The Creation of the Community Development Department A Brief History -- Part One

The Creation of the Community Development Department A Brief History -- Part One

Part One : Who does the Planning for the City? How the City Planner Disappeared and Community Development took over.

The Cambridge Community Development Department is in effect the planning department for city government. But it was not always so. Planning in the our city began a century ago when the Planning Board was first established. A Community Development Department was not created until half a century later. Today the Department of Community Development does the planning for the City -- and the Planning Board does not. And there is no City Planner.

The primary cause of the shift in planning responsibility was a proposed express highway through Cambridge : the Inner Belt. This article and one to follow will describe how in the late 1960s a new planning entity was needed in the city because conventional planning had broken down. That new planning entity was labeled "Community Development" and its primary mission was to kill the Inner Belt plan.

I came upon this history last year while investigating my series on "Whatever Happened to the Peoples Republic?" and Cambridge's image as one of Progressive or leftist activism. While many groups from past decades have quietly expired, one grassroots organization -- the United Effort to Save Our Cities -- was clearly successful, and its achievements are now seen as positive by virtually everyone. The road would have been a disaster for the City. Save Our Cities work forty years ago was carried out under the guidance of long-time labor organizer Bill Ackerly and student/activist Anstis Benfield, with their cooperative effort to oppose the highway through Cambridgeport ultimately being successful -- without the loss of a single house in Cambridge.

Fifty years earlier in 1914, the Cambridge Planning Board had been established to review overall city planning, including master plans. Harvard University had a role near the beginning, during the early growth years of the automobile. Planners were trying to deal with the social, economic and construction changes needed to adjust to the automobile era. In 1925 Harvard created the Albert Russel Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic Research, funded by the President of the Studebaker Corporation. In later years it was renamed the Harvard Traffic Bureau, but in 1938 the operation moved to New Haven, as Yale University made a successful steal from its Ivy League counterpart.

After World War II, the Planning Board became the most prominent local advocate for the Inner Belt highway. State engineers published a Master Plan for the Boston area in 1948, with the highway following the Lee Street route through Riverside and passing one block west of City Hall. By the late 1960s the plans showed an eight-lane highway following Brookline and Elm Streets across Cambridge. With this route, more than 1800 housing units, mostly low income, would have been demolished.

Between the end of the war and the early 1960s, good government groups such as the Cambridge Civic Association and League of Women Voters had been among the supporters of the new highway. Newspapers like the Boston Globe did also. Primary opposition came from independent City Councilors whose constituents would lose their homes or jobs. One of the Councillors actively opposed to the road was Thomas Maher, father of current mayor David Maher.

Civil rights protests of the early 1960s, and urban riots in the late 1960s had carried the message home that governments were capable of doing bad things. Progressives by instinct had traditionally supported government initiatives like the New Deal and urban renewal, but now they became more distrustful of government. Fierce debates within the Cambridge Civic Association and other progressive groups resulted in a strengthened opposition to urban highways.

For several years MIT Board Chairman James Killian, MIT '26, had been giving speeches and writing articles on the need for a more humanistic side to engineering. In early 1966, MIT had responded very negatively to a proposal to run the Inner Belt as an elevated double-deck structure going down the Grand Junction rail corridor near MIT. Their high-octane publicity campaign was sufficient for then-Governor John Volpe to tell MIT officials that the railroad route alternative was dead, but "if you guys are so smart," MIT should help with the relocation of the families losing their homes along the Brookline Street route. From these discussions, MIT agreed to take responsibility for relocating 400 of these families -- even though MIT had no prior relocation experience.

It quickly became evident that solving the relocation problem would be a nightmare, since most of the units lost were low-income. Building new housing cheaply would be very difficult, except with substantial subsidies. MIT wished a Killian-style approach to helping the City, while doing relocation would make them complicit in the actions of the highway builders. Because MIT looked on the surface to be narrowly self-interested, relations with their adjacent neighbors in Cambridgeport became severely strained. If MIT were not an enemy of the Inner Belt before that time, they were thereafter. These were very tense times, and animosities were building.

1966 produced a steady drumbeat of protest rising from the neighborhoods, especially Cambridgeport, in opposition to the Inner Belt plan. Neighbors organized a special bus trip to Washington D.C. to meet with ally Tip O'Neill and various Washington officials, elected and appointed. There was extensive press coverage, and support by local groups.

By the end of 1966, this overwhelming political shift in sentiment against the Inner Belt highway had reached a critical mass. The City Council became unified in opposition to the highway. In early 1967, City Manager John Curry, Harvard '16, was fired and replaced by Joe DeGuglielmo, Harvard '29. The new Mayor of Cambridge was Dan Hayes, a North Cambridge resident who ran a fuel oil business on North Mass Avenue. Hayes was notorious at the time for a sharply critical view of young student non-conformists, and he pursued a vigorous anti-hippie program as Mayor. But he was also a long-time Cambridge resident with solid business contacts. Joe DeGuglielmo had old Cambridge roots, and typically for the time was not a professional city manager. Later he became a state judge.

The new "team" included the City Council and Mayor, the City Manager, state legislators, Tip O'Neill, MIT, Harvard, resident members of Save Our Cities (the anti-Belt activists), the Boston Catholic Archdiocese under Cardinal Cushing, many local businessmen, hundreds of professors at Harvard and MIT, and successful opponents of Urban Renewal. Private groups like Urban Planning Aid, with Jim Morey and a young Fred Salvucci, were there to help. It was a very formidable army, and lacked support from only three relevant entities : the City Planner Alan McClennen (Harvard '38, MIT '47), the Cambridge Planning Board, and the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority. These three remained Inner Belt supporters and became the opposition to the anti-highway tidal wave.

A special meeting was called with DeGuglielmo and Dan Hayes, attended by Harvard and MIT. The Inner Belt issue had gotten so critical that a new team was needed for the city. MIT Planning Director Bob Simha recommended that the new planning spark plug should be Justin Gray, a city planner with a community outlook and known for being critical of highways. Simha reached out to him in New York City to see if he would be interested. At the time he was working on housing issues, but agreed to take on the task. He was given the task of restructuring the way planning would be done in the city of Cambridge.

==============END OF PART ONE============

COMING NEXT IN PART TWO : How the Community Development Department was formed and worked together with community and business interests to stop the Inner Belt.