In her latest book, “Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age,” Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen examines the life and career of Logue, a Yale-educated lawyer-turned-city-planner who was instrumental in helping reshape and revive a number of declining American cities, including Boston, in the postwar era. As a “die-hard New Deal liberal,” writes Cohen, Logue’s approach to urban renewal was driven by his belief that the federal government had a “fundamental responsibility to address society’s ills.” Logue’s career was peppered with success and failure, but it also was infused with idealism and resourcefulness and offers up important lessons, said Cohen, Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study from 2011 to 2018, and Radcliffe fellow in 2001. “Perhaps more important than any physical space he built was the kind of committed, experimental spirit that Logue brought to his work, a belief that, as a society we have a responsibility to provide decent housing for all Americans, to make our cities work for all people.”
GAZETTE: How did you come to write a book about Ed Logue?
cohen: My previous two books were set in cities, but they had not been the focus of my analysis. Over time, I was becoming increasingly interested in the urban built environment and how particular cities grew into what they are today. As a social historian, in my previous work I had largely investigated the experience of groups of ordinary Americans. With this project I set out not just to examine somebody with power in city building, but to bring the categories of analysis that mattered to social history — class, race, occupation, gender — to understanding a person who had great influence. I also wanted to get beyond where I thought postwar urban history was stuck, which was to assume that most of what happened reflected the travesty and tragedy of urban renewal, that American cities had been ruined by the federal government’s imposition of destructive policies in the postwar period. That dynamic was captured in making journalist, author, and activist Jane Jacobs, who was a great critic of urban renewal, into a saint and in villainizing city planner Robert Moses, who participated in it. I felt there was more to this story than those two extremes. Also, I was really interested in finding a way to make this history compelling and accessible, which I felt biography could do. In the course of teaching a Harvard class on Boston history I had discovered Ed Logue, who played a key role in the early history of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and is credited with turning around Boston, a city that was dying in the 1940s and 1950s. I did some digging and discovered that very little had been written about him, though he had left a huge cache of personal papers at Yale, his alma mater.