Stamford’s Urban Renewal Projects: Local Archives and Narratives of Progress

By Maddy Culpepper, @exlibrismaddy

In 1959, the city of Stamford, Connecticut, came to the decision to radically re-imagine their downtown. The Southeast Quadrant Redevelopment Project, as it was called, planned for the demolition and revitalization of a central section of the city deemed “a slum” by Stamford’s Urban Renewal Committee (URC).[1] In the “slash and destroy tactic of the sixties” that constituted much of the early approach to urban redevelopment, Stamford proceeded to level its downtown neighborhoods, often without concrete plans for the buildings that would replace them.[2] By the end of the 1970s, renewal efforts had displaced 1,200 families and 400 small businesses.[3] Suddenly, photographs were the only records left of places that had once housed generations of Stamford inhabitants and their communities.

Although I was born and raised in Stamford, I knew little about the Urban Renewal Projects until I began spending my summers working at the Stamford Historical Society (SHS) as their photo archivist. On my first day, the volunteer coordinator had led me up a set of paint-chipped stairs to the photo archive. Standing at the door, I remember blinking at the mess in front of me. Photos were everywhere, piled high on a desk, stuffed into boxes that lined the walls, and papering over the lightbox. The coordinator had smiled apologetically and remarked that the archive had seen better days. While trying to orient myself, I had opened a couple of boxes marked “uncatalogued URC” and found myself staring at a building I recognized, called 1 Landmark Square, which sits across from Stamford’s public library. Everything else between it and the Interstate was gone–a dusty expanse of brown dirt and empty streets.

1 Landmark Square and the Southeast Quadrant during demolition. Circa 1968. Courtesy of The Stamford Historical Society

After asking a few SHS volunteers, I learned that the box was part of a collection on urban renewal donated by the URC, who had let the SHS copy some of its records in the early 2000s. The collection contains hundreds of pictures of the houses and businesses demolished in the renewal effort. My initial impression was that I had stumbled on a treasure trove of unfiltered, raw photos, an impartial depiction of Stamford’s downtown in the late 60s and early 70s. That was until one of our older volunteers remarked casually that the URC had actually been extremely cautious about what it showed the SHS. The Southeast Quadrant’s redevelopment had been very controversial I learned and, perhaps worried about its legacy, the URC had limited the SHS’s access to a select few archival boxes.

The demolition of lot 2-1-1 during the widening of Broad Street. Circa 1968. Courtesy of The Stamford Historical Society

Indeed, the photographs obscure as much as they reveal. Almost ten years passed between the announcement of the Southeast Quadrant’s redevelopment in 1959 and its demolition in 1968. In the meantime, business and homeowners stopped investing in renovations or repairs for their properties. As a result, the Victorian buildings, already run-down, appear derelict in the photographs, with shattered windows and rotted siding. Most significantly, the Commission chose to photograph the buildings empty, focusing on their dereliction, rather than the people or communities who had called them home. The juxtaposition of photos of abandoned, run-down houses with ones of the graceful, white-washed office buildings that replaced them, makes it seems obvious that demolition and redevelopment were needed. There is no mention of plans left uncompleted, voices left unheard or alternatives not considered. Instead, the URC collection presents a clean and simple timeline, with most of its photos progressing from initial architectural designs, to demolition of the run-down houses, to the construction sites, to the successfully completed buildings. The production of the photographs and their placement in a linear timeline presents an unbroken narrative of modernity and progress.

Design of the St. John’s Tower Complex, one of the building projects proposed and completed by the F.D. Rich Company, in charge of executing re-development for the Southeast Quadrant. Courtesy of The Stamford Historical Society

Stumbling across the box of URC photographs felt like random chance to me, because of the disorganized nature of the archive. Yet, it was a carefully considered attempt by the URC itself to secure a positive legacy. Because we lack other photos from this time period, from other perspectives, the URC collection and its narrative dominates the stories the SHS can tell about urban renewal. This experience impressed on me the importance of understanding the history behind the collections and the archives I work with. For local institutions that lack detailed accession documents or records, one of the most important and easiest ways of doing so can be by talking to the people who work there. I only learned about the history of the URC’s collection because of the SHS volunteers. The gaps in the SHS’s records of urban renewal might one day be filled, perhaps by interviewing the families of those who lived in the Southeast Quadrant, to give voice to their narratives of urban renewal. Until then, and even after, the URC’s collection will stand as a reminder of how power shapes our historical perceptions, through the preservation of archival materials and the production of historical narratives.[4]

Featured Image Credit: The Southeast Quadrant following the completion of major proposed projects. Circa 1980. Courtesy of The Stamford Historical Society

[1] Eleanor Charles, “Stamford Acts to Humanize Downtown Renewal.” The New York Times (December 14, 1986), p. 419.

[2] Michael Hernández. “The Politics of Urban Development in Stamford from 1960 to 1980.” Medium  (May 7, 2020).

[3] Robert E. Tomasson. “The Ups and Downs of Urban Renewal.” The New York Times (February 4, 1979), p. 136.

[4] For more on the influence of power in the production of archives and historical narratives, see Michel-Roplh Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2nd Revised Edition, 2015).

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