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INDEPENDENCE DAY? Not for many in Columbia's black community, where history seems doomed to repeat

Those who ignore the past ....

COLUMBIA, Mo 7/4/14 (Beat Byte) --
"For black people who had struggled in back-breaking work to finally be able to own a piece of property in that area, it was a very traumatic experience to be taken out of there and put into this brick-and-mortar monstrosity that we have there now.   For the black people in the community who did not own property, mistakenly it was Utopia." 

That was Roland Ballenger, then a 40-year-old black Columbia resident speaking to Columbia Missourian reporter David Preston for a 1975 retrospective on the Douglass School Urban Renewal Project.   Ballenger's home had been demolished to make way for public housing, in a historic 1958 land grab that used eminent domain, federal grants, and City Hall to force over 400 black families from their homes in the area around the school and Douglass Park. 

To understand the present debate over alcohol at Douglass Park -- and a central Columbia TIF district based on many of the same principles -- one must also understand "urban renewal".   

In 1956, the Columbia City Council established a "Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority" (LCRA) because "blighted or unsanitary areas exist in the City of Columbia and the redevelopment of such area or areas is necessary in the interest of health, safety, morals, and welfare of the residents."  

It's the same language a city consultant is using today to justify the TIF district, which so far has failed to win approval.
 
In 1958, the Council approved the Douglass School Urban Renewal Project because a consultant back then found 90 per cent of dwelling units were "below minimum standards" -- the same language today's TIF consultant is using. 

"During the next decade, the plows of urban renewal tore up the boundaries and structures of the old black community," Preston reported.   "Housing projects rose where private homes once stood." 

In the 25 years following Urban Renewal, the Missourian reported many times on its widespread and for many black families, devastating impact.   "All the lots purchased in the 126.3 acre project have been sold either to private citizens or to the Columbia Housing Authority," the newspaper reported in April 1967.   "The housing authority has built 256 low-rent housing units in the area and private citizens have built 50 new homes and 15 new businesses." 

Private white citizens, mostly. 

The result was catastrophic to black prosperity, turning generations of homeowners into generations of renters -- and public housing residents.   

"There are fewer black homeowners in Columbia now than in the 80 years following the Civil War," the Missourian reported in July 1980.   By contrast, "in 1911, there was a high percentage of black families and individuals who owned their own homes in the Douglass School Urban Renewal area," roughly bounded by Hickman Avenue to the north; Garth west; Eighth St. east; and Walnut St. to the south. 

This year's failed TIF district plan targets much of the same area. 

Following urban renewal, Missourian reporters regularly interviewed residents for their reactions.  Housing authority project manager Tom Walker was one of them.  "Black people displaced by the project felt they were robbed because they were given less than the value of their land," he said in a 1980 story.    "Many of them were not able to buy another home and had to rent housing, or live in the public housing units."

And despite all the talk about improving public health -- the same words First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick uses to justify her Douglass Park alcohol ban proposal -- many people saw, not renewal, but regression

"One black Columbia resident, Mrs. Smith (not her real name), whose home was taken for the public housing project, says she was against the project because 'you don't improve a situation by fencing in a group,'" the Missourian reported.  "In effect, the Douglass School Urban Renewal project grouped black people together by making it nearly impossible for many of them to afford to move out of the area." 

Roland Ballenger said virtually the same thing.   "Has urban renewal solved any of the problems of the black community? No.  What it's done is maintain a geographic, social, and economic status quo." 


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