Priscilla Ndiaye was a child in 1970, when thousands of residents of the Southside neighborhood moved their belongings, many by hand, from their homes.
“I still remember dragging the chairs.”
Ndiaye, who’s served as a chair of the Southside Community Advisory Board and researched the area’s history extensively, was nine when the home her family rented was condemned as part of a sweeping “urban renewal” program.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, urban renewal was vigorously pursued in Asheville and cities around the country, aiming to end “blighted” neighborhoods by demolishing homes and local businesses, with promises that things would improve as a result. During these years, housing projects sprung up around Asheville, and many of those displaced by urban renewal ended up there.
Over 1200 homes and businesses in the Southside area where Ndiaye grew up were demolished. Through the decades of urban renewal, highways cut through close-knit neighborhoods on Burton and Hill Street. The East End, a linchpin of local downtown business and homes, was similarly struck (today, a major part of it is the city’s public works building). For detailed accounts of the program’s impact locally, this 2010 issue of Crossroads, from the North Carolina Humanities Council, is essential reading.
While its course was a complicated one, today Asheville’s urban renewal is generally acknowledged as devastating for many involved, especially the city’s African-American population. When the program is referred to in local political discussion today, it’s usually as a wrong to be righted. Asheville City Council justified spending millions on an affordable housing development in Eagle Market street, for example, as a way to start correcting a historic tragedy.
But the history of urban renewal runs far deeper than the bad decisions or misguided urban theories of mid-20th century planners. It was shaped by a 1930s federal program that helped set bigotry into the structure of housing for decades to come, by setting up maps defining desirable areas for investment. If a neighborhood was considered unsuited for investment it was shaded red — or “redlined.”
The criteria these maps used were often blatantly racist, considering neighborhoods risky for little other reason than having a high percentage of minority — especially African-American or Latino — populations. Those living in the redlined areas were often cut off from mortgage loans, or could only get them at exorbitant rates.
Now, a mapping project shines some light on the overlap between these two programs and how their impacts struck Asheville, due to Ndiaye’s extensive research.
Richard Marciano, a professor of information studies at the University of Maryland, formerly of UNC, has worked for years to chart the effects of redlining around the country with the Mapping Inequality project.
Over two years, he cooperated closely with Ndiaye to trace the links between, and impacts of, redlining and urban renewal locally. The project was recently featured in an episode of The State of Things, and Ndiaye’s efforts in Asheville specifically cited as revealing how the impacts of these programs continue to shape cities today. One of the latest versions of the maps includes detailed information for both Asheville and Durham.
When one overlays the maps of the Asheville neighborhoods targeted for urban renewal and those redlined in the 1930s due to their African-American populations, Marciano notes, “it fits like a glove.”