I was drawn to a biographical approach to urban history, after many years of writing the social and political history of large groups of ordinary Americans, for the opportunity to investigate the experience of a person in a position of power during the postwar era. My career probing what has been called “history from the bottom up” left me eager to examine “history from the top down,” but to bring to it social history’s attentiveness to class, gender, race and ethnicity, profession, and other forms of identity that shaped how influential protagonists thought and acted. That Ed Logue was city-bred as a lower-middle-class Catholic in Philadelphia; that as a scholarship student he attended elite Yale College and Law School, where he became a progressive labor organizer, a civil rights activist, and an opponent of what would become known as McCarthyism; that he served as a bombardier in World War II with a bird’s eye view of European cities; that he brought an assertive, sometimes overly dismissive, hyper-male style to his redevelopment work — all these matter greatly in this story. Moreover, because Logue played a formative role in creating a new kind of postwar professional — the urban redevelopment expert — who carried an expanding body of skills and knowledge from city to city, his personal experience illuminates a wider world. As Logue joked at a reunion celebrating his first mayoral boss, Richard Lee of New Haven, “Look at all of us. We have rebuilt half the East Coast.”

Too often the era of urban renewal is depicted as an abstract contest between unstoppable urban-growth machines and the defenseless communities that became their victims. Following the career of someone like Logue allows us to grapple with the agency, motives, and constraints on all sides and, most importantly, to understand when and how conflicts or negotiations took place. The actions and attitudes of urban specialists on the one hand, and residents — mobilized and not — on the other, cannot easily be separated; they constantly interacted and shaped each other.

Although this book tells primarily an American postwar story, it will make many connections to the international context. The ambition to undertake the urban renewal of U.S. cities coincided with the rebuilding of many cities worldwide after the ravages of the Great Depression and the devastations of World War II. A young Logue found inspiring models in both the social housing experiments of European reformers dating back to the 1920s and the modernization schemes and community development programs he observed in the emerging new nation of India in the early 1950s, where he worked in the American embassy before he returned to New Haven. A more mature Logue became captivated by postwar European New Towns and imported the concept to New York State in the 1970s. Although every country put its own stamp on how it implemented innovations in architecture and planning, it is striking how widely ideas circulated among practitioners increasingly operating in globalizing professions.

The lack of subtly that I have lamented in current historical understanding of postwar American urbanism stems partly from its frequent framing as a monumental battle between the clashing visions of the villainous Robert Moses and the saintly Jane Jacobs. Moses is frequently depicted as epitomizing government arrogance and the prioritizing of planners’ projects over people. And Jacobs, in turn, is hailed for slamming planners’ intrusions as disrupting the natural evolution of the street and neighborhood. This dichotomy is too simplistic and makes these two twentieth-century giants of urbanism into symbols of rigid orthodoxies. In truth, they were both more complex figures. Moses did not only bulldoze neighborhoods and build insensitively; he constructed crucially needed urban infrastructure. In her influential 1961 critique of big planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs taught the world important lessons in valuing the spontaneous life of the street, in allowing city neighborhoods to develop organically, and in viewing planners — with their top-down expertise — skeptically. But her sweeping repudiation of the planning profession and government intervention left few tools in place for delivering more equitable housing for those requiring it or for constructing much needed public works. No surprise that conservatives, particularly libertarians, have embraced Jacobs alongside her more Left-leaning admirers, finding her criticism of urban renewal consistent with their own defense of individual property rights and discomfort with the “federal bulldozer” and other government actions deemed excessive. In fact, the conservative ideologue William F. Buckley, Jr., included Jacobs in his anthology American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, while the libertarian magazine Reason, devoted to “free minds and free markets,” named Jacobs one of its “thirty-five heroes of freedom.”

Logue knew Moses slightly. Both Yale men and avid football fans, they met up regularly in the parking lots of the Yale Bowl or Princeton’s Palmer Stadium. While admiring some of Moses’s accomplishments — parks and parkways, not public housing — Logue sought repeatedly to differentiate himself as less imperious and more committed to social change. As a close colleague at the UDC put it, Logue “was Robert Moses and the anti-Robert Moses all at once. He would think as large as Moses and had no less ability to implement . . . But unlike Moses, he was as committed to social transformation as he was to physical building.” Moses in turn was suspicious enough of Logue that when he heard reports that Mayor John V. Lindsay was trying to recruit him to New York City “as a super duper planner,” Moses wrote to a Boston acquaintance — perhaps in jealousy, his own power already much diminished — to express his doubts and inquire how Logue was faring there. His correspondent gave him no satisfaction when he replied, “I think that Ed Logue has done a splendid job in Boston.” Comparisons between Logue and Moses continued long after their deaths. In 2008, the esteemed architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable expressed her frustration with the slow rebuilding of the World Trade Center in a Wall Street Journal column, “New York’s 9/11 Site Needed Not a Moses but a Logue.”

Logue dueled spiritedly and sometimes meanly with Jacobs. He rejected her stance, which he characterized sarcastically as “no more federal renewal aids; let the cities fend for themselves,” an “approach [that] has won her many new friends, particularly among comfortable suburbanites” who liked being “told that neither their tax dollars nor their own time need be spent on the cities they leave behind them at the close of each work day.” Nor, he pointed out, was her much flaunted residence amid the Old World charms of New York’s West Village a privilege easily shared by slum dwellers. She returned the favor, once saying, “I thought he was a very destructive man . . . He thought that all should be wiped out and built new. Boy, in my books, he went down as a maniac.” When her interviewer suggested a comparison between Logue and Adolph Hitler, however, she issued a caveat: “So we were lucky.”

A more subtle history of postwar urbanism must move beyond this stark and in many ways distorting dichotomy. Though Logue was quick to condemn what he considered excesses in both Moses and Jacobs, he learned from both of them. John Zuccotti, an admirer of both Logue and Jacobs and an important player in New York City’s housing and planning circles before becoming a successful developer, recognized the need for more balance. “It’s very hard to do what she [Jacobs] wants to do without some kind of government involvement. Excuse me, [but] if it wasn’t for the government, the private developers would have annihilated every old building in the City of New York . . . [But] I don’t blame them . . . That’s what it’s all about, right? Making money.” The urban renewal of American cities in the era of mass suburbanization deserves to be painted more in shades of gray than in black and white.

Excerpted from Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) Copyright © 2019 by Lizabeth Cohen. All rights reserved.

Lizabeth Cohen is the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard University and the former dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is the author of Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Bancroft Prize, and A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.