By Lindsay Oluyede
Between 1955 and 1966, U.S. cities reported displacing approximately a third of a million families for urban renewal projects. As noted by researchers at the University of Richmond, their homes were razed to clear land for redevelopment that included “new, sometimes public housing, more often private, or for other purposes like the development of department stores or office buildings.”[i] The displaced families were disproportionately African-American. In 1961, 66% of residents of areas marked for urban renewal projects were African-American, though they made up 10% of the U.S. population at that time.[ii]
Undoubtedly, these communities were forever changed. Recently, efforts to understand the experience of the residents whose neighborhoods were lost to urban renewal have occurred. Around the country, universities, local libraries, and historical societies are documenting the stories of these communities and their residents.
A new website, Urban Renewal: In Retro (www.urbanrenewalstories.com), brings together multimedia projects that tell the story of communities impacted by urban renewal. The features of the website include:
- Interactive Map: A Google map that compiles projects about the impact of urban renewal on communities around the country. The projects include oral histories, documentary films, museum exhibits, etc.
- Learn More: A list of resources about the urban renewal era.
- Submit a Project: An online form to share similar projects that can be added to the map.
Remembering the Past for a Resilient Future
These projects offer a perspective on urban renewal from the voices of the people who lived through it. The communities displaced by urban renewal faced immediate and enduring consequences, including the trauma of moving involuntarily and the lingering loss of community.
Community trauma and resilience—the ability to respond and adapt to new circumstances—are inextricably connected:
“…improving resilience requires intervening in that cycle of unacknowledged community trauma. A legitimate intervention into this cycle depends upon public knowledge, public understanding, and public acknowledgement of past events in order to avoid repeating oppression, injustice, and mistakes, and revictimizing communities and individuals still affected by the wrong.” [iii]
The motivation to create Urban Renewal: In Retro stems from the desire to encourage conversations about community displacement and resilience, and hopefully inspire future policies and planning that support more just and equitable outcomes.
[i] Digital Scholarship Lab, “Renewing Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed October 31, 2021.
[ii] Fullilove, M.T. (2001). Root shock: The consequences of African American dispossession. Journal of Urban Health 78, 72–80.
[iii] Dukes, E. F., Williams, J., and Kelban, S. (2012). Collective Transitions and Community Resilience in the Face of Enduring Trauma. In Goldstein B. (Ed.), Collaborative Resilience: Moving Through Crisis to Opportunity. The MIT Press.
Lindsay Oluyede is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning. As a researcher, she unearths empirical insights from diverse perspectives to inform policy recommendations to improve transportation equity. Lindsay created Urban Renewal: In Retro while participating in the Maynard Adams Fellowship for the Public Humanities program.
Edited by Jo Kwon
Featured image: Map of urban renewal storytelling projects. Courtesy of Lindsay Oluyede.