When the Supreme Court upheld the seizure of private property in the Kelo decision so that the city could sell it to another private owner, conservatives were rightly outraged over what they saw as an abuse of eminent domain. Unfortunately, as some on the Right pointed out, the high court had a significant amount of precedent for Kelo — decades of it, in fact, as Reason TV demonstrates in an excellent look at the urban renewal movement. As with Kelo, cities seized land from private owners only to hand it off to other private owners in an attempt to eliminate “slums,” thanks to a federal law that gave breathtaking new powers to government over private property:
New York City’s Manhattantown (1951) was one of the first projects authorized under urban renewal and it set the model not only for hundreds of urban renewal projects but for the next 60 years of eminent domain abuse at places such as Poletown, New London, and Atlantic Yards. The Manhattantown project destroyed six blocks on New York City’s Upper West Side, including an African-American community that dated to the turn of the century. The city sold the land for a token sum to a group of well-connected Democratic pols to build a middle-class housing development. Then came the often repeated bulldoze-and-abandon phenomenon: With little financial skin in the game, the developers let the demolished land sit vacant for years.
The community destroyed at Manhattantown was a model for the tight-knit, interconnected neighborhoods later celebrated by Jane Jacobs and other critics of top-down redevelopment. In the early 20th century, Manhattantown was briefly the center of New York’s black music scene. A startling roster of musicians, writers, and artists resided there: the composer Will Marion Cook, vaudeville star Bert Williams, opera singer Abbie Mitchell, James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosemond, muralist Charles Alston, writer and historian Arturo Schomburg, Billie Holiday (whose mother also owned a restaurant on 99th Street), Butterfly McQueen of “Gone with the Wind” fame, and the actor Robert Earl Jones.
Designating West 99th and 98th Streets a “slum” was bitterly ironic. The community was founded when the great black real estate entrepreneur Philip Payton Jr. broke the color line on 99th Street in 1905. Payton, also credited with first bringing African Americans to Harlem, wanted to make it possible for a black man to rent an apartment, in his words, “wherever his means will permit him to live.”
This lesson doesn’t just apply to eminent domain, but to government seizures of capital in general. Instead of allowing the owner of the capital to put it to work, government uses it politically without regard to efficiency or results, usually in favor of the agendas of the politicians involved. That’s not just how we see neighborhoods get destroyed, it’s why we see a half-billion in taxpayer money getting flushed down a Solyndra john, which private investors knew better than to back. Building roads and bridges are legitimate functions of local and state governments; dictating which people should live where on private property is not.