Making Sense of Model Cities

Detail from the cover of 1973 Report on Model Cities, written for the New York State Temporary Charter Revision Commission

Urban renewal, Community Development Block Grants — these are familiar touchstones in the history of postwar federal housing and urban development policy. But what about Model Cities? This year marks the 50th anniversary of the program, implemented in 1966 by the newly formed US Department of Housing and Urban Development as a corrective to the top-down approach and physical emphasis of urban renewal. Model Cities was to focus on comprehensive physical and socioeconomic improvements to the country’s most impoverished neighborhoods, with meaningful community participation in planning. But after eight years of experimentation, Model Cities came to an end, and was quickly written off as a failure, and a footnote. Since then, we have rarely looked back.

Is that all there is to the story? What were its impacts and lasting effects? And why don’t we talk about it the way we do other critical episodes in urban and housing legislation? Our curiosity whetted by Susanne Schindler’s close look at Model Cities in the South Bronx, we asked historians taking new approaches to its history, and planners who worked during the period, to share their takes on the program and its legacies. –M.M.

Mandi Isaacs Jackson

Model Cities — a centralization and redesign of anti-poverty programs — was an attempt to solve “urban problems” in the wake of fears about civil unrest and Black Power. The central questions it raised are at the heart of movements against gentrification and dislocation today: How you define a problem determines the universe of possible solutions, and who is at the table determines how you define the problem (and how public money is spent). When the problems facing urban neighborhoods are defined by experts who don’t live in the neighborhood, they sound very different from when they are defined by those who live in the community and struggle every day with “urban problems.” Then, like now, communities asserted the need for better jobs, an end to police brutality, more and higher quality affordable housing, and better schools; meanwhile, policy often focused on reducing crime, and bringing in new development to attract people with money (“economic development”).

Model Cities is most significant in terms of the response of organized communities to the bulldozing not only of their neighborhoods, but also of the citizen participation requirements explicit in War on Poverty initiatives. This is often absent from historical accounts. Originally referred to as “Demonstration Cities,” it called into question what a city should demonstrate, and what the model for developing urban policy should look like. Its importance is often overlooked because it lies in the rarely-told stories of resistance and neighborhood organizing against its implementation on the ground — from community groups who sought not to dismantle it, but to take it over and assert their grassroots model. The neighborhood responses to Model Cities taught a generation of activists the importance of both door-to-door mobilization and the ability to understand and use to the community’s advantage the deliberately complicated and arduous processes of policy-making. 

Mandi Isaacs Jackson is a historian and the executive director of Music Haven. She is the author of Model City Blues: Urban Space and Organized Resistance in New Haven (Temple University Press, 2008).

Victor Marrero

The Model Cities program was in full operation for only about five years when Congress officially abolished it in 1974. Many of the original participating municipalities then folded into the new revenue-sharing Community Development Block Grants substantial portions of the projects and activities they had undertaken under approved Model Cities plans. Model Cities provided federal funding to carry out comprehensive, locally-developed plans designed to address the gamut of physical, economic, social, educational, and health needs experienced by residents of the most chronically impoverished urban neighborhoods in the country. To meet the program’s ambitious purposes, Congress appropriated about $600 million per year. Realistically, however, meaningful improvements to such dire and extensive human needs would have required expenditure of many more billions of dollars over many more than five years. Nonetheless, well before 1974 many critics had already declared Model Cities a failure and worked for its demise. By what measure was that pronouncement made?

To be sure, with meager resources relative to the enormous needs, the program could not have succeeded in such a short time in solving the deeply-rooted problems of deteriorated housing, unemployment, inadequate education, high crime rates and other woeful conditions that millions of the nation’s poorest people encountered daily. To hastily proclaim the program a failure on the basis of a standard and expectations impossible to achieve is not only unfair but disingenuous. That flawed assessment also does not give Model Cities its due in another essential respect. It fails to take into account that although formally dismantled in 1974 as a distinct federal program, significant parts of the projects and activities that had been begun under approved Model Cities plans were not immediately terminated. Rather, as the South Bronx experience demonstrates, many developments grounded on Model Cities initiatives continued for many years, and were carried on to completion with funds deriving from Community Development Block Grants, in some areas supplemented with state and local resources. That experience cannot be ignored in any honest appraisal of what the Model Cities program contributed to improving the neighborhoods where it operated.

Victor Marrero is Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. He served from 1970 to 1973 as Assistant Administrator/Neighborhood Director of the Model Cities program in New York City in charge of the South Bronx area. He continued in a long public career in planning and development at the city, state, and federal levels, serving as Executive Director of the New York City Department of City Planning; Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission; Commissioner of the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal; and Undersecretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Administration of President Jimmy Carter.

Beverly Moss Spatt

Model Cities was a “place-based” intervention, wherein funds went to participating geographic areas instead of a traditional “people-based” policy, which was direct to citizens and based on personal need. The program was plagued by vague, often confusing, guidelines, as well as by the competing visions among the black middle class, business interests and city officials.

There were three mandated strategies. First was a systems planning approach to determine needs based on quantitative data. Required data was unavailable and local administrations lacked capacity to gather and manipulate the data. There were very few black planners and those who worked under this program were white, outsiders, and inexperienced with the problems and needs of the Model Cities. Mistrust was evident in the black neighborhoods, where some suspected the planners of pushing a “white power” agenda. As a result, planning decisions were haphazard and what was produced was only what was necessary to obtain supplemental federal funds. The second strategy was the coordination and concentration of government programs and resources to be supplied to the selected area. This never happened, as departments and agencies on all levels of government were competing and categorical funds were unavailable or inadequate. The third strategy was citizen participation that would form a resident coalition to participate in plans and be able to pressure city officials to respond to their needs. There were different views as to citizen participation. Some saw it as local control of services, and others saw it as only advisory to the local administration. Some opined that citizen participation would hinder comprehensive planning and create conflict with city-wide solutions. The local administrator was appointed by the mayor and therefore had a political relationship. Power did not rest with the community people. The ambiguity of citizen participation resulted in local strife.

Model Cities areas did not do better than other neighborhoods and may have fared worse. Poverty, urban blight, racial inequality, segregation, racial anger, and strife continue. On the positive side, schools and education improved, future minority leaders emerged, and government recognized the need for a new realistic approach to societal problems and power relationships.

Beverly Moss Spatt, PhD, AICP, served as a New York City Planning Commissioner from 1966 to 1970 and wrote the Dissenting Opinion to the proposed but never adopted 1969 Plan for New York City. Dr. Spatt was a Landmarks Preservation Commissioner from 1974-1982, and Chair of the Commission from 1974-78. She is a former planning director of the New York City League of Women Voters, whose mission is to enable citizen participation in government decision-making.

Jason Bartlett

Planning histories regularly dismiss the accomplishments of the Model Cities program, in large part because its sprawling scope, ambitious agenda, and contradictory aims defy simple explanation. Critics and supporters alike agree that the program’s funding was spread too thin to be effective; however, a simple cost benefit analysis belies a larger story. Assessments of the program are complicated by the fact that Model Cities took root in a variety of social, economic, and political contexts. Furthermore, gaps in the historical record impede a more nuanced understanding of this program. A far greater challenge lies in collecting the stories of local people whose records are not normally preserved in archives. When historians delve into oral histories, personal papers, and the records of community organizations, a new story emerges. Model Cities tells us the story of local leaders engaged in a decades-long struggle against hardened racial lines and unresponsive elected officials. These activists used Model Cities as one part of a strategy to assume political power, reshape policy at all levels, and make government more responsive to the needs of poor and minority residents. 

Women like Elsie Richardson, Almira Coursey, Constance McQueen, Shirley Chisholm, and Lucille Rose of the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council (CBCC), an umbrella federation of more than one hundred different community groups, worked for years to lay the foundation for the nation’s first federally funded community development corporation, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. As Restoration took shape, the women of the CBCC were out-maneuvered by their male counterparts and denied a seat on the Board of Directors. Undeterred, they turned to the Brooklyn Model Cities Program and the Commerce, Labor, Industry Corporation of Kings County (CLICK), where they continued their work to promote comprehensive community development within the mechanisms of the city government. In 1977, Lucille Rose became the first woman appointed as a Deputy Mayor in the City of New York. Having begun her career at the neighborhood level and risen through the ranks of municipal government, Rose remarked, “I’ve gone step by step … they haven’t let me skip a step.” 

Jason Bartlett is a historian at St. John’s University, currently at work on a book that examines the fifty-year history of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.

Mark Krasovic

It’s difficult to make any generalizations about the outcomes of a program whose purpose was to foster broad, comprehensive experimentation in the development of local communities. But I’d resist easy narratives of failure and encourage more historical thinking about their roots. Certainly Model Cities falls under the larger sense, popular on the right, that the Great Society was an expensive failure that fostered violence and deeper dependence on the state among the nation’s poor. And Model Cities doesn’t share quite the cachet of other components of the War on Poverty, especially the Community Action Program, which mandated (and in many cases accomplished) broad community participation in antipoverty work and was called off. Comparatively, Model Cities did not foster its own constituency looking back on it with the same political affection. And the diffuse nature of its work — housing, health care, transit, and the arts are but a few of the areas it covered — makes the threads of its legacy harder to follow. But they’re clearly there.

Mark Krasovic is assistant professor of history and American Studies and interim director of the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University-Newark. His book The Newark Frontier: Community Action In the Great Society (University of Chicago Press, 2016) follows the ethic of community action as it plays out in Newark in the form of antipoverty programs, police-community relations experiments, and riot investigation commissions.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Jonathan Dunnemann January 21, 2017

What are the lessons learned for enlisting, facilitating, and maintaining ongoing local community participation by a diverse cadre of stakeholders?

Marcia Gaskins October 22, 2018

MODEL CITIES was truly beneficial to me as a young unwed mom who benefited from a program EEA. This program enrolled me into a certification exam at Essex County Community whereby I was able to graduate with an AAS degree. Upon graduation I was able to attend Upsala College and earn a BA. Later on I obtained a MA. Thanks to the Model Cities initiative.