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Excerpted From: Angela E. Addae, The Perils of Urban Redevelopment for Black Business Districts, 57 Tulsa Law Review 171 (Winter 2021) (203 Footnotes) (Full Document)


AngelaEAddaeSince W.E.B. Du Bois published The Philadelphia Negro in 1899, scholars have explored the role of organizations in shaping the social and economic landscape of historically Black neighborhoods. From restaurants and hair salons, to churches and community centers, culturally-cognizant organizations permeate the core of Black enclaves. Together, neighborhood organizations form Black business districts--thoroughfares that function as economic centers, cultural hubs, and civic consulates for Black residents. Or, as sociologist Ray Oldenburg might describe it, Black business districts operate as “third places,” informal gathering spaces between home and work. Not only do Black business districts stimulate economic activity, but member organizations also act as cultural vehicles that reproduce community norms and social values. Born as zones of reprieve and necessity, Black business districts ultimately emerged as oases for Black residents--spaces to simply be: to be present, to exist, to belong.

Over the last century, Black business districts experienced an onslaught of state-sanctioned violence, exclusion, and displacement. Exemplified by the fatal events of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, those seeking to dismantle racial progress targeted Black businesses districts. From Black code laws to deputized vigilantes, public and private agents regularly invoked discriminatory policies and racial terrorism to suppress Black entrepreneurship. Even as courts confirmed the unconstitutionality of de jure segregation, lenders' designation of Black neighborhoods as poor financial risks (redlining) and contractual agreements prohibiting the purchase or occupation of a property by nonwhite residents (racially restrictive covenants) guaranteed that Black residents would lack access to wealth accumulation through homeownership. And, though civil rights frameworks have substantially evolved, vestiges of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation merely transitioned into modern, implicit forms that continue to disrupt Black economic advancement.

Today, the latest manifestation in a regime of state policies threatening historic Black business districts is urban redevelopment. This is the process of enhancing neighborhood infrastructures by a strategy of reinvesting capital with a renewed emphasis on livability, density, transportation, and economic stimuli. Such changes may appear in the form of improvements to pathways of movement, parks, and other public spaces. As a part of the process, developers transform residential and commercial spaces by renovating existing properties or erecting new-build developments. The emergence of mixed-use properties and “trendy” entities such as yoga studios, coffee shops, and art galleries are also frequent indicators of urban redevelopment. Urban redevelopment is routinely associated with gentrification, in which a neighborhood population experiences a demographic shift based on race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. Scholars have expanded conceptualizations of gentrification to encompass displacement, or the dispossession of existing lower-income residents by middle-class newcomers.

Early scholars of urban redevelopment primarily explored it as an economic phenomenon, with changing consumption patterns and factors of supply and demand driving interest towards the city core. However, in response to concentrated poverty and dilapidation, many cities implemented comprehensive planning efforts to address urban decline, adopting models of state-assisted growth. Federal initiatives such as Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson's Model Cities provided funding to municipal governments to rehabilitate historically divested neighborhoods. Similarly, municipal governments adopted measures that targeted redevelopment at the neighborhood level, emphasizing local transportation, safety, and economic development. For example, in 1993, the City of Portland, Oregon adopted the “Albina Community Plan,” a neighborhood-specific plan that “implements land use, transportation and public service strategies” to “address livability, increased accessibility, reduction of land use and transportation impacts, improving the developability of land, preservation of Albina history, and improvements in public infrastructure.” As city dwellers concentrated in the urban core, federal and local agencies incentivized “slum clearance” and “blight removal” by razing homes in the name of urban planning initiatives. Because urban redevelopment is the creation and refinement of a set of tools and technologies that allow for the movement of capital and people, a critical question emerges: who gets moved, to what end, and to whose benefit, and to whose cost?

Policymakers who favor state-led redevelopment view it as offering positive outcomes for both middle-class and working-class residents. These initiatives build upon stated municipal goals such as “physical renewal, reversal of neighborhood decline. windfall profits for existing residents, the upgrading of local services, increased political representation, and the deconcentration of poverty, social and ethnic mixing, fiscal budget increases, and enhanced neighborhood economic stability.” In theory, urban redevelopment projects should present a win-win for cities: they facilitate the improvement of deteriorated conditions while also providing significant funding for strained municipal budgets. In addition to economic incentives, urban redevelopment projects are meant to offer inclusion and social mixing as solutions for further alleviation of urban challenges. Indeed, after decades of experiencing divestment and neglect, existing residents may express support for neighborhood restoration, expecting to reap its promises of essential resources, safety, and economic viability.

Despite the potential benefits of urban redevelopment, city planners have too often disregarded the consequences of urban redevelopment for institutions in historically Black neighborhoods. To advance revitalization, the city is effectively 'improving’ itself by destroying here and creating there-- establishing patterns of uneven development. Existing residents are priced out due to escalating housing costs. Displaced residents subsequently face barriers to accessing affordable housing, social networks, and community resources--further marginalizing the city's most vulnerable populations. Although the impact of urban redevelopment on Black residents is well-documented, Black business districts are among the phenomenon's unnamed casualties. Black businesses and nonprofit organizations represent a broad range of essential industries, including consumer goods, financial services, education, and community healthcare. Local neighborhood organizations are primary hubs for cultural preservation and civic engagement, yet Black institutions in redeveloping neighborhoods are threatened by fluctuating infrastructure, shifting demographics, and increased competition. As consumers, congregants, and constituents are forced to relocate, culturally-oriented institutions struggle to tailor their provision of goods and services to the local markets they serve. As a result, Black-owned businesses and nonprofit organizations must balance neighborhood change with depleting social and economic capital, ultimately hastening the decline of core neighborhood institutions.

Like the violent race massacres of the early-mid twentieth century, urban redevelopment continues to erode the foundations of Black business districts across the nation in a systematic, coherent manner. As redevelopment has ensued over the last twenty years, the quandaries of Black business districts in Tulsa, Portland, and Washington, D.C. are reminiscent of those in Oakland, Nashville, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Detroit. Incoming residents tend to opt for modern specialty boutiques, eclectic cafes, high-end fitness centers, and niche retailing, leaving Black institutions as mere remnants of the district's past. Urban redevelopment often exacerbates existing vulnerabilities, with Black institutions increasingly susceptible to displacement and economic exclusion. As clusters of organizations that have shouldered the weight of institutional racism, systemic oppression, and state-sanctioned violence, Black business districts are uniquely vulnerable to injurious redevelopment policies--contemporary harms exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Part I describes the racial violence, de jure segregation, and displacement Black business districts have encountered historically. The Tulsa Race Massacre and the Tulsa Greenwood District's subsequent challenges exemplify the myriad of ways in which Black business districts encounter economic exclusion. Part II describes urban redevelopment as the latest iteration in a history of state-sponsored actions that result in ubiquitous harm for Black business districts. It describes the evolution of policies and practices aimed at urban renewal and urban redevelopment and how such measures have a disparate impact on Black business districts. Part III calls for an equity-based framework that leverages the power and proximity of planning tools to promote inclusive community-building.

[. . .]

In an unpublished draft of The Price of the Ticket, James Baldwin too foresaw the exclusionary consequences of urban redevelopment. Assuming the voice of incoming white residents, Baldwin mocked:

We are sorry ... but we really must, for your own peace of mind, dismiss you. We refuse to be intimidated by your insistent presence, your endless demands on our integrity, your bottomless reproaches. As soon as we get you out of here, we'll fix the streets and re-build the houses and raise our children as we see fit--without you.

Baldwin's quip speaks to the critical notion of belonging. As municipalities advance urban redevelopment, policy measures explicitly communicate who belongs in public spaces. Belonging is a central tenet of equitable development, and governments must leverage the power of planning tools to promote inclusive community-building. Because the history of racism in the United States continues to structure our lived environments, state agents must reckon with how historical racism permeates all social institutions-- including urban planning and development.

Unfortunately, without transformative social and political reform, no amount of equitable development will reverse centuries of dehumanization, destruction, and neglect. As recurring incidents of police brutality illuminate the violence projected onto Black communities, social activists have responded with pleas for the advancement of civil rights and the dismantling of systemic and institutional barriers. However, even with calls for governmental accountability, visibility, and sensitivity in the corporate sphere, and responsible investing and community engagement, attention to the socioeconomic plight of Black Americans remains fleeting. Nonetheless, if urban redevelopment processes aim to facilitate belonging, equity-based frameworks must understand how even subtle practices can render Black business districts vulnerable to exclusionary processes.

Despite decades of resilience and resistance, the Greenwood District's trajectory reveals that Black business districts are once again rendered fragile by urban redevelopment policies that perpetuate disenfranchisement and unequal access to capital. Emerging agendas for social reform must recognize the contributions of Black institutions to economic civil rights. Only by understanding the cumulative effects of institutionalized racism can placemakers combat the forces that threaten to dismantle Black business districts.

Assistant Professor of Law, University of Oregon School of Law.

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