When Mr. Trump announced plans on Monday to nominate Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he said the two men had “talked at length about my urban renewal agenda.”
His language has an odd ring to it, not solely for marrying Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with the post-World War II era of urban renewal. If Mr. Trump was reaching for a broadly uplifting concept — renewal — he landed instead on a term with very specific, and very negative, connotations for the population he says he aims to help.
Among scholars and many city dwellers, urban renewal is remembered for its vast destruction of minority communities, when entire neighborhoods were razed for housing, highways and civic projects.
“This is a loaded phrase,” said Mary Pattillo, a sociologist at Northwestern University. She suspects that many of Mr. Trump’s comments during the campaign about “inner cities” and African-Americans were in fact aimed at white listeners. But it seems unlikely he’s doing the same here and subtly telegraphing that his urban agenda will not actually benefit poor minorities.
“We have no clue,” Ms. Pattillo said. “There’s no way to know how much he knows, how well-informed he is, how strategic he’s being, if he’s being off-the-cuff.”
The mystery is a bit like the episode in which Mr. Trump had a phone conversation with Taiwan’s president. Is Mr. Trump knowingly or accidentally embracing historical conflict? The answer depends, in part, on how much we think Mr. Trump, a real estate developer and son of a real estate developer, knows about the history of the conflict over the shape of the American city.
The term “urban renewal” dates to the Housing Act of 1954; its 1949 predecessor called the same policy “urban redevelopment.” Under these laws, the federal government gave cities the power and money to condemn “slum” neighborhoods, clear them through eminent domain, then turn over the land to private developers at cheap rates for projects that included higher-end housing, hospitals, hotels, shopping centers and college expansions.