Field Notes: ReStorying a Community

Doing field work on Burton Street during the UNCA and YMI ReStorying
Community Workshop. Left to right: Madeline McKeller, Dr. Ken Betsalel,
Karen VanEman, Nicholas Marshall, DeWayne Barton, and Jerry VanEman.
Photo taken Friday, January 30, 2009 by Sarah Pitchford.

By Dr. Ken Betsalel

It started with a phone call from Karen Loughmiller, who is directing Buncombe County Public Libraries’ “Twilight of a Neighborhood” project, funded by the NC Humanities Council.

Aimed at continuing the public discussion of urban renewal in Asheville touched off last year by the library’s exhibit of Andrea Clark’s evocative East End photographs, the project will culminate with a visit by Dr. Mindy Fullilove, MD, author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What we Can Do About It (Ballantine Books, 2004). Karen invited me to lead a discussion of Fullilove’s book and the impact of urban renewal on Asheville.

In preparing for my talk I reviewed my notes from Nan Chase’s book
Asheville: A History (McFarland & Company, 2007) and James Q.
Wilson’s classic edited volume, Urban Renewal: Cases and Controversies
(M.I.T. Press, 1966).

What I was reminded of once again is how controversial urban
renewal still is. In a nutshell, urban renewal programs can be traced
by to the 1949 Federal Housing Act and other legislation in the 1950s,
‘60s, and ‘70s that attempted to rebuild American cities and replenish
an aging housing stock with a massive infusion of government dollars.

Through grants and aid, technical assistance and private-public
partnerships, city and county officials, urban planners, private
developers, and urban renewal administrators (working at times with
“maximum feasible citizen participation”) attempted to remap and
rebuild American cities. In the name of progress, urban renewal goals
seemed simple, logical and straight forward: to encourage growth and
revitalization of urban America.

Along with the development of Interstate highways, the
proponents of urban renewal claim they largely succeed, if not in
entirely remaking cities, at least in giving them a fighting chance
against suburban sprawl and shopping malls.
What proponents of urban renewal overlook, however, is the human cost
of these government interventions, especially as they impacted low
income neighborhoods. As documented in Fullilove’s book Root Shock:
•    A survey of urban renewal programs in the late 1960s found that
while 400,000 dwelling places had been destroyed in the name of
progress, only 10,760 low income rental units for poor people were
built to replace them.
•    From the initiation of urban renewal in the late 1950s to the
mid-1970s, it is estimated that 1.6 million (some accounts go as high
as 4 million) low-income Americans were displaced from their homes.
•    African American communities were especially hard hit.

Closer to home, Nan Chase writes of urban renewal’s devastating
impact on the lives of African Americans here in Asheville: “A partial
inventory of loss, not including intangibles like community spirit and
work ethic, includes ‘more than 1,100 homes, six beauty parlors, five
barbershops, five filling stations, 14 grocery stores, three laundry
mats, eight apartments, seven churches, three shoe shops, two cabinet
shops, two auto body shops, one hotel, five funeral homes, one hospital
and three doctor’s offices.’”

According to Dr. Mark Fried in his 1963 article “Grieving for a
Lost Home: Psychological Costs of Relocation,” many of those men and
women who lost their homes to Boston’s urban renewal projects felt a
deep sense of depression and grief that lasted for years.

What is “root shock”? According to Dr. Fullilove it is “the loss
of a massive web of connections-a way of being” in the world that helps
make people and communities feel safe, together, honored, and strong.
For Fullilove, urban renewal destroyed that sense of “connectedness”
and “trust,” leaving people and neighborhoods vulnerable to
deteriorating circumstances, mental health problems, and crime.

My own work with students listening to the “survivors” of urban
renewal here in Asheville has taught us there is indeed a great deal of
sorrow and loss surrounding urban renewal in our community.

Where do we go from here? Working with Mr. Harry Harrison, the
Director of the YMI Culture Center, we are teaching a course called
“ReStorying Communities Workshop.” One of the goals of the course is to
listen to the stories of urban renewal in order that to help to heal
and recover what has been lost. What happened to families displaced by
urban renewal should never happen again.

In listening to the stories of community people, we now hear
fear of the N.C. Department of Transportation plans to take twenty-six
homes and a Church in the Burton Street neighborhood, one of the oldest
historically African American communities in West Asheville. County
officials and the local Chamber of Commerce say it is for public
purpose and progress.

My students and I cannot help wonder, is this not urban renewal or is it Urban Removal, all over again?

For more information please contact Dr. Ken Betsalel .

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