Many of America’s black urban neighborhoods are trouble spots, marked by crime, poverty and blight. Can this be blamed on failure within these communities to properly maintain their own spaces? Perhaps somewhat. But most of the blame lies elsewhere: many of these neighborhoods once thrived before city and state governments, using federal money, destroyed them.
In the decades before and after World War II, government bureaucracies across the U.S. imposed “urban renewal.” Also known as “slum clearance”, these policies worked from the Modernist notion that urban neighborhoods were dangerous and antiquated, and that automobile-centric design represented the brave new technological future. Old neighborhoods were thus demolished, replaced with highways, public housing, and top-down economic developments.
Unsurprisingly, the condemned neighborhoods were overwhelmingly African American, and to a lesser degree Hispanic and Asian. In city after city, highways that were built to appease white suburban commuters, and enabled through eminent domain and funds from the 1949 Housing Act and 1956 Interstate Highway Act, were shoved through these areas, causing surrounding blight and pollution. Among the black neighborhoods divided by highways were Treme in New Orleans, the Brooklyn area of Charlotte, and Overtown in Miami.
In other cases, urban renewal was done to build high-rise public housing or major development projects like Lincoln Center in Manhattan or Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. As with the roads, these projects served some economic purpose, but not even close to what they replaced. Keeping to the Modernist aesthetic, they favored superblock development and large open spaces rather than complex urban life. For example Dodger Stadium, which replaced the Hispanic neighborhood Chavez Ravine, is still only used a quarter of the year, and surrounded by vast parking lots.
In the worst cases, urban renewal sought no apparent replacement use—slum clearance was the goal unto itself. This meant the newly-denuded land plots stayed empty for years. In my hometown of Charlottesville, VA, a black area called Vinegar Hall was razed for a new road and some future projects. But it took 20 years to find an anchor development – an Omni Hotel that eventually needed further taxpayer bailouts. Even today, the area has low-intensity strip-mall-style buildings and parking lots, despite abutting downtown.
In fact, the razing of black neighborhoods was seen as a feature, not a bug, of urban renewal policy, writes Robert Goodspeed in his 2004 honors thesis, Urban Renewal in Postwar Detroit.
“Already aware of the growth of suburban communities, city leaders saw federal urban renewal dollars as a means to reinforce property values downtown by clearing dilapidated housing.”
The problem, though, is that these neighborhoods weren’t really slums. They were areas that black citizens had been contained into through private covenants, government zoning and mob violence. While the housing was run-down due to overcrowding and poverty, the neighborhoods at large were still functional, full of churches, groceries, restaurants and shops.
Take Detroit’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods. Not only did they have the standard businesses mentioned above, but they also were hubs for music and nightlife, serving as somewhat of a Midwest Harlem. One spot, called Joe’s Record Shop, had music records and a studio, which recorded early cuts from legends like John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin.
The last time I was in Detroit, I had coffee with Marsha Music, a local activist and daughter of the store owner. She described the store—and the neighborhoods—as gathering spots where black people socialized, worshipped together, and nurtured business ideas. Old photos of Hastings Street, the main commercial street through Paradise Valley, show a dense urban area similar to what can still be found in other Midwest cities.
But Detroit, as a hub of technology and automobility, had long attracted ambitious planner types.
“Since the 1920s, city planners in Detroit had drafted visions for the future of the city,” continues Goodspeed. “But in the postwar period for the first time their plans, funding, and a political will would come together with unprecedented results.”
In 1950, the city organized mass demolitions for a Wayne State University expansion, an events center, and an interstate highway system. One of those highways, I-75, sent wide lanes and off-ramps right through the heart of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. Hastings Street is now a frontage road leading onto the interstate.
Some of the displaced people relocated to an area then known as 12th Street, including Marsha Music’s father, who reopened his record shop. If 12th Street sounds familiar, that’s because it was the heart of the Detroit riots. The city’s black population, which already faced a housing shortage due to discrimination, had seen their neighborhoods torn down and been relocated into even more cramped dwellings. This and other factors caused the populace to reach a boiling point in late July of 1967, when they rioted, looting and destroying surrounding property. Joe’s Record Shop again became a casualty to the destruction. Today, this old 12th Street area remains relatively hollowed-out.
Given that such “urban renewal” occurred nationwide, it’s easy to see why the affected neighborhoods still suffer, and why there’s not a larger African American middle class in America. Those areas had begun as emergent urban orders—small experiments in capitalism that arose from poverty and oppression—and were creating a generation of black businessmen. With time, those businesses likely would have evolved from relative simplicity to growth and specialization.
But this never happened, because these ecosystems were demolished. The culprit was local governments, who zealously created their destructive top-down plans; and the federal government, which gave out the money to execute them.
The “urban renewal” assault on black neighborhoods undermined liberty, free markets, and human dignity—and was one of America’s great, and unrecognized, twentieth-century tragedies.