Is the Use of Urban Renewal as “Negro Removal” Coming Back?

Some of our older readers may recall the bad old days, when urban renewal was widely used to get rid of poor minority communities through the use of eminent domain. At the time, some wit came up with the phrase “Urban Renewal is Negro Removal,” and in short order that was improved upon by black comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory who opined that “Urban renewal is Negro removal, except in California we call it freeways.” Though it never received much publicity, there was merit to Gregory’s cynicism. Bernard Frieden and his co-author Lynn Sagalyn describe instances of that phenomenon in their book Downtown, Inc. – How America Rebuilds Cities, where they take note of documented instances of this tactic, notably in Minnesota.

Eminent domain, although not for redevelopment purposes, was also used in Illinois in the 1960s, in the notorious Deerfield Park litigation, where the plaintiffs charged that their new, “equal opportunity” residential subdivision was being condemned ostensibly for a park, in order to prevent sales of suburban homes to African-American buyers on an equal opportunity basis. The courts denied relief, holding that if the city thought there was a need for that park, that was conclusive for eminent domain purposes, and would not be questioned.

Though the racial element was not dealt with explicitly in Berman v. Parker, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the taking and destruction of the Southwest quarter of the District of Columbia in the name of slum elimination, and to relieve the poor inhabitants of the area of the deplorable conditions in which they lived at the time. The “new” Southwest, went the story, would improve things — the redevelopment law provided that at least one-third of the new buildings to be built there would be suitable for low-income folks, and would have to offer low-cost housing for $17/per month per room. What a deal!

Of course, as anyone who has been to Washington in the last half-century knows, the “new” Southwest turned out to be quite different than this planner’s vision. It turned out that after the Supreme Court decided Berman, that low-cost housing provision of the redevopment law was repealed. You can get the full story from an article by Amy Lavine, Urban Renewal and the Story of Berman v. Parker, 42 Urban Lawyer 423 (2010).

We can attest to the accuracy of Ms. Lavine’s article because your faithful servant lived in that area in the early 1960s (actually, in one of those modernistic aluminum townhouses depicted in Ms. Lavine’s article on p. 463), and he can attest from personal observation that at that time, some 10 years after Berman, the area was still largely bulldozed flat and vacant, and around the very few new housing structures built in the area, you didn’t see many dark faces. Later, the Wall Street Journal reported that affluent middle class tenants living in the new apartments built there went on a rent strike to protest high rents.  So whatever went on there, it did not benefit those poor slum dwellers whose plight was used as justification for the taking.

In short, Justice Douglas may have talked a good game in the Berman opinion about relieving the deplorable conditions in which the pre-Berman occupants of the Southwest lived, but in the event nothing was done for those poor folks. There were no relocation laws at the time, so they were simply bulldozed out of the way, typically without compensation because being poor they were mostly month-to-month tenants and as such had no compensable leasehold interests. So they were shoved into Northeast Washington and Anacostia, where they had to live in worse slums costing them more in rent.

Now, the Washington Times brings a dispatch that the U.S. Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the city of Joliet, Illinois, charging it with racial discrimination because it has filed an eminent domain action for redevelopment, to take privately-owned low-cost housing whose occupancy is 95% African-American. Jerry Seper, Eminent Domain Used to Push Out Blacks, Suit Says, Washington Times, August 7, 2011. Click here. The lawsuit charges that the city has failed to make adequate relocation provisions, so that many of the displaced residents will have no place to move to, and will have to leave town if the taking proceeds. The city denies this, and alleges that the subject property is blighted, and that it has set aside $3.5 million for relocation. We will just have to stay tuned on that one, and see how it all works out.