Lexington's Failed East End (or Short Street)
Urban Renewal Project
Urban Renewal Project
Planning for a federally funded Urban Renewal project in Lexington's East End began in 1959. In August 1960, the city announced its intentions to seek federal urban renewal funds for 76 acres in the East End, on and near Short Street. The federal government approved this plan in 1961, and Lexington leaders created a new Urban Renewal Agency to implement it. Katherine T. Jones describes the plan and the actions leading up to it on pages 87–91 of her 2003 PhD dissertation, "Envisioning the East End: Planning, Representation, and the Production of Urban Space in Lexington, Kentucky."
Black residents whose homes and businesses would be affected by the project objected immediately and persistently, arguing against the loss of their homes and neighborhood. They fought against the destruction of the locale where they lived, played, shopped, and worshipped, and where their community of connections sustained them. Katherine T. Jones, who interviewed some residents for her dissertation, identifies the distance between the views of those who lived in the proposed demolition area and those who advocated for carrying out the project:
One resident, who grew up in the neighborhood during those years described Deweese Street as a vibrant economic community with barbershops, funeral homes, and small stores (Foster 1998 [interview]). The neighborhood retained a small, cohesive community feel, with its own groceries, schools and churches. Another resident who moved to the neighborhood in the 1970s described it as having some buildings in disrepair, but nonetheless still full of character and identity. ( Jones 2003, 56)
Despite the residents’ feelings about Deweese Street, planners in Lexington took a different view of the neighborhood. In 1975, they prepared a report on the East End that surveyed Deweese Street and what they described as the neighborhood’s “poor” conditions. (Lexington Department of Parks, Housing and Community Development 1975, "Interim Report on Lexington's Low Standard Areas")
According to this report, only four percent of the dwelling units in the neighborhood were in “sound” condition, while some fifty-five percent were classified as “deteriorating.” Thirty-eight percent were considered “dilapidated.” While these figures seem quite high, they are also instructive because they demonstrate how the planners saw the neighborhood at that time, in contrast to how the residents saw it. (Jones 2003, 56-57)
East End residents had no trust in the urban renewal process, and little inclination to believe the reassurances city officials provided that all would be well after their neighborhood underwent massive change. Opponents highlighted the city's lack of genuine plans for re-housing residents in acceptable new locations. The League of Women Voters conducted an urbanization study that pointed out the lack of plans for displaced residents as one of several factors that led it to recommend the city delay implementation and develop a plan (League of Women Voters of Lexington 1975).
On June 13, 1963, a front page Lexington Herald story, headlined "Exploitation Charged Growing From Renewal," opened in this way:
Negro residents of the area proposed for Lexington's first urban renewal project have been exploited by unscrupulous real estate people and there is much frustration and unrest in the area, it was charged here yesterday. These claims were made by the Rev. H. E. Nutter, Negro, member of the Citizens Advisory Committee, and by Mrs. George Johnson, Negro, member of the Lexington Urban Renewal Agency, at a City Hall meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee appointed by Mayor Richard Colbert. Nutter told the group that "unscrupulous real estate people go to people's houses (in the urban renewal area) at night and pressure and panic the people there." (Galloway June 13,1963)
Rev. Nutter also presented community concerns about information that city leaders were themselves planning to build housing, saying it seemed a little "underhanded." City officials denied that their planned investments in housing were related to the proposed East End urban renewal project.
The story quotes Mrs. Johnson, the sole Arican American member of the new Urban Renewal Agency, at length.
"If you're really interested," she appealed to the committee, "go build a subdivision for Negroes and the Negroes will buy it. . . . If you want to help, see that the citizens are treated fairly. We're not going to relocate people on Maple Avenue or Walnut Street. We're not going to buy those big old houses because, if we do, in a few years they'll come through here and say that's a blighted area and tear it down." (Galloway June 13,1963)
Segregation meant that Black people whose homes were taken had few or no options for resettlement nearby. Lexington simply had insufficient housing for displaced people. In the case of the proposed East End project, as in similar proposed projects, urban renewal proponents seem never to have formed serious and workable plans for re-housing people who would be displaced.
On December 13, 1963, the Lexington Herald published a lengthy article by reporter Juliet Galloway about a meeting of the City Commissioners, at which urban renewal occupied significant time. Galloway described the late stages of decision-making about whether to submit the urban renewal project to the public in a referendum, a decision ultimately made at a later meeting. During the December 13 meeting, Mr. William Caulder, an advocate and representative for residents at risk of being removed from their homes and neighborhood, asked, "Where are the houses for the Negro? If you want urban renewal, you've got to open this town . . . open the hearts . . . got to find some place for a man to live" (Galloway December 13, 1963).
The next four paragraphs of the story are worth reading in their entirety, as Galloway reported on a remarkable example of the bind segregation placed on Lexington, and the response one official makes:
Caulder, who said his attitude toward urban renewal was governed by the residents he represents, reported that on Maple Avenue, "just opened up, Negroes are stacked on top of each other, with five or six families living in about six rooms."
He added, "It's a sin and a shame they have to be stacked up like that. There should be a law against it. It's not healthy. Wise people wouldn't want it. I'm not saying it (urban renewal area) doesn't need cleaning up, but you've got to open up."
Robert Featherston, chairman of the Urban Renewal Agency, stated, "there is more than adequate housing, but they wish other housing."
And, he asserted that our city is "an innocent victim of the nationwide press for civil rights. . . an obvious attempt to use the urban renewal issue as a wedge to get open occupancy throughout the city." He added that the federal government does not provide the agency with the solution asked by the residents. (Galloway December 13, 1963)
Note that, in fact, the federal government required that any urban renewal program must develop and receive approval for "a workable program" that includes plans for re-housing displaced residents.
On the other hand, many White leaders, including newspaper editorial writers, supported the East End/Short Street urban renewal plan. They argued that "clearing" the area would be good for business. They appealed to Black residents to believe that adequate and appropriate alternative housing would be located for them. The urban renewal proponents "emphasized the high social and economic costs of slum areas, and the poor downtown façade these areas displayed to the outside world" (Jones 2003, 90). According to Stacy Freed, whom Dr. Jones quotes, the Urban Renewal Agency director also reiterated these assertions, claiming that "areas such as Deweese Street represented a continuous social and financial drain" (Freed, 1983, 23).
In spite of demands from the neighborhood association, seconded by a League of Women Voters study, to slow the process down and make a fully developed plan, city officials refused.
Opponents to the plan, with the support of some business leaders and others who objected to the planned public investment of funds, collected petitions signed by more than 3,000 Lexingtonians. In 1964, after having initial requests refused, opponents of the East End urban renewal project convinced the Lexington Board of City Commissioners to hold a public referendum on the proposed project. Voters defeated the proposed plan by a two-to-one margin.
While the referendum ended attempts to carry out federally supported urban renewal in Lexington's East End, many public or public-private efforts to change the neighborhood followed, and continue to the present time. The most significant of these include a multi-part redevelopment project that implemented the 1983 East End Neighborhood Development Plan.
The redevelopment project mostly demolished Deweese Street and built a four-lane road north from Rose Street and East Main. Other investments included improving sidewalks, sewers, curbs and gutters in several neighborhoods using Community Development Block Grant funds (1975-1990); and city acquisition and funding for renovating and expanding the historic Lyric Theatre. The East End Neighborhood Development Plan also set in motion the suburban-style redevelopment of the former Kinkeadtown area, a former urban Black community that occupied land along what is now both sides of the 400 block of Elm Tree Lane.
During the 2020s, some parts of the East End are experiencing speculative buying and "flipping" of houses, as well as an ongoing influx of White homeowners interested in the affordable, sturdy structures along East Fourth Street, Johnson Avenue, Rand, Engman, and 500 block of Elm Tree Lane. With rare exceptions, Black home-buyers have not been purchasing houses in the East End in this period.