Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Housing Authority Records and Exhibit

UNCA History major Ashley McGhee worked as an Intern in Special Collections over the summer.  During her internship she digitized photographs from the Isaiah Rice Collection (more about this later this semester!) and processed dozens of boxes from the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville Records (HACA), creating more detailed finding aids that will help researchers find materials easier. All told, Ashley and Special Collections librarian Gene Hyde processed a total of 47 boxes of material from the HACA Records, adding folder-level details and removing restricted files, effectively opening up sections of the HACA Records to researchers for the first time. You can see the newly processed materials in the HACA Records finding aid – look for Parts 1-6, which include materials from the Asheville Downtown Commercial Complex files and the East End/Valley Street Project files.  
Ashley McGhee and her Housing Authority of the City of Asheville exhibit
Ashley also designed an exhibit based on the HACA Records, which is on the wall outside of Special Collections on the 3rd floor of Ramsey Library. She wrote the following essay about these newly processed HACA Records:
Housing Authority of the City of Asheville 
by Ashley McGhee, History Intern, Summer 2015
The Housing Authority of the City of Asheville was created on June 12, 1940, stemming from President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of abolishing slum neighborhoods across the nation.  On the national level, the Housing Act granted unrivaled power to federal, state, and local governments in altering a neighborhood’s social, racial, and economic make-up.  When the Housing Authority was awarded federal housing funds their work became even more focused and they began to undertake the nationwide program of urban renewal.  
Urban renewal began in the 1950’s as an effort to enhance so-called “blighted” areas of cities across the country.  The purpose of the program was to eliminate slums and restore neighborhoods to former splendor through state-of-the-art housing and amenities for residents living there.  Nationwide however, urban development was also responsible for the dismantling of thousands of communities and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of families from their homes.  In Asheville, urban development and the creation of new public housing units brought immense changes into the communities they touched. 
A majority of the communities tagged in Asheville for urban renewal, and indeed across the country, were predominately African American.  Initially, public opinion was favorable towards urban renewal, due to a post-war faith in institutions, as well as what appeared to be solid planning, but eventually negative public opinion began gaining ground.  One of the largest detractors of urban renewal was the policy of using “redlining” to assist with choosing neighborhoods for redevelopment.  The criteria used for redlining often boiled down to racial lines, and even more telling was the fact that almost all communities chosen for urban renewal were African American and almost always overlapped redlined areas.  
The Housing Authority gave this pamphlet to Asheville residents when notifying them that the city was planning on acquiring their property
The East End and Valley Street neighborhoods had been a vibrant part of the community since the late 1880’s.  By the late 1970’s though, the Housing Authority had tagged the neighborhood for an urban renewal project, despite the fact that there were several active businesses and thriving centers for the community to gather, such as the culturally significant Stephens Lee High School.  Although poor structural conditions symbolized many of the homes in the community, there were also an equal number of homes that could certainly not be categorized as slums or blighted.  While many in the community initially favored urban renewal for the positive changes slated for implementation, there were others who considered the urban renewal project as nothing more than a program that would rupture both the individual and community identity of the East End and Valley Street neighborhoods.  Unfortunately, and in the end, instead of the model homes and immaculately landscaped areas those in the neighborhood had been promised, most residents were either shunted into inadequate public housing projects or forced from the community entirely; their former homes replaced with widened highways and office buildings.
  During Asheville’s urban renewal projects, much of the downtown area, and especially the buildings and places with historical value, managed to remain untouched during this era of redevelopment.  This would change with the creation of the Asheville Revitalization Committee, whose plan was to “revitalize” the heart of downtown Asheville by replacing 11 city blocks with a hotel, several major department stores, and a sizable office complex complete with parking garage.  The committee contracted with Strouse Greenberg & Co. out of Philadelphia on the project, with an estimated multi-million dollar demolition bill slated for taxpayers in the form of bonds.  From this proposal came the creation of two groups- Building for a Better Asheville- backed by Asheville’s business elite, and Save Downtown Asheville- informally known as The Asheville 1,000 and with noted hometown warrior Wayne Caldwell at the helm.  After endless campaigning on both sides, city voters took up the battle and in a resounding two to one vote defeated the bond proposal and effectively killing the project.  Decades later, by combining the ideals of both historic preservation and progress in rehabilitating the downtown area, Asheville has been molded into one of the most noted creative and cultural centers in the South.