BRA and West End Museum Partner on Urban Renewal Exhibit

September 17, 2015
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In what might have been an unlikely partnership until recently, the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the West End Museum are collaborating on an exhibition about urban renewal.

The museum, dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the West End and the BRA, which played a controversial role in dramatically reshaping the neighborhood by demolishing vast sections of it for redevelopment during the 1950s and 1960s, will co-host an opening reception for “Dewey Defeats

Truman/The Housing Act of 1949” on Thursday, Sept. 24, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The exhibition, which is free and open to the public, coincides with the BRA’s effort to extend its urban renewal authority for another 10 years. The powers, which were last extended in 2005, provide the BRA with tools to support redevelopment and revitalization of Boston’s neighborhoods. The BRA will showcase maps, archival photos and documents, and other information from the ongoing extension process as part of “The Future of Urban Renewal in Boston,” a smaller exhibition designed to complement the West End Museum’s feature exhibit.

“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. I want to thank the West End Museum and its staff for their willingness and enthusiasm to work together.”

The title of the museum’s exhibition is a nod to an infamous – and inaccurate – headline from a November 1948 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune that incorrectly stated President Harry S. Truman had lost his campaign for re-election. Having actually won re-election, President Truman would go on to establish the Housing Act of 1949 in response to mounting demand for housing nationally. The legislation provided cities across the country with funding for “slum clearance,” a controversial urban renewal  strategy at the time.

Although it helped jumpstart Boston’s long-term economic growth, the redevelopment of the West End and Scollay Square (now Government Center) are often cited as examples of urban renewal’s overreach, as large areas of the old city were demolished to make way for new housing and infrastructure, such as highways.

“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, the museum’s curator.

Curators at the museum, which also include Bill Kuttner and Jim Briand for this exhibit, will focus on the historical significance of urban renewal and its role in redefining the neighborhood. Staff from the BRA’s planning and graphic design departments, meanwhile, will highlight how urban renewal can be used as a contemporary planning and economic development strategy. The exhibition will be on display until January of 2016.

The BRA hosted a series of community meetings and workshops this year that acknowledged urban renewal’s checkered past, while informing residents about its usefulness today. The agency is soliciting ideas from the public for updating the goals of each urban renewal area so that they reflect current urban planning priorities.

People can visit www.bostonurbanrenewal.org to learn more and to submit comments. The Web site has information about how urban renewal tools have been used recently, all presentations from the BRA’s community meetings, the original urban renewal plan documents and reference maps. As part of the extension process, the BRA has also digitized and uploaded over 700 historical photos from its archives to the site.

Based on community feedback, the BRA will refine the goals and planning objectives for each urban renewal area before hosting public forums in the fall to present the findings and discuss next steps for the extension process. The agency is seeking a 10-year extension for 14 of the city’s 16 active urban renewal plan areas, which expire in April of 2016. The Boston City Council, BRA board of directors and the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development must approve the request. Boston is just one of 31 cities and towns in Massachusetts with active urban renewal plans.

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