From Wayne State University

Joint Resolution Providing for Declaration of National Slum Clearance Day

Image: Brewster and Brewster Douglass Housing Projects; from the Walter P. Reuther Library, at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

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On June 16, 1937, Mr. William I. Sirovich, New York Representative, introduced a joint resolution “providing for the declaration of a National Slum Clearance Day by the President of the United States” to the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary in Washington D.C. This short bill was designed to empower both the President and the nation to realize the state of affairs currently affecting America, in which a third of the population lived in “baneful slum conditions.” Such conditions were said to have secondary effects such as high infant mortality, juvenile delinquency, high crime, and high disease rates. Protecting, policing, and serving such “blighted areas” was extremely costly to city governments and taxpayers. Furthermore, the educational monies being spent towards these areas were “being dissipated and wasted, largely because the educational benefits bestowed [were] nullified by the unwholesome home and neighborhood environment of the children.”

Private enterprise had failed to remedy such issues, and Mr. Sirovich proposed in his bill that federal action be taken by focusing attention of the American people on the slum conditions in which millions of people lived by creating a National Slum Clearance Day. Coming from New York, Mr. Sirovich first addressed the Committee by describing the conditions found in New York City, such as 200 acres of blighted land, tuberculosis epidemics, and conditions that made young women ashamed to invite friends into their homes. He assured that these sorts of issues were the same prevailing in many other American cities, such as Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis, and that a National Slum Clearance Day would prove the U.S. concern for the matter and empower people and government to care for “the forgotten people” living in slum conditions. European countries including England, Germany, and Austria, he claimed, had already eradicated their slum neighborhoods and America needed to follow suit. After this, Mr. Sirovich brought in witnesses from slums in New York City and Philadelphia to read accounts of their living conditions to the committee.

The meeting was not without touchy debate though. A committee member named Mr. Michener questioned the force of the bill and called it out for being a mere gesture instead of constructive action. Mr. Sirovich countered this accusation by noting that efforts at concrete action had thus far not gotten much traction: a bill for slum clearance proposal was pending before Congress, while in Michigan members of the House had risen on the floor demanding action, proving this issue was getting nowhere, despite being endorsed by the President. A nationally declared holiday, he argued, would move the issue forward by raising public awareness and putting the President publicly on the spot. However, Mr. Michener still denied the importance of the bill, stating, “All it means is that, whereas sin is in the world and we think something should be done about it”. The meeting wrapped up quickly and Mr. Sirovich’s final comments before adjournment were those of thanks and to conclude, “Now I have voted for millions and millions of dollars during my 13 or 14 years in the House for the extermination of corn borers, boll weevils, fruit flys, and so forth, now let us do a little bit for humanity too.”

This transcript from 1937 speaks not only to ideas of slum clearance and the beginnings of urban renewal in American cities, but also the nation at large. Through underlying tones, the transcript tells a lot about how people thought the environmental landscape shaped the lives and morality of the people who lived there. The evidence that the government had “forgotten” slum residents implies that they were looked down upon and considered lesser in society. While not noted explicitly in the transcript, this lower class of people was often defined not only by economic status but also by race.

The transcript also reflects a disconnect between the perception of slum residents themselves and the way they were conceived of in Washington. The idea that educational resources were wasted on such populations, for instance, would be angrily contested by residents, such as those in Black Bottom, who regularly and often note that education was a primary value and means for advancement in their old neighborhood.

Lastly, this transcript sheds light on the national movement of urban renewal during this time. Clearly, the issue was prevalent in Washington and reflected in cities across the country. This acknowledgement by the President and debate within Congress most likely helped shape the mindset of government officials and leaders nationwide about how cities should look and how the urban environment shapes experiences and perceptions among urban residents and the world in general. Though the American Housing Act of 1949 and President Truman’s Fair Deal would come a decade later, along with the height of urban renewal, this transcript certainly paints a picture of early thoughts of urban renewal and the idea of the need to improve urban life.

The image above is of the housing projects in Detroit in the 1950’s, including the Brewster Homes and the Brewster-Douglass Housing Project, which were a large part of Detroit’s urban renewal efforts. Residents who lived in these buildings were often screened for high standards of morality to ensure that they would upload the integrity of the building and help aid in creating low-income areas that were simultaneously not “slums”. For over a decade at least, this purpose was achieved and those who lived in these projects were often considered privileged in Black Bottom. As seen by this image and the congressional record noted, urban renewal was a top of mind of priority in mid-twentieth century American cities.

  • H. J. Res. 397Congressional Record, June 3, 1937 (Washington D.C., 1937), 1-27.
  • June Manning Thomas, Redevelopment & Race (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2013), Chapter 3.

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Click here to see resources for further reading on Black Bottom

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