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Making a Better City Out of 'Model City'

In New Haven, a student-driven signage project and a government-led redevelopment take different approaches to addressing mistakes made decades ago.
The new Alexion building, part of the ambitious Downtown Crossing project can be seen behind a sign made by Elihu Rubin's students.
The new Alexion building, part of the ambitious Downtown Crossing project can be seen behind a sign made by Elihu Rubin's students.Elihu Rubin

By the end of the 1950s, New Haven was receiving more federal funding for urban renewal than any other U.S. city. Its mayor at the time, Richard C. Lee, used his charm and ambition to gain support from U.S. Presidents and average New Havenites to take on a scale of renewal that earned his city the nickname, “Model City.”

The tidal wave of large-scale demolition and construction that took place under Lee—who served as mayor from 1954 to 1970—failed to curb the sprawl, crime, or unemployment that plagued so many Northeast U.S. cities at the time. New Haven sputtered into the 21st century as a scarred place underneath a layer of well-intended renewal.