Urban Renewal

Persistent Threats, Perpetual Challenges

In the film Segregated By Design, we saw flagrant examples in which other cities used Urban Renewal to remove or eradicate Black communities. Several of Lexington's African American neighborhoods have faced similar threats to their integrity as communities, and even to their neighborhood's physical existence. 

Attempts by the city to "fix" Black neighborhoods have a long history in Lexington. The city's first Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 1931, referred to "poor colored neighborhoods" where "three room frame houses and flimsy shacks are crowded together, many of them dilapidated, damp, unsanitary, which do not qualify even as shelters against incle­ment weather. . . [T]hese unhealthy, unsanitary settlements are a menace to health and safety in the city, and a constant drain on the eco­nomic resources of the citizens for free medi­cal work, for charities, and for extra police and fire protection" (Lexington City Planning and Zoning Commission. 1931, 23).

The "fixes" White city officials envisioned too often involved removing Black people and razing the houses they owned or rented, rather than making concerted efforts to fix issues like deteriorated housing in ways that could support families in their familiar places and sustain invaluable community ties and connections. In addition, some of the "fixes" seem to have been motivated by a desire to use neighborhood land for other purposes rather than to improve the lives of residents.

Some of the attempted and completed projects we discuss below were carried out by local government and institutions, outside the federal Urban Renewal framework. Four others were intended to be federally funded Urban Renewal projects. 

Facing the challenges, Black residents and their allies have proven formidable in support of their neighborhoods. As we describe below, residents' care for the neighborhoods where they lived and the communities of mutual support they enjoyed there helped fuel fervent, organized, and effective resistance to urban renewal efforts "that would have dramatically altered the neighborhood and the circumstances of its residents" (Appler and Riesenweber 2020, 166). 

Challenges to Lexington's African American or Integrated Neighborhoods
Outside the Federal Urban Renewal Program

Branch Alley, 1914. In this example, the city took possession of an area known as Branch Alley, a half-block section of present-day Water Street. Many considered this mostly White-owned but Black-inhabited block of dilapidated boarding houses and brothels an unsanitary eyesore, but little had been done to improve living conditions there. After a deadly fight took place in Branch Alley in 1914, police arrested and jailed around 35 people for vagrancy, the "crime" of not being able to prove that one has a job. (Some of those arrested eventually demonstrated their worker status by presenting callused hands.) The city soon became the owner of the Branch Alley land, and housing demolition followed (Anthony 2021).

University interests eradicated the Adamstown neighborhood. Adamstown was a post-Civil War Black settlement, developed in 1872 on what were then the outskirts of Lexington: near the corner of Rose Street and what is now Avenue of Champions. About ten years after Adamstown came into being the University of Kentucky (which had been founded in 1865 in another part of town) established its campus across the street. In 1939 the University chose Adamstown as the site for a new basketball arena. By 1943 the Adamstown community and all its residents were gone, and by 1950 Memorial Coliseum stood in its place. While this is not an example of federally supported urban renewal, it is similar in that a powerful, White-led institution saw to the complete removal of a Black neighborhood, replacing it with an amenity that held great appeal to Whites. This summary only scratches the surface of the Adamstown story. (For more, see the Adamstown page)

Decades of uncertainty about road construction led to disinvestment and deterioration in Davistown. In 1865 developer William Davis bought land in a swampy area and sold or rented parcels to recently freed African Americans in what came to be known as Davis Bottom. Soon White workers also moved to the neighborhood, and Davis Bottom (or Bottoms) became one of Lexington's few racially diverse neighborhoods. 

Although Davis Bottom was a tight-knit neighborhood, it declined over the course of 150 years for a number of reasons, including absentee ownership, nearby industrial zoning, and especially the disinvestment caused by decades of on-again, off-again plans for a major roadway extension. As of 2022, Newtown Pike Extension has been built right through the neighborhood, and has been renamed Oliver Lewis Way in honor of the great Black Lexington jockey who won the first Kentucky Derby. 

For more about this resilient neighborhood, now called Davistown or Davis Park, and the ways it has changed in the early 2020s, see the Davistown page.

South Hill homes were demolished for Rupp Arena parking. South Hill, which existed at least since 1855, lay just south of  West High Street and extended for a few blocks to the east and west of South Broadway. The eastern section—now called Historic South Hill—was characterized by Federal-style homes and some more modest structures. The western section was characterized by modest but livable homes in the three blocks closest to South Broadway, and larger, fancier homes on Merino and Madison Place. 

In the mid-1970s, the Lexington Center Corporation (LCC) , a quasi-government agency, needed land to build a parking lot for Rupp Arena, and chose the more modest western section of South Hill for that purpose. In November 1974 the Urban County Council voted to back the LCC plan to acquire the land it needed, setting off three years of protests, acrimonious public meetings, and lawsuits. Ultimately the South Hill residents and their allies lost, the neighborhood was demolished, the residents were relocated, and Rupp Arena got its parking lot. 

Map of a section of Lexington. An area within the map is bordered in red to show the boundaries of South Hill. Those boundaries are West High Street and Versailles Road to the north and west, Pine Street to the south, and Upper Street to the east. Inside the red area is a smaller area marked bordered in blue. It is bounded by West High on the north, Poplar Street on the west, West Maxwell on the South, and Broadway on the east. ,

The map above shows, in red, what we think were the boundaries of South Hill (it's a bit ambiguous). The area bounded in blue is the area that was demolished in the late 1970s. 

The various shadings on the left-hand map show that both White and African American people lived in the area.  The crosshatched block west of Broadway was 119% African American, the dotted block west of that was 2049% African American, and the small solid black area was 90100% African American. The unshaded areas were all White. The map is from the 1939 WPA Real Property Survey, with highlighting added.

Map of the same area as in the previous map, showing that most of the blue-bordered section from the previous map has become the Rupp Area parking lot.

The section marked in purple in the above map is the Rupp Arena parking lot. Across West High street, marked with a red X, is Rupp Arena.

At the time of the 1970 census, the affected area was still home to both White and Black people. The blocks that had been mostly White were still mostly White, but the block that had been 2049% African American was now almost 75% African American. According to the 1970 census, about 580 people lived in the blocks that were later demolished. They all had to relocate.

The map is from LFUCG GIS MapIt! with highlighting added.

There is now no South Hill neighborhood west of South Broadway. The former South Hill section that includes Merino and Madison Place is now called Woodward Heights and is a Historic District.  

The demolition of western South Hill was not a slum clearance project. The neighborhood was modest, but it was by no means a slum. In fact, a 1971 Planning Commission study of Irishtown, Davistown, and South Hill had found that "Davistown/South Hill has 67% of its 461 residential structures in a sound structural condition, with only 7.6% dilapidated." The study went on to say that most of the dilapidated and deteriorating housing was concentrated in Davistown, not South Hill (Lexington-Fayette County Planning Commission 1971).

Lexington's Federally Supported Urban Renewal Attempts

When the federal government initiated its Urban Renewal program in the early 1950s, Lexington was eager to take advantage of it. Across roughly 20 years, city officials attempted four federally supported Urban Renewal projects: two in Pralltown, one in the East End, and one in the central business district. Black residents led successful opposition efforts to the first Pralltown project and the East End project. As it turned out, the only project that was completed "took place in the city’s central business district, rather than in a marginalized residential area" (Appler and Riesenweber 2020, 167).

Brief descriptions for each of Lexington's federally funded Urban Renewal initiatives follow just below. 

Pralltown. This small community became home to recently freed African American people in 18681877, when Lexington lawyer John Prall sold lots in a flood-prone area on Nicholasville Road. By 1940, Pralltown included more than 200 homes. Major league baseball player Lou Johnson has Pralltown roots; a street and park are named for him. 

Pralltown residents have fought to preserve and improve their neighborhood through much of its existence. After several decades most houses needed repair, and with Lexington growing, the Pralltown land held appeal to the University of Kentucky, the College of the Bible, and private developers. In the early 1950s, city officials chose Pralltown for the city's first federally funded Urban Renewal program. Sustained, strong opposition from residents, combined with the city's failure to develop adequate relocation options, caused this effort to fall through. 

Pralltown residents themselves initiated a second attempt at using federal Urban Renewal funds to redevelop their neighborhood in ways that would make it serve their needs better. Between 1968–1974, residents worked with the University of Kentucky's School of Architecture on a plan for improving many aspects of their neighborhood, to be funded by federal Urban Renewal funds. This project produced some small changes but eventually was abandoned because federal Urban Renewal funding came to an end. 

Today, commercial landlords own much of the housing in Pralltown. University of Kentucky students occupy many of the available rental spaces, challenging the capacity of remaining neighbors to maintain the distinctive character of their neighborhood. Read more about Pralltown here.

East End:  The Short Street Project. In 1960, local government officials in Lexington proposed an Urban Renewal project for 76 acres north of East Main. The proposed changes included clearing land and improving streets.

Most residents of the targeted area were Black, and most opposed the project. The League of Women Voters carried out a study that concluded with a call for delay while a complete plan could be developed. Many White leaders and decision-makers, including newspaper editorial writers, supported the Urban Renewal project, arguing that it would be good for business and reduce financial drains on the city, and that some way would be found to accommodate the housing needs of the people to be displaced. 

Opponents of the proposal collected more than 3,000 signatures on a petition aimed at stopping the project. In 1964, the Lexington Board of City Commissioners, having first denied a request for a city-wide referendum on the East End Urban Renewal project, changed course and approved the referendum. Voters voted two to one against the project. 

We provide more detail here.

Eastern South Hill loses historic structures. After the first two Urban Renewal attempts failed, the city initiated a new project in 1965, focused on the downtown area including Main, Vine, and High Streets. Unlike other Urban Renewal projects described here, this one did not affect a low-income neighborhood, but rather a group of historic structures. The City proposed to use federal Urban Renewal funds to remove the railroad tracks that ran along Vine Street, remove or rehabilitate substandard structures in the project area, and add downtown office and retail space. Some of the buildings slated for demolition included historic structures on High Street between Upper and Mill. Over several years the South Hill Neighborhood Association and other groups litigated and negotiated with the city, but by early 1970 all but one of the buildings were demolished. This project constitutes Lexington's only completed use of federal Urban Renewal funds to make big changes in the city, and in this case, although buildings were torn down, the demolition did not substantially impact a Black or low income neighborhood. 

The surviving building, the Adam Rankin House—thought to be the oldest house in Lexington—was moved to Mill Street. While this initiative led to loss of several buildings, the five-year effort led to an unintended consequence: the strengthening of Lexington's historic preservation organizations.