New Bedford Neighborhoods Devastated By 1960s Urban Renewal
President Ronald Reagan said during a news conference on August 12, 1986, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"
If only "The Gipper" were here in New Bedford in the late 1950s and '60s, when the government showed up to pitch "urban renewal."
Under urban renewal, private properties within a designated area were bought or taken by eminent domain by a local government, the properties cleared, and the land reused for the common good – or what the government considered to be the common good.
The 1950s were a time of unparalleled growth and prosperity for America. Americans were on the move. More Americans owned cars, requiring a modern highway system.
The federal government convinced New Bedford officials that the future was expanding the fishing industry, which meant new highways to haul the fish to faraway markets.
By the early 1960s, I watched with my dad as Interstate 195 inched to and through New Bedford. Before then, Route 6 brought folks to Cape Cod right through the heart of downtown New Bedford.
Now, they would drive right through the city without even stopping.
My colleague Jack Spillane wrote a 2009 piece for the Standard-Times in which he said, "Utterly convinced, they were, that progress for this city meant demolishing the old waterfront neighborhoods of South Central to build Route 18."
"Ditto for some 150 blocks around the old Weld Square to make way for the interchange between Interstate 195 and Route 18," he wrote.
I believe 150 blocks would include South Central as well as Weld Square, but I may be mistaken.
Spinner Publications says just for the renewal of the South Terminal area from 1965-1968, "Some 317 buildings – many of architectural significance – were demolished," and that "these included 203 dwellings and 114 businesses."
"About 247 families were displaced during the project. In total, 783 people were moved out of their homes, and 103 families were removed from private housing – whether owned or rented – and placed into public housing," Spinner wrote.
A 2027 article on Bloomberg.com said, "Through large-scale demolition and clearance, American urban renewal waged a war on perceived waste – and created a new tide of it."
Some neighborhoods are now reconnected to the waterfront decades after urban renewal construction projects tore them apart – but the damage is done.
Incidentally, in 1966, the federal government completed work on the New Bedford Hurricane Protection Barrier. It took four years and $18.6 million to complete. The barrier shielded the view of the harbor for many residents of the South End neighborhood.
Today, residents are able to walk atop the barrier thanks to the construction of the New Bedford Harbor Walk and the New Bedford Cove Walk.