Urban

Blighted Cities Prefer Razing to Rebuilding

November 12, 2013

Shivihah Smith’s East Baltimore neighborhood, where he lives with his mother and grandmother, is disappearing. The block one over is gone. A dozen rowhouses on an adjacent block were removed one afternoon last year. And on the corner a few weeks ago, a pair of houses that were damaged by fire collapsed. The city bulldozed those and two others, leaving scavengers to pick through the debris for bits of metal and copper wire.

“The city doesn’t want these old houses,” lamented Mr. Smith, 36.

For the Smiths, the bulldozing of city blocks is a source of anguish. But for Baltimore, as for a number of American cities in the Northeast and Midwest that have lost big chunks of their population, it is increasingly regarded as a path to salvation. Because despite the well-publicized embrace by young professionals of once-struggling city centers in New York, Seattle and Los Angeles, for many cities urban planning has often become a form of creative destruction.

“It is not the house itself that has value, it is the land the house stands on,” said Sandra Pianalto, the president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “This led us to the counterintuitive concept that the best policy to stabilize neighborhoods may not always be rehabilitation. It may be demolition.”

Large-scale destruction is well known in Detroit, but it is also underway in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo and others at a total cost of more than $250 million. Officials are tearing down tens of thousands of vacant buildings, many habitable, as they seek to stimulate economic growth, reduce crime and blight, and increase environmental sustainability.

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