy’s call for a more inclusive perspective on city planning, captured during a 1966 episode of Muni from WNYC, and in President Carter’s new urban policy emphasizing historic preservation in urban areas, discussed in 1978 on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.

Growing disillusionment with urban renewal’s modernist urban planning can be seen in a segment about renowned modern architect Philip Johnson in a 1983 episode of The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger described modernist architecture as “glass towers and sleek, fresh, austere buildings without a great deal of ornament.” Goldberger further stated that “We're much more interested today in things that relate more directly to a much longer and deeper past. One of the real fallacies of modernism was that it kind of tried to reinvent the world.” This disenchantment with modernism and re-engagement with the existing built environment is also exemplified in WNYC’s Around New York with Robert Weinberg, where the architectural critic informs residents about preservation past and future. This rejection of modernism as a moral and architectural prescription has continued into the twenty-first century across the country, where a KAKM Alaska Public Media news segment explores how structures once deemed progressive are now considered an eyesore. During rampant urban renewal initiatives, public broadcasting offered a way for Americans to express their appreciation or distaste for the current built environment and provided a forum in which they could discuss how the everyday buildings they encountered affected individual lives and local communities.

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Stieglitz, C.M, photographer. Sponsor of Battery Bridge / World Telegram & Sun photo by C.M. Spieglitz. New York, 1939. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Bottega, John, photographer. Isaacs asks delay at Lincoln Square / World Telegram & Sun photo by John Bottega. New York, 1957. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Stanziola, Phil, photographer. Mrs. Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Comm. to save the West Village holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles Sts / World Telegram & Sun photo by Phil Stanziola. New York, 1961. December 5. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Boston Redevelopment Authority photographs, Collection # 4010.001, City of Boston Archives, Boston.

Courtesy of the City of Boston Archives

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