Urban Renewal – Eminent Domain Progress in the Making: A Closer Look

reid_center.jpg
W.C. Reid Center in Asheville may have a new home
in the foreseeable future. Photo: Urban News. 

By Sarah Williams

What is urban renewal? Typically, it involves the obliteration of businesses, the repositioning of people, and the use of eminent domain as an officially authorized instrument to repossess private property for city-initiated development projects. In the 1960s, James Baldwin famously renamed urban renewal “Negro Removal.”

If we look at what took place in Asheville during the 1960s and 1970s, we might be inclined to agree with Baldwin. The landscape of Asheville has changed tremendously over these 40 years. Many African Americans were displaced, and some still are; African American neighborhoods were destroyed for the sake of building new businesses and better roads; public housing, designed for transitional living, was bombarded with people looking for a place to live, becoming permanent, multi-generational living for many families.

That history of displacement demands that we scrutinize today’s
“urban renewal” plans for our city. Though a few reminders of the past
remain, most of Asheville’s African American history has been virtually
obliterated; with so little evidence remaining, it can be easy to
question whether black people played any positive roles in the
evolution of this city.

Will the few remaining places such as the YMI Cultural Center,
Stephens-Lee Center, W. C. Reid Center, and the Senior Opportunity
Center still be a part of the topography of Asheville ten years from
now, or will they go the way of the ghosts of the East End? Will
existing neighborhoods still be an integral part of Asheville?

According to the article “Eminent Domain” found in the online
legal dictionary (http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com),
“government has the right to take private property through the power of
eminent domain. To exercise the power of eminent domain, the government
must prove that the four elements set forth in the Fifth Amendment are
present: (1) private property (2) must be taken (3) for public use (4)
and with just compensation.” This is legal, but is it humane? Will
private owners be able to maintain their quality of living by receiving
just compensation?

“Taking, the second element, refers to the taking of physical
property, or a portion thereof, as well as the taking of property by
reducing its value. Property value may be reduced because of noise,
accessibility problems, or other agents. Dirt, timber, or rock
appropriated from an individual’s land for the construction of a
highway, for example, is taken property for which the owner is entitled
to compensation. In general, compensation must be paid when a
restriction on the use of property is so extensive that it is
tantamount to confiscation of the property.”

Sherman Williams, a member of the board of Reid Center, spoke
about previous urban renewal projects in Asheville. “The effects on
African American families were close to devastating. Because families
were scattered, some relationships were destroyed. Some had to move to
affordable areas which sometimes meant moving to the outskirts of the
city.

“The spirit of entrepreneurship was killed,” he explains. “There
were many African American-owned businesses on The Block and Southside.
They are just a memory now. Redlining took place, meaning people were
not able to get financial assistance; therefore, people were not able
to grow businesses.”

Asked about the taking of property in West Asheville for
construction of the I-26 connector, Asheville City Councilman Dr. Carl
Mumpower stated, “I am not aware of any current I-26 connector
alternatives that will not impact on West Asheville, including Burton
Street and other areas.”

He also responded to the concern that, just as African Americans
lost many historical landmarks during earlier urban renewal projects,
more will disappear in this round. Such African American landmarks as
Stephens-Lee High School, businesses on The Block and Southside, and
homes in the Valley Street area have been removed from the geography of
this city, leading to the fear that anything that African Americans
have identified with will eventually become just a memory. For example:
What will happen to the Reid Center, formerly the Livingston Street
School?

Assuming the YMI Cultural Center remains, what will happen to its effectiveness if a new arts center is built?

Dr. Mumpower stated, “I am not aware of a plan to destroy the
Reid Center. Unfortunately a plan supported by the City Council
majority to build an expensive new facility down the street will
distract from our potential to renovate the Reid Center.”

Dr. Mumpower identified other cultural factors that he believes
have had far more destructive impact on the black community than urban
renewal.

“It would be my suggestion that a single mother rate of 70% has
done more to harm the black culture in Asheville than any other factor.
A second harm has been the herding of traditional black neighborhoods
into public housing, which has in turn become havens for drug activity
and related crimes, and recruiting stations for black youth whose
futures are corrupted by these influences. I believe the willingness of
the black community to condone and enable drug dealing in public
housing and other vulnerable neighborhoods is a form of child abuse.
The rest of us, who buy drugs, ignore our drug problem as long as it
stays hidden in public housing, and do not support our police in strong
enforcement, are equally accountable.”

“Preservation of black heritage in Asheville is in the hands of
the black community,” he says. “I am not aware of any resistance to
such and would note that we have a black Mayor who fills the city’s
primary leadership role.
“Going forward, I am concerned that the continued deterioration of our
economy will reach a crisis state that affects everyone in our city –
regardless of color. We will have the choice of continuing themes of
blame, victimization, and entitlement or working together toward
survival and recovery.”

Roderick Simmons, Director of the Asheville Parks, Recreation
and Cultural Arts Department, shared the department’s position on the
status of the Livingston Street School as a community center. In a
written statement he asserted, “Last month City Council approved the
department’s request to move forward with the W.C. Reid Community
Center $2-million-dollar plan for new construction that will meet
current grant obligations and build the new center on the Livingston
Street Park site. There are no plans at this time to tear down the
current center.
“Once the new center opens we will have a series of community meetings
to discuss the future of the Livingston Street School and have open
dialogue letting the community decide what is the best use of the old
school.

“We decided to recommend the two million dollars for new
construction because we would get more mileage out of our limited
funds, and we would not displace our current center programming. My
concern is, if we displace the current programming for a year while
renovating the eighty-year-old school, it would be hard to get the
community program back to its current level. This is a heavily used
community center, and we did not want to take the chance on losing
community support. Also, there is a level of community concern that
this project will not come to fruition. In order to build community
trust, we believe that building on a new site would allow the community
to see the new building going up, which builds trust and gives us time
to discuss the future of the old school with the community.
“The first phase of Reid Center construction will have dedicated space
for a theater, four multipurpose classroom spaces, and an office which
will accommodate the cultural arts programming component. A gymnasium
and a water feature could eventually be added in a future phase which
may accommodate additional programs such as sports, senior programs,
after school, visual arts classes, dance classes, aerobics, yoga, board
meetings, special events and other seasonal programs.

“Since the existing center will not be closed during
construction of a new facility, core services such as the after-school
program will continue.”

African Americans are going to have to join together to make
decisions about where we go from here. If we are to become a positive
and progressive presence here in Asheville, we will have to work for it
and support each other.

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