Why Trump’s Use of the Words ‘Urban Renewal’ Is Scary for Cities

Why trump’s use of the words ‘urban renewal’ is scary for cities
A demolition zone in the Hill District in Pittsburgh in 1957, in an area of historically African-American neighborhoods

Two weeks before the election, Donald J. Trump delivered a speech in Charlotte, N.C., sketching his “New Deal for Black America.” It was a set of ideas promising greater school choice, safer communities, lower taxes and better infrastructure.

The four-page outline posted to his campaign website that summarizes it — a document subtitled “A Plan for Urban Renewal” — is today the closest thing the president-elect has to a proposal for America’s cities.

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. […]