Model Cities is a little known chapter in our urban history. It was part of LBJ’s War on Poverty, and was the last gasp of serious investment by the federal government to improve life in urban America. Devised as a corrective to top-down urban renewal, the program coupled major investments in infrastructure with empowerment of local organizations. The program was never large enough to sponsor transformative change citywide change; its goal was to halt social breakdown and provide a model of positive change that could be expanded and replicated with local resources.
Seattle was the first city to take part in the program and was considered on of its most successful examples. This video, from 1975, touts the successes of the Model Cities program using Seattle as a case study. It includes rare footage of daily life in the Central District and Pioneer Square, showing a glimpse of life before gentrification, displacement, and obnoxious cruise ship tourists reshaped these neighborhoods. Seattle’s program was headed by Walter R. Hundley, an African American minster, social worker, and administrator.
The video’s a treat. There’s a lot to unpack—the depiction of poverty, the modernist architecture, the white gaze of the narrator—but overall it’s a fascinating glimpse into a Seattle that feels amazingly different from the city we know today, and a reminder of the powerful role the federal government once played in America’s cities.
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