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Bay State Lawmakers Hope to Restrict Eminent Domain

Wed August 24, 2005 - Northeast Edition
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BOSTON (AP) Early in 1958, in what was heralded as a revitalizing “slum clearance” initiative, bulldozers began tearing through one of Boston’s oldest tenement districts.

In short order, the West End — a bustling urban neighborhood of tall brick apartment buildings peopled by generations of immigrants — was reduced to rubble, making way for bland new housing developments with the taunting sales pitch: “If you lived here, you’d be home now.”

Boston’s demolition of the West End under the banner of urban renewal has come to be seen as a textbook example of city planning run amok.

With a recent Supreme Court decision in a Connecticut case giving public officials wide eminent domain powers to seize private property, some state lawmakers are pushing legislation they hope will avoid another West End.

State Rep. Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, is spearheading the effort. The House Republican leader has filed a petition, a bill, and a proposed state constitutional amendment all aimed at limiting the use of eminent domain.

The bill would bar cities and towns from seizing private property solely for economic development.

Allowing governments to seize private property and transfer it to another private developer simply because they can generate higher taxes is wrong, he said.

“It’s quickly devolving into a mathematical calculation,” he said. “The logical extension of this is scary.”

Defenders of the state’s eminent domain law said it is already restrictive enough. They said the use of eminent domain to seize blighted properties has helped improve neighborhoods and spur the creation of affordable housing.

“We are wary of any further restrictions on the Massachusetts law,” said Susan Elsbree, spokeswoman of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “Eminent domain is a very important tool for cities and towns across the commonwealth.”

Governments have traditionally used their eminent domain authority to build roads, schools and other public projects. But for decades, the court has been expanding the definition of public use, allowing cities to employ eminent domain to eliminate blight.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that New London, CT, had the authority to take homes for a private development project. But in its ruling, the court noted that states are free to ban that practice.

For Bostonians with long memories, the ruling inspired painful memories about the loss of the West End.

In the years after the World War II many cities fell on hard times as middle class residents fled to burgeoning suburbs. Boston, like many cities, responded by launching an aggressive urban renewal program. For those in power, the West End was a perfect example of “blight.”

Those who called the West End home saw something very different — a neighborhood with the invisible web of family and friends that knitted together the sturdy, if sometimes shabby brick buildings and corner stores.

That invisible but vital society was the subject of a classic study by famed sociologist Herbert Gans, who moved into the neighborhood in its twilight years. His 1962 book, “The Urban Villagers,” painted a picture of a community in sharp contrast to the official designation as a “slum.”

In the decades since the demolition, the West End has become one of the nation’s most infamous examples of urban folly. Former residents who still feel the sting of loss have their own spin on the sales pitch for the new West End: “If you lived here, you’d be homeless now.”

The writer Jane Holtz Kay’s father grew up in the West End and she remembers selling flowers near the area that was ultimately bulldozed.

“It was the classic melting pot,” said Kay, author of “Lost Boston.”

Kay said that the danger of eminent domain is that its misuse, even in the hands of those with good intentions, can have a disastrous outcome. In the hands of those driven by less noble motivations, the effect can be even worse.

“Eminent domain is a really deadly weapon when it’s in the wrong hands,” she said. “They haven’t learned from the past about the richness of the past.”

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