60 years has made a big difference in the urban form of American cities. The most rapid change occurred during the mid-century urban renewal period that cleared large tracts of urban land for new highways, parking, and public facilities or housing projects. Fine-grained networks of streets and buildings on small lots were replaced with superblocks and megastructures. While the period did make way for impressive new projects in many cities, many of the scars are still unhealed.
We put together these sliders to show how cities have changed over half a century.
How to Use
Click and drag the slider as shown in the image below to compare images.
Boston, 1938 to 2013
Dating from 1938, this Boston aerial image is one of the oldest available dates. Boston’s most dramatic urban renewal story is probably the clearance of the West End neighborhood, in the top center of the photos. Only a handful of landmarks were preserved in this area, which was a Jewish and Irish working class area. According to the West End Museum, a third of old Boston was lost to urban renewal. In contrast, the North End and Beacon Hill neighborhoods are wonderfully preserved historic districts.
Another notable change is the path of the Central Artery, once an elevated highway that has now been buried through downtown in “The Big Dig.” Project for Public Spaces has said “there is no square as terrible and bleak” as Boston’s 7-acre City Hall Plaza, the red-paved square at the center of the image. New mayor Marty Walsh recently announced that redesigning the plaza will be a priority of his term.
Philadelphia, 1965 to 2014
I-95, along the Delaware River east of Center City Philadelphia, is one major change visible here, along with highway interchanges and connections into the city. The Pennsylvania Convention Center also takes up several square blocks. Additionally, near the center of the photo, a large enclosed mall replaced several blocks as the city attempted to compete with the suburbs. Much of Philadelphia’s architectural change can be attributed to architect Vincent Kling and planning commissioner Edmund Bacon.
[Update: Philadelphia Magazine has provided additional comments on the changes in this image]
Pittsburgh, 1952 to 2014
Pittsburgh is another city with a shocking urban renewal history, particularly in the areas east of downtown, the Lower Hill District and Hill District. Thousands of structures were destroyed for facilities like Civic Arena, which has now been destroyed and slated for redevelopment. The Hill District was a prosperous African American neighborhood that descended into crime and poverty during the urban renewal period and was further destroyed by riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Baltimore, 1959 to 2010
One of Baltimore’s infamous urban renewal scars is known locally as the ‘highway to nowhere.’ Originally envisioned (with help from Robert Moses) as a 22-mile route, only 1.4 miles were constructed as a below-grade highway extending west from downtown, demolishing dense residential neighborhoods. Advocates hope that the highway will be removed and restored as a productive neighborhood. Running north to south, Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard is considered a dividing line between downtown and predominantly black West Baltimore. More than 25,000 people, 85% African American, were displaced during the urban renewal period in Baltimore.
Buffalo, 1963 to 2014
The 1963 aerial of Buffalo (note that the images are rotated from true north to show more of the downtown area) shows the city’s dramatic elevated “Skyway” already in place. Much of Buffalo’s urban renewal transformation took place in the 1950s, before this image was captured. However, additional changes to the street grid occurred, such as the severing of Genessee Street, one of the radial axes from Niagara Square all the way to the outskirts of the region.
Rochester, 1951 to 2014
In Rochester, the Inner Loop Highway was constructed in the early 1950s, forming a complete loop around the center of the city. The eastern portion of the loop carries as few as 10,000 vehicles per day. A proposal to replace this section with an urban boulevard is now underway.
Syracuse, 1956 to 2011
From the air, the oval surrounding the historic Syracuse Armory and several historic squares have remained a part of Syracuse’s urban fabric even as many commercial and residential blocks gave way to surface parking. I-81 and I-690 were constructed as elevated highways through downtown Syracuse, meeting in an expansive elevated interchange. The I-81 corridor is being evaluated for the potential to replace the highway with a surface boulevard. [Update 11/23: Alana Semuels at The Atlantic has written a great piece on urban renewal focusing on Syracuse.]
Albany, 1952 to 2013
Several massive-scale transformations are visible in Albany, most significantly the brutalist state government complex Empire State Plaza, or South Mall, constructed in the 1960s and 70s. Along with I-787 and the South Mall Arterial access road, this development replaced huge portions of Albany’s urban core. A new documentary film tells the story of this clearance project that displaced 3,500 families. Watch the trailer here.
[Update: All Over Albany has provided additional comments on the changes in this image.]
Providence, 1955 to 2013
The 1955 image of Downcity Providence (rotated from true north to fit greater area) shows the city as it was before the construction of I-95 along the west edge of downtown. The highway and other urban renewal projects in the late 1950s and 60s took out hundreds of homes and businesses, and many business owners never recovered from relocation in Providence. Additional large-scale clearance is visible south of the downtown (lower left of images), where a medical campus and associated parking has spread into the neighborhood.
Hartford, 1959 to 2013
Hartford’s Bushnell Park, adjacent to the Connecticut State Capitol, is still prominent in the city’s urban form. However, much of Hartford has been transformed by the urban renewal era. Today, more than 20% of land downtown is used for parking. In the 1959 aerial, clearance and highway construction is already underway near the river. The I-84 corridor, below grade north of downtown and an elevated viaduct as it winds around to the west, carries some of the heaviest traffic volumes in the state. However, the viaduct has been identified as a ‘futureless freeway’ and leaders are considering how to deal with this piece of infrastructure.