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THE SAGA OF THE SHARP END: Columbia's lost black business district, Part 2

Continuing excerpts from Jason Jindrich's Mizzou thesis, a geographic history of black Columbia
 
COLUMBIA, 8/4/12 (Beat Byte) --  Columbia's Sharp End black business district was lost through a combination of city government neglect, Federal tax handouts, and unbridled greed.   Land that had been the worst in town had become the best (in terms of location, location, location), and wealthy, white landowners wanted it. 
 
Fifty years after black residents settled much of Columbia's interior, city services developed but access to them in the black community had not.  August Larson's 1919 "Housing Survey of Columbia, Missouri" is an exposé of the differences in access to basic city services.
 
Larson compared six sections of the city for a house by house survey, including affluent Rosemary Lane east of campus; the impoverished white community near the Hamilton-Brown shoe factory on Wilkes Blvd.; and the black neighborhoods of Sharp End and Railroad Street.  

He found that unequal access to basic city services was a major cause of the slum conditions urban renewal would seek to alleviate 40 years later.    In other words, City Hall helped create the problem it would seek to solve later by draconian means.

Eminent domain actions paid 50 cents on the dollar of already-discounted appraisals, much of the money unevenly distributed, going to white slumlords not even located in the Sharp End who had contributed to slum conditions in adjoining areas.
 
Larson also found a broad disconnect between living conditions acceptable to local leaders and policy makers -- and reality.   

In one case, the University Missourian newspaper -- the forerunner of the Columbia Missourian -- touted a block of apartments "as examples of modern housing for Negroes" that were instead "among the worst housing in Columbia," suffering from poor ventilation, poor lighting, lack of indoor plumbing, inadequate heat, and overcrowding.
 
The first urban renewal projects began in 1954, when the City of Columbia razed most of the Sharp End.
 
The razed area included substandard housing, but also businesses and livable homes.   One block of shanties was used to justify taking two blocks of property, a pre-cursor to the notion that "contiguous census tracks" be used to justify blight declarations in non-blighted areas.

In another irony, white slumlords owned much of the slum housing.   Black-owned land, Jindrich documents, was generally in good, workable condition, despite lack of city services and lack of access to loans and financing because of a discriminatory practice called "red lining." 
 
After Land Clearance Authorities used eminent domain and the land was transferred, city services and improved conditions appeared almost as if by magic.    Public housing replaced the shanties;  but more importantly, roads were drained and paved for the first time, street lights and workable sewers installed, all of which raises the question:  Why did the black community have to lose its land for basic city services to -- finally -- arrive?
 
"The engineering of the Sharp End neighborhood destroyed much of the remaining physical evidence of Columbia's original city center.   It also smoothed the former contours of the creek so completely that while driving Providence Road, built over the bed of the larger of the two creeks, it is possible to miss the dip in the road that marks their confluence," Jindrich writes.   "Two creeks that ran through the neighborhood were forced underground, completing their transformation into sewers and disappearing from popular consciousness."
 
"The end result of urban renewal completed a process of marginalization of the Flat Branch bottom that began at the founding of the city of Columbia."

From Our Black Children: The Evolution of Black Space in Columbia, Missouri, by Jason Jindrich


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