Mapping Renewal, Engaging Residents

ArticleReflections on Freedom House and citizen participation in Boston’s urban renewal

July 28, 2023
1636 words / 8 minutes

This digital publication was supported by the Leventhal Map & Education Center’s Small Grants for Early Career Digital Publications program.

Citizens as planners in Washington Park

At a time when urban renewal typically meant “negro removal,” Otto and Muriel Snowden published an article in the Journal of Housing demonstrating that another way was possible.1 The 1963 piece recounted their work at Freedom House, the nonprofit organization they had co-founded fourteen years earlier in Boston, and the unlikely partnership they had forged with city authorities to facilitate resident participation in the urban renewal of Washington Park, a predominantly Black neighborhood. Thanks to these efforts, the Snowdens proudly stated, community members had been “truly partners, not pawns” and stood to benefit from federal investment in their neighborhood.

The Snowden’s article told the story of Freedom House and its role facilitating citizen participation with words and, importantly, images. Readers encountered several photographs of people interacting with maps hung on the walls, spread across tables, and displayed at community meetings. With these visual choices, the Snowdens conveyed a clear message: interacting with the maps, studying them, discussing them, annotating them, redrawing them, and explaining them, constituted the day-to-day practice of renewal and what it looked like to engage residents in it.

Notably, the maps at Freedom House were works-in-progress shared by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) for community feedback and amendments before their formal adoption. Maps were not just an end of urban renewal planning, but a means to that end and the active tool through which residents—notably Black residents in a majority white city—could participate in governance and shape their neighborhood.

Placing people in cartography

Thanks to archival efforts, both the renewal maps of Washington Park and the images of them at Freedom House have been preserved.

The Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library holds several maps from the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s projects in Washington Park and the broader Roxbury renewal district. These include visual inventories of existing neighborhood conditions and plans for future ones with new street layouts, buildings, and zoning. These maps are technical products printed on paper much larger than the standard letter size. On most, crease marks are still intact from the careful folding and unfolding of the maps as they accompanied proposals to the City Council, which approved renewal plans and applications to the federal government for urban renewal financing.

Down the road (or, thanks to digitization, a few clicks away), Northeastern University’s Archive & Special Collections houses the records of Otto and Muriel Snowden’s Freedom House, including numerous images of Washington Park residents interacting with these same renewal maps, or at least earlier versions of them at the draft stage.

As a photographer for the Boston Globe and also due to her own interest in the subject, Irene Shwachman captured people tacking plans to the nonprofit’s walls so visitors could get up close and examine the maps. Her archived photographs show community meetings where residents sat in folding chairs to hear a presentation from the Boston Redevelopment Authority and discuss their drafted plans. They show Freedom House staff members pointing and gesturing to table-models of Washington Park. Finally, they show attendees of the 1964 American Society of Planning Officials annual meeting who toured Washington Park by bus and visited a special exhibit at Freedom House.

In their archival form, the printed maps themselves are largely divorced from the participatory processes that produced them, rendering invisible the contributions of Washington Park’s residents. However, placing them in conversation with the archival collection containing these photographs of the maps as citizens and planners actually engaged with them offers evidence of how Freedom House used maps as a storytelling tool to build a visual narrative, for example in the nonprofit’s anniversary booklet. The photographs of Black men and women attest to the wide range of people who contributed to history of planning and renewal but are rarely credited for this role.

A new history of urban renewal

Pairing these two archival collections—the maps themselves and the images of them in use—presents an opportunity to tell a new history of urban renewal. A historian of the built environment might, for example, compare the drafted versions on display at Freedom House and the final versions at the Boston Public Library, charting street-by-street how Washington Park residents infused their vision into the final plans for Washington Park. A social historian might consider the content of the maps and the photographs of their display to capture the Black middle-class community of Washington Park in the years before renewal. The opportunities are rich and enhanced by these mutually reinforcing collections.

Society of Planning Officials tours the Freedom House (from Northeastern University Library).

Society of Planning Officials tours the Freedom House (from Northeastern University Library).

As a historian of governance, democracy, and the state, I am interested in what these materials can tell us about how a private nonprofit organization, Freedom House, took on a public role in 1960s-era urban renewal. The presence of Boston Redevelopment Authority maps on Freedom House’s walls reflected a formal, bureaucratic relationship between the two entities. A year-long contract for $27,000 compensated Freedom House to facilitate the planning and ratification of neighborhood plans for Washington Park’s urban renewal program. This contract represented a significant influx of funds for Freedom House, as well as a new authority for a Black-led nonprofit in a city still deeply shaped by discrimination and exclusion. It was also an experiment: an effort by Boston’s renewal administrator, Ed Logue, to separate his version of renewal from earlier iterations, an attempt to enact the mayor’s promise to “plan with the people,” a fulfillment of the federal requirement for some citizen participation in urban redevelopment, and a response to demands by the Snowdens for the people of Washington Park to be included in the city’s renewal program.

Presentation of Boston Redevelopment Authority maps at Freedom House, 14 Crawford Street (from Northeastern University Library).

Presentation of Boston Redevelopment Authority maps at Freedom House, 14 Crawford Street (from Northeastern University Library).

If a contract linked Freedom House to the city government, the maps on the walls transformed, in ways residents could see, feel, and participate in, the private nonprofit into a space of formal governance. The Snowdens hired five staff members—all Black women from the community—to work on renewal and kept Freedom House’s doors open into the evenings and on weekends so that working people could come see the planning maps for themselves. Muriel Snowden later counted 114 meetings, four public hearings, 16,000 community notices, thousands of informational bulletins, and “countless professional conferences” in which Washington Park residents participated in the renewal of their neighborhood. Residents left notes, touched, and even marked up these maps in ways that added their lived experiences to a top-down vision of what their community was and would be. These efforts proved successful when Washington Park residents—mobilized and organized by Freedom House—voted at a public hearing in 1963 to approve the plans they had helped shape over the preceding years and thereby unlocked federal funding.

Mrs. Viola Minor explains Freedom House’s urban renewal information center to visitors from the American Society of Planning Officials (from Northeastern University Library).

Mrs. Viola Minor explains Freedom House’s urban renewal information center to visitors from the American Society of Planning Officials (from Northeastern University Library).

As the Snowdens admitted, their role as brokers between the community and city was at times awkward, if not fraught. Moreover, their final plans were not universally accepted, as contemporary media coverage of the plans suggested. As historian Jennifer Hock has traced, Freedom House’s process favored the interests of middle-class homeowners of Washington Park, who, for example, voted down plans for additional affordable housing. Nevertheless, the story of Freedom House’s public-private partnership with the BRA—retold in the Journal of Housing and elsewhere and aided by visual images of residents interacting with maps—has helped expand what began as an experimental effort in the neighborhood of Washington Park into a core practice of urban governance that has persisted into the twenty-first century. I detail in Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State how this happened and trace the profound consequences for how cities engage residents, distribute goods and services, and implement policy.

Since my book’s release in June 2022, I keep returning to the photographs in the Freedom House collection, using them, just as the Snowdens did, to ground the somewhat abstract concepts of citizen participation, partnership, and governance in actual historical realities that were contested and shifting. The Snowdens fought for the right to participate in renewal and for a fuller expression of who “the people” were in promises to plan “with the people” and in federal mandates for citizen participation that often relied on the input of business elites. The photographs by Irene Shwachman and their archival preservation make that work just a little easier by helping us see the people—their race and gender identities, their physical engagement with maps, and so on—in the process of planning for renewal and helping us see maps as tools not just final products, as means not just ends. It also reminds us that process matters in governing and that making information more accessible (such as through the act of digitizing archival material) pushes closer to the fulfillment of democratic ideals and the creation of a more just, equitable city.

Claire Dunning is assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is a historian of the United States in the 20th century and the author of Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State (UChicago Press, 2022). Her work on the history of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy has also appeared in several academic journals and popular outlets including the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.

  1. Otto Snowden and Muriel Snowden, “Citizen Participation,” The Journal of Housing no. 8 (1963): 435-439. ↩︎

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