Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age, by Lizabeth Cohen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, $35, 547 pages.

“In every industrialized nation, except the United States,” legendary urban planner Ed Logue wrote in an editorial for the Vineyard Gazette in 1999, “it is a cardinal role of national policy that it is the responsibility of the state to provide funding for what they usually call social housing.” The editorial was part of the effort Logue, in retirement in West Tisbury since 1996, was waging to advocate for subsidized affordable housing on the Vineyard, a policy dream he worried was cursed by the NIMBY — not in my back yard — thinking on the part of locals. “It is hard to believe how unpleasant otherwise nice people can become on this issue,” he wrote. “I have seen how vile people can be. But I have also seen that it works and works well.”

Ed Logue had indeed seen it all, but never before from this particular vantage point. As Lizabeth Cohen writes in her brilliant new book, Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age, “For the first time in his life, Logue was on the other side of the fence as a grassroots community activist.”

Ms. Cohen, the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard University, here sets herself an unenviable double task: first, making the case that federal urban renewal projects have been unjustly maligned in the last 60 years, and second, making the case that one of the most notorious urban renewal avatars in American history, Ed Logue, characterized by urban planning patron saint Jane Jacobs as “a very destructive man” and a “maniac,” has likewise been misunderstood. Saving America’s Cities strives for a corrective assessment of both the program and the man.

It fails on both points, but oh, is it a glorious failure. This is sociological and biographical writing of the first order, fluidly told, endlessly interesting and formidably researched (the book is rounded off with over 200 tightly-packed pages of end notes). It’s doubtful the dual subjects presented here will ever receive a more thoughtful analysis.

According to Ms. Cohen, the vilification of so-called urban renewal federal projects that commenced in the middle of the 20th century as “a decades-long, undifferentiated, and unmitigated disaster” came about as much because government funds were drying up as because the government programs were necessarily bad at what they were trying to do, although she grants the validity of all the standard criticisms. “Residents often were excessively and insensitively displaced from their homes,” she writes. “Flawed conceptions of the ideal city were all too common, such as when residences, work sites, and commerce were rigidly separated; when superblocks made downtown streets pedestrian-unfriendly; or when highways slashed through still viable neighborhoods. Seeking community involvement in planning was sometimes a pretense.”

All these criticisms are vigorously, damningly on point, and every one of them applied to Ed Logue for virtually the whole of his professional career. From 1954 to 1960, he was the development administrator of New Haven; from 1961 to 1967, he was development administrator of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, president of the New York State Urban Development Corporation from 1968 to 1975, and president of the South Bronx Development Organization from 1978 to 1985.

To varying degrees, through all these projects, Mr. Logue professed to believe in a “planning with the people” approach to urban renewal. But in Ms. Cohen’s delicate phrasing, this was sometimes a pretense. Far more often, Mr. Logue behaved with baronial indifference to the neighborhoods he was remaking. When he was razing whole neighborhoods in Boston, for instance, he himself lived in a gorgeous old 19-century row house on Beacon Hill, part of the enormous compensation package he’d demanded up front (“No one, including Logue, was exactly sure why he put such a high price on his own head,” Cohen writes, apparently unwilling to consider plain old greed).

In Boston, notoriously, Mr. Logue demolished Scollay Square and commissioned the windswept concrete abomination that is City Hall Plaza, adorned with the bizarre inverted-ziggurat monkey-puzzle new City Hall (stories about government clerks lost for years or even decades in the dim, byzantine hallways remain, at press time, unconfirmed but depressingly likely). Throughout his stay in Boston, Mr. Logue regularly heard from the residents who were “excessively and insensitively displaced from their homes,” but earnest improvers backed by federal money and the power of eminent domain can be impatient creatures. More than anything, Cohen’s version of Ed Logue is that of an impatient man.

Until the book’s final acts, that is. By the time Mr. Logue was running the South Bronx Development Association in the early 1980s, he was faced with dwindling federal funds and forced to plan with the people in earnest, and the results, highlighted by the celebrated renovation of Charlotte Street, were astonishing. Ms. Cohen characterizes this as a sign of the steady evolution of Mr. Logue’s urban planning vision, and by that point in the book she’s built up such an amount of good will with her readers that they may believe it.

Saving America’s Cities concludes by noting the lessons that Mr. Logue had learned by the time he retired to the Vineyard. One of these lessons is debatable at best: “There is no right or wrong way to remake a city,” and others are vigorously thought-provoking, mainly Ms. Cohen’s steadfast defense of government-funded housing projects. “There is much lost in a neoliberal world where the most robust activity is local and global,” she writes. “The intervening levels of state and national governance are crucial tools of redistribution within vast and diverse territories.”

And no matter where readers come down on subject questions, the whole subject — both Ed Logue and the urban planning he championed — now at long last has the extended, intelligent advocacy we must all hope we get some day.