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University of North Carolina at Asheville

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"The Changes May Look Good, But The Pain Will Be Hard To Erase": Urban Renewal and Community Response in Asheville, North Carolina

A Senior Thesis Submitted To The Faculty of the Department of History

In Candidacy For The Degree Of Bachelor Of Arts In History

Andy Grim

Asheville, North Carolina December, 2011

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There were some things that Minnie Jones would never talk about. In 1994, Jones, an African American woman who spent decades involved in the political struggles of Asheville's black community, was interviewed for an oral history project. She spoke widely about her activist work during the civil rights era and beyond. However, when asked to describe the experience of urban renewal in Asheville during the 1960s and 70s, she refused. "No, it's a time we wanna forget...T]here is a lot of us still living," she explained, "that has some bad wounds from that, so I don't want to get into that."1

In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s federal urban renewal programs reshaped American cities. Under the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, the federal government allocated federal funds to cities for the clearance and redevelopment of "blighted" areas. The impetus behind the urban renewal was the rehabilitation of a decaying national housing stock and, in large part, to revamp urban areas in order to spur economic growth and the competiveness of American cities. However, urban renewal came under vociferous criticism as it disproportionately impacted African Americans and the poor, uprooting vast communities and offering little reimbursement for those who lost their homes and businesses.

One of the cities targeted for urban renewal projects was Asheville, North Carolina and the predominantly African American neighborhood of East Riverside. Urban renewal altered the lives of thousands of families in these neighborhoods, uprooting and displacing countless people, scattering the community. The Asheville Housing Authority and the Redevelopment Commission gave residents little say in how the process, which had many consequences for their lives, would be carried out. Despite these challenges, East Riverside residents found ways to resist the redevelopment of their neighborhood and influence the renewal process. The city could not entirely suppress the agency of its "slum" residents.

1 Minnie Jones, "Voices of Asheville Oral History Collection," interview by Dorothy Joynes (2 August 1994).

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Historians and other scholars have extensively studied the history of urban renewal and its impact on communities. Their studies have lead them to different conclusions about the legacy of the program. Between Justice and Beauty by historian Howard Gillette Jr., looks at urban housing policy in Washington, D.C. In Washington, as elsewhere, a desire to stem the tide of suburbanization provided the impetus for redevelopment projects. According to Gillette, "No experience better captured the hopes as well as the dashed expectations of the black community than that of urban renewal."2 Urban renewal projects in the Capitol, as throughout the country, garnered the support of the local press, the local construction industry and various civic organizations. African Americans, who were the population most affected by urban renewal, were largely left out of the planning process.3

Historian Beryl Satter studied the impact of urban renewal in Chicago. She found that in Chicago, as elsewhere, African Americans bore the brunt of displacement through urban renewal. This was, she writes, due "in part because they happened to inhabit deteriorating housing in central locations. Yet even controlling for all other factors, race remained a deciding factor in the choice of urban renewal sites in Chicago."4. Satter shows that urban renewal was in many cases motivated by concerns other than slum clearance and that the primary sufferers under urban renewal were black communities. African Americans, according to Satter, were disproportionately burdened by urban renewal.5

In a 1980 essay on urban renewal, Marc A. Weiss, a strategist and federal policy adviser on issues of urban and economic development, argues that many people have failed to understand the purpose behind urban renewal and therefore misinterpret its outcomes. He argues

2 Howard Gillette Jr., Between Beauty and Justice: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington D.C. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995): 170 3 Ibid., 151-152 4 Beryl Satter, Family Properties ( New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009), 393 5 Satter, Family Properties, 48

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that the biggest myth about urban renewal is that it was designed to help slum residents. On the contrary, Weiss argues, "Urban renewal owes its origins to the downtown merchants, banks, large corporations, newspaper publishers, realtors, and other institutions with substantial business and property interests in the central part of the city." According to Weiss, the basic framework for urban renewal had been constructed as early as the 1930s. The Great Depression years were worrisome for downtown property owners in American cities. After the boom years of the 1920s, property values had begun to drop, an ominous development for downtown businesses. In response, downtown property owners formed coalitions and lobbied the federal government to clear areas of blight, most importantly inner city neighborhoods housing low income families. They sought the government's support in clearing blighted areas and rebuilding them in such a way that would increase downtown property values. These powerful lobbying interests, according to Weiss, were largely successful in their efforts, and the basic framework for the Housing Act of 1949 adhered to their desires for redevelopment and was never intended to help low and moderate income families.6

The Housing Act of 1949 that ushered in the era of urban renewal was amended in 1954. The changes made in the 1954 Housing Act, as some scholars have noted, reshaped the goals of the program and the manner in which it was carried out, making urban renewal projects more enticing and profitable for developers while simultaneously opening the door for increased citizen participation in the process. Historian Robert Self, in his book American Babylon which looks at urban renewal struggles in postwar Oakland, points out the differences between the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 and how the federal governments approach to urban renewal changed after 1954. According to Self, the 1949 Act was generally geared toward improving the national housing supply. Self, unlike Weiss, argues that prior to 1954, improvement of the

6 Paul Mitchell, ed. Federal Housing Policy and Programs (New Jersey: The Center for Urban Policy Research, 1985) 254-255

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national housing stock in order to ensure safe, decent, and sanitary housing for low-income families was the primary motivator behind urban renewal. The Housing Act of 1954, enacted by a conservative congress and signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower reoriented the priorities of urban renewal. The 1954 Act streamlined the urban renewal process, making it faster and easier to acquire and clear properties. It also weakened the requirement in the 1949 Housing Act that areas targeted for renewal be redeveloped for primarily residential uses. Cities were granted more leeway to redevelop "blighted" areas that housed primarily low-income residents for higher uses, allowing developers to construct commercial or institutional developments or middle- to higher-income housing. By providing city governments with increased authority to redevelop former "slum" neighborhoods for purposes other than low-cost housing, the Housing Act of 1954 weakened the social service aspect that characterized urban renewal to some degree as embodied in the Housing Act of 1949. According to historian John F. Bauman, the 1954 act "marr[ied] the city rebuilding idea more solidly to the comprehensive plan for economic revitalization," creating an urban renewal program less focused on improving housing conditions for the poor and more on shoring up downtown property values and the municipal tax base. "For developers and investment bankers," Bauman argues, "the act transferred redevelopment into an engine for profit."7

The Housing Act of 1954 also made possible a greater degree of citizen participation in the urban renewal process. The act mandated that each city that sought urban renewal funds institute a "Workable Program," a set of requirements intended to insure that urban renewal projects would be carried out in a comprehensive way so as to guarantee the elimination and prevention of slums. The Workable Program required municipal governments to formulate and

7 John F. Bauman, Public Housing, Race, and Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920-1974 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987): 139

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enforce adequate housing codes, conduct a neighborhood analysis to determine the extent of blight, develop programs to assist in the relocation of displaced families, and among other requirements, to ensure citizen participation in the program.8 Political scientist James Q. Wilson has noted that, although the citizen participation requirement did not mandate participation of residents of the neighborhoods in which urban renewal projects were to take place and only required the participation of the broader community, in many areas, for local public agencies overseeing urban renewal projects, "the increased vigor of neighborhood opposition has made such participation expedient if not essential."9 In many cities the local public agency overseeing urban renewal projects sought support for urban renewal among the residents of the neighborhoods targeted for redevelopment.

Over time opposition to urban renewal among the residents of areas slated for renewal grew increasingly vociferous. By the early 1960s, urban renewal had become a notorious program, derided as "Negro Removal," that threatened to force people out of their homes and their communities. Wilson, writing in 1963, noted that, while early urban renewal projects were met primarily with resignation on the part of neighborhood residents, over time that resignation became resistance. "Somehow," Wilson wrote, "people have learned from the experience of others, and today, in cities which have been engaged in renewal for several years, the planners often find prospective renewal areas ready and waiting for them, organized to the teeth."10 Communities from Washington, D.C. to Oakland, California resisted urban renewal. In the process they won some important victories. The method and impact of neighborhood resistance to urban renewal in Asheville has not yet been thoroughly studied. Resistance to urban renewal

8 Scott Greer, Urban Renewal and American Cities (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc, 1965):10. 9 James Q. Wilson. "Planning and Politics: Citizen Participation in Urban Renewal," In Urban Renewal: People, Politics, and Planning, ed. Jewel Bellusch and Murray Hausknecht (New York: Anchor Books, 1967): 290. 10 Wilson, Urban Renewal, 289.

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