by Allie Pecorin, Falyn Page, Lauren Magarino and Lily Oppenheimer
In the late 1950s talk of urban renewal in Columbia began. It brought with it the promise of new business opportunities for the marginally wealthy, new housing opportunities for those who lived in “deplorable” housing and new land to be allocated for public use.
Urban renewal promised change. Urban renewal promised growth. Columbia developed a plan.
The plan, which was released by Harland Bartholomew & Associates and the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, would allow new business to expand into “logical sites” hindered by the then “present blighting conditions” that “preclude[d] desirable development.”
The report defined blight as including “poor living conditions that constitute a menace to the health and welfare of the entire community.”
Columbia moved forward with the plan. By the end of the decade, the “blighted area” was all but wiped out.
But for the black business community, urban renewal delivered displacement.
The area that was redeveloped included the Sharp End, a chunk of land between Fourth and Fifth Street past Walnut Street. This area was home to Columbia’s most vibrant black-owned social and business district.
The Sharp End met its demise in the 1960s. By this time, urban renewal was sweeping the country, leaving the wreckage of what was once thriving black business districts in places like Treme, Louisiana, and Charlotte, North Carolina, in its wake.
But Jacob Wagner, director of urban studies at the University of Missouri Kansas City, said the effects of these initiatives are still hard felt. Though the demolition occurred in the past, urban renewal initiatives left in their wake black business communities that continues to struggle to recover.
The United States Census Bureau was not keeping statistics on black-owned business during this 1960s. But Fifth and Sixth Street were once a thriving business and social district. The street featured several black owned taverns, restaurants and social spaces.
Even today, statistics on how many black-owned businesses exist in the Columbia community are not reported by the Census Bureau.
According to 2010 Census Bureau data, 11.3% of Columbia is black or African-American. But a study conducted by Anthony Stanton and Tyree Byndom in 2013 found that only 1% of businesses are black-owned.
Both Stanton and Byndom sit on the Sharp End Heritage Committee, and Stanton serves as Columbia’s planning and zoning commissioner. Stanton said the data was unavailable until he began gathering it himself. He calculated the percentage by scavenging the city for black-owned businesses. Stanton said he and Byndom located 125 black-owned businesses. Divided by the 14,676 businesses registered that year, the total amount is less than 1%.
Wagner said that although urban renewal initiatives were generally framed using a socioeconomic lens, they often disproportionately affected communities of color.
“The issue of intent is really hard to figure out unless you have an obvious statement of clear intent,” Wagner said.
Wagner said in America, race and socioeconomic status cannot be separated. He said that African American communities were historically more likely to live in poverty. That made their communities the first target for urban renewal initiatives in the 50s and 60s. Today that trend of poverty continues, making many black communities the ongoing targets for urban redevelopments.
The legislation that allowed for urban renewal to take place in Columbia and all over the nation met its formal end in 1974.
But state and local legislations haven’t been so fast to abandoned the language that caused so many black cultural and business districts to meet their end.
The 2015 Missouri Revised Statutes on Municipal Housing makes use of language that mirrors urban renewal. It includes in its definition of blight anything that constitutes a, “menace to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare in its present condition and use.”
Wagner said statutes like these are still being used by municipalities and local governments all over the nation to justify land redevelopment. City governments use eminent domain, which gives cities the right to re-zone private land for public use with the compensation of owners. “Blight” is one such way to establish eminent domain.
Because of these blight definitions, land redevelopment still disproportionately affects communities of color.
“The result of destroying black business districts is that there was a massive impact on African American economic development that is felt to this day in the black community,” Wagner said. “It was devastating and in many ways the black community hasn’t recovered.”