Published November 9, 2023

Many people think of the mid-twentieth century suburban housing boom as the decades when the American dream was built. But for others, these were decades of destruction, as “urban renewal” projects remade cities, often displacing Black neighborhoods and replacing them with highways and amenities for white residents. A new series of entries from our Encyclopedia Virginia (EV) will examine the federal roots of urban renewal policies in Virginia and their impact in five locations across the Commonwealth: Charlottesville, Richmond, Norfolk, Northern Virginia, and Roanoke.

An illustrated broadside promotes “The Making of the New Norfolk” (1961), a publication produced by the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Image courtesy of University of Virginia Special Collections

Codified by the Housing Act of 1949, urban renewal was the process whereby cities used federal loans to acquire and destroy blighted areas (or “slums”) and subsequently resold the cleared property to private developers or remade them into highways. From the 1940s through the 1960s, cities often worked with influential urban planners to implement projects that completely remade cityscapes across the United States.

In practice, though, urban renewal became a lucrative way to evict Black and brown residents—who were already forced to live in blighted conditions because of previous discriminatory policies—from their homes, only to repurpose the land for public and private infrastructure that almost exclusively served white people. Racism was tightly woven in the program’s fabric: Harland Bartholomew, a pioneering planner who designed urban renewal plans for more than 550 American cities, including Charlottesville and Richmond, once admitted that his zoning goals intentionally prevented “colored people” from moving into “finer residential districts.”

“Just yesterday, I drove on a highway that was intentionally designed to plow through a Black neighborhood when it was built in 1971.”

Johnny Finn

By the time Black author James Baldwin frankly asserted that “urban renewal means Negro removal” in 1963, the program had reached its peak popularity across the country. Its symbolic end came with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed racial discrimination in housing, including many racist practices that had become commonplace across Virginia.

“Of course, the negative impacts of this history linger into the present day,” said Johnny Finn, an associate professor of Geography and Chair of the Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology at Christopher Newport University. Finn is serving as section editor of the EV project, which will also include a geospatial map—a first for EV—to illustrate the “before and after” of decades of redevelopment and its effects on Black communities.

“Just yesterday, I drove on a highway that was intentionally designed to plow through a Black neighborhood when it was built in 1971,” Finn said. “Public and private interests spent close to half a century reshaping our cities in ways that intentionally and obviously discriminated against Black and brown communities. And that infrastructure—highways, luxury housing, hospitals, universities—stays with us for a long time.”

Peter Hedlund, director of Encyclopedia Virginia, shared that the editorial staff’s interest in covering urban renewal began after Virginia Humanities moved its headquarters to Charlottesville’s Dairy Central, located in a historically Black neighborhood.

“We relocated in the 10th and Page neighborhood, and our office, which was constructed in 2020, sits just blocks from the Westhaven public housing development,” Hedlund said. “Westhaven was built to house displaced African American residents of the once-thriving Vinegar Hill neighborhood that was razed as part of the urban renewal movement in the early ’60s.”

The EV series comes at a time when Virginia—and the country at large—is anxious to create urban policies that move our cities forward without setting their most vulnerable residents back. In March 2023, the federal government awarded a $1.6 million grant to the City of Norfolk to examine and implement ways to reconnect Tidewater Gardens, a Black neighborhood left divided and isolated by the construction of Interstate 264 in the late 1960s. Richmond received a similar $1.3 million federal grant that same month, to study the impact of I-95 on Jackson Ward, a historically Black area of the city.

“We have an opportunity to think carefully about how our infrastructure decisions can either perpetuate racial inequality or help create a more racially just future,” Finn said. “I hope we can learn from what the past has taught us.”

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Go to EncyclopediaVirginia.org to read the Urban Renewal in Virginia entries.

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