'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Sad Story 

From today's San Francisco Chronicle:

The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency will leave the Western Addition in January, ending a 40-year "urban renewal" project that was touted as a move to wipe out blight but actually destroyed the city's most prominent African American neighborhood.

In total, 883 businesses were shuttered and 4,729 households were forced out, according to city officials. Roughly 2,500 Victorian homes were demolished.

There are mixed feelings about the agency's departure, with some happy to see it go and others wanting more of an effort to repair the damage.

Agency officials admit that mistakes were made during the project, but a state law requires that they leave at the end of the year.

"The agency's time there has not been a happy story," said Fred Blackwell, who recently took on the title of executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. "There have been thousands of units of affordable housing developed and a substantial investment made in the community, but those things are in no way envisioned as making up for the damage that was done in the early days.

"There is no way to make up for clearing large swaths of land and displacing thousands of people."

The redevelopment of the Western Addition, of which the Fillmore district is a part, was one of the largest urban renewal efforts in the West. The California Redevelopment Act of 1945 allowed cities and counties to create redevelopment areas to combat urban blight, which was defined by economics, dilapidation of housing and social conditions - including the size of the nonwhite population.

The Fillmore, where 60 percent of the residents were African American, was declared blight in 1948. The first demolition project began in 1956. The second phase, the brainchild of the redevelopment agency's then-head Justin Herman, began in 1964 and expanded the area to 60 square blocks. Eminent domain was used to purchase Victorian homes and buy out local businesses. The thriving black business community was destroyed as owners of nightclubs, barbershops, banks and retail stores were forced to close up shop.

"The agency would go to a house and give the head of household a certificate that said they would be given preference in housing built in the future," said Benjamin Ibarra, a spokesman for the agency. "But there wasn't a lot of housing built for a long time."

"People say black folks chose to sell their homes, but that's not true," said the Rev. Arnold Townsend, who has lived in the Western Addition for more than 40 years. "We couldn't get loans to fix up the houses, so we didn't have a choice but to sell or crumble. There was a mean-spiritedness that occurred during the entire process."

The destruction of the African American community in the Western Addition was just one example of how the process of urban renewal manipulated the concept of blight to destroy low income communities and communities of color. Right across Geary Street, Japantown suffered a similar fate, with the Japan Center, the Kabuki Cinemas, thte Miyako Hotel and an array of Japanese restaurants obscuring the fact that the Japanese American families who lived there are nearly all gone. They return one weekend a year for the Cherry Blossom festival.

Journalist Mary Bishop provided one of the more compelling and exhaustive case studies of the consequences of urban renewal back in 1991:

One of the few journalists to take an in-depth look at urban renewal was Mary Bishop, a former colleague of mine at The Roanoke Times. In 1991, she attended a reunion for an extinct neighborhood; all the homes had been knocked down to make way for an interstate, a civic center and other big, ugly projects. The routine newspaper assignment inspired Bishop to spend years unearthing the block-by-block story of urban renewal in Roanoke. Between 1955 and the 1980s, she found, Roanoke demolished 1,600 homes, 200 businesses and 24 churches. In the city's urban renewal zone, people watched in slow-motion horror as the government-nurtured cycle of decay progressed. People assumed--rightly or wrongly--that their homes would be condemned. So they stopped putting money into fixing them. This degraded property values and left houses vulnerable to wind, water and, especially, fire. One house burned, then another, and decline and despair accelerated, providing authorities a self-fulfilling justification for expanding their program of condemnation and clearing.

Eerie how similar it sounds to the experience of the residents of the Western Addition, isn't it? In regard to New York City, sociologists Deborah and Roderick Wallace assert that the urban renewal process in Harlem, with its inevitable destruction and deplacement, was pushed along by an intentional reduction in public services. In other words, gentrification in Harlem was not the outcome of the invisible hand of the market, but the social creation of the very visible hands of property owners, politicians, investors and urban planners. If so, to what extent was this true elsewhere? Given the outcomes in Roanoke and San Francisco, I think we know the answer.

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