Creating a New Segregation

The Valentine Richmond History Center is to be commended for its new exhibit that opened April 4, “Battle for the City: The Politics of Race 1950s-1970s.” This modest show (the size of one big room), has the usual materials – a Ku Klux Klan robe, pictures of sit ins by young African-Americans and displays of school segregation.

What’s truly interesting in the show is that it takes pains to explain how the most densely populated and, in some cases, the most culturally rich African-American neighborhoods were ripped apart by new toll roads planned by the white establishment because that was the trend in land use planning (or “human settlement patterns” if you are so inclined).

As many as 7,000 African-Americans – 10 percent of the city’s total black population –were forced from their homes from 1955 to 1957 to make way for the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike, now Interstate 95. The Downtown Expressway forced another 900 mostly black residents from their homes later.

To be sure, building big new expressways in city centers was the favorite mode for land use planning at the time. But it served to re-segregate Richmond, foster unwieldy suburban sprawl and exacerbate racial tensions that are still being felt today. See column “Creating a New Segregation.”

Peter Galuszka

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


  1. This is a must-see exhibit for thinking Richmonders, though much of it is hear-breaking. Looking at images of the support columns of the “Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike Connector” reminded me of marching invaders coming to destroy the city.

    Fact is, two separate public referenda opposed the building of that ditch but then-powerful Main Street businesspeople in league with politcians formed a turnpike “authority.”

    This appointed entity, involving no planners or architects, simply drew a line on a map and let loose the bulldozers.

    So, I-95 motorists were spared 10 minutes, maybe, and Shockoe was compromised, downtown shaved off and Jackson Ward brutalized.

    Likewise, an “authority” was devised to create the later RMA, built to get suburbanites into the city, and again over public objections. The Tidewater Connector Locks, Oregon Hill, Randolph and venerable trees and peace and quiet in Byrd Park were sacrificed for convenience sake.

    Specialists knew even then that this was a mistake; heck, even Harlan Bartholomew in the city’s first master plan (1948) warned against trying to compete with the suburbs as a race the city couldn’t win, and Richmond would go broke trying.

    In the top five public policy disasters of 20th century Richmond, this these are at least items four and five, behind Jim Crow, the 1970 annexation of Chesterfield, and allowing the streetcar system to die.

    Just when that service was needed most in 1949, and deserving of modernization and extension,it was ripped up, paved over and shoed into a Wagnerian pyre by the overwhelming forces of provincialism and socio-economic fear, paranoia and insularity.

    Thus, Richmond was deprived of transit-directed-development, instead of the painful reverse (that benefits only developers). In a city fond of celebrations, had transit been revamped not destroyed, the Richmond system would be having its 120th anniversary in 2008.

    We cannot even begin to conceive of how different Richmond would be today if we’d retained and built upon what already existed.

    And, further, how would things have been different if Oliver Hill had chosen to run again for Council, after his defeat when he tried a second term?

  2. The Logician Avatar
    The Logician

    Before I go any further, let me first say to Mr. Galuzka and HEK that I agree. With most of this. Race did play an important role in the planning process, and the formation of the Turnpike Authority was likely flawed. However…

    Before taking this as another opportunity to pile on Richmond’s (well-earned) reputation for racially divisive history, put this in the proper historical context. No, not a racial context, but a highway planning context.

    50+ years ago, when the FHWA enacted Eisenhower’s visionary interstate system, the prevalent and preferred method for reconciling high-density highways with urban areas was central artery and beltway. “Slash and bypass” as I like to call it. A 295/495-ish highway to let tractor trailers and long distance travelers bypass a city, while letting local traffic into the city center. It’s not just Richmond that cut a highway through the center of a vibrant urban community, it was everyone, everywhere:

    I-90 cuts through the heart of Cleveland, then again through downtown Chicago. I-5 and 10 form a nexus in downtown L.A. I-30 in Dallas, I75/85 in Atlanta. Anyone who reads the news knows what Boston has been doing to fix their central artery problem. Look even at maps of “smaller” cities like Indianapolis, St Louis, and K.C., which were similar in size at the time to Richmond, and you’ll see the same textbook slash/bypass planning.

    Who’s to blame for the selection of which neighborhoods to raze in the name of “progress” though? Well, the FHWA created the master network plan and supplied the bulk of funding, but delegated specific planning to the states. The state DOT’s worried about the hundreds of miles of cross country highway, and left the urban planning to the cities.

    Make no mistake about it, large swaths of land were going to get demoed; eminent domain is in the Constitution for a reason, and in theory this is why. And when you’re a local politician that has to (a) work within a budget, and (b) keep the voting public happy for the sake of reelection, you buy up the land that’s (a) much less valuable, and (b) inhabited by a constituency that doesn’t vote (at that point in history, anyways) and doesn’t give money to campaigns.

    Yes, in Richmond especially, I’m sure race played into it. Classic case of sticking it to the little guy in the name of “progress.” But sad to say it was a political inevitability. And Richmond gets to share this part of history with probably 90% of the medium to large metropolitan areas of the U.S.

    Just my two cents…

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    I found Peter’s account of the Valentine exhibit compelling reading. It reminds us of the evils of an era in which African-Americans were politically and *economically* disenfranchised. Not only were their voting rights infringed upon, not only did they receive second-class educations — phenomena well documented in our histories and popular media — but their property rights were trampled upon. Those interstates and expressways could not have been built without condemnations of real estate on a massive scale. It would be interesting to know how fairly African-Americans were compensated for their property, and how much of their wealth (as little as it was) was transferred to the state.

    Moral of the story: Protection of property rights is a critical defense against tyranny and injustice.

    The other thing that struck me about that story is the way in which the emerging discipline of “urban planning” in the 1950s provided a justification and means for the ruling majority to oppress the minority. Things were bad enough for segregated African-Americans before urban planning came along. The movement to build interstates and freeways, plus the slum-clearance movement (less evident in Richmond than elsewhere) made things far worse. At least under Jim Crow, African-Americans had built relatively stable, viable neighborhoods. Urban renewal shredded even that.

    If we want to trace the origin of the pathologies of American inner cities, I suspect we’d do far better to look at the urban planning atrocities of the 1950s and 1960s that shredded African-American neighborhoods than the supposed impact of slavery.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Dear Mr. Logician,

    Your points on this being a national phenomonon are well taken. You can point to any number of U.S. cities — north, south, east or west — and see similar trends. The Eisenhowever system was rammed through the neighborhoods that were the weakest politically. Residents were there because the sections were the cheapeast and least desirable, thus tended to be near city cores where the planners wanted to roads to go. They were communities, nonetheless.

    The other big phenomenon of the period was “Urban Renewal.” Norfolk, for instance, launched huge urban renewal and slum clearance programs in the 1950s. The result? Poor blacks were simply removed across the river to Portsmouth where many took up subsidized housing in wooden barracks built hurredly in World War II to house shipyard workers. When I was a young police reporter for The Virginian-Pilot I covered many a murder or assault there.

    Even in the small, Eastern where I started my reporting days had its experience. Using Norfolk as an example, that town launched a slum clearance program in the 1950s and 1960s that resulted in public housing. By the early 1970s, when I worked there on summer college breaks, the public housing was mostly black but somewhat integrated.It still stands. One unintended consequence — by creating the public housing (thought to be a good thing at the time), the city helped create a permanent underclass. That’s another story.

    Peter Galuszka

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    i grew up in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The freeways were placed in similar locations there, but class probably played a bigger role than did race. Virtually of the neighborhoods where the in-city freeways were placed were in lower-income areas. Some of these were populated by blacks, but many had large white majorities. But very few homes and businesses displaced were middle or upper income. (Some housing in the inner suburbs was demolished for the freeways.)


  6. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Peter Galuszka:

    From what I have read and seen, the story you tell about Richmond from 1940 to 1960 is true and tragic.

    What also needs to be said is that from before 1900 there were well reasoned arguments against extensive use of the Autonomobile and suggestions that it was no more of a “solution” than the Horse as we point out in PART IV of THE PROBLEM WITH CARS.

    From 1920 on there were vocal critics of the Autonomobile and the tactics of Moses, Bartholomew, Searles and the others. MacKay, Mumford, Bacon (Ed of Philidelphia, not Jim) Passonneau and of course Will Owen.

    The point is that while other places suffered too, Richmond had a choice and chose Harland B. That supports your argument about the objectives of movers and shakers.

    It also needs to be made clear that after 1961 — publication of Jane Jacobs “Death and Life of the Great American City.” — there was no place to hide from reality.

    We read the book while in graduate school and devoted much of our professional effort over the past 43 year to overcoming what had been Business-As-Usual by the likes of Harland, et. al.

    The real question is whay over the past 47 years — let us say up until 8 April 2008 — have Agencies, Enterprises and Institutions in the Richmond New Urban Region (NUR) contiued to act like those 40s and 50s decisions were good ones?

    The majority of the programs, policies, incentives, regulations, and projects in the NUR have contributed to the evolution of settlement patterns that support and rely on these earlier decisions.

    So far no one has found a way to fill in the holes or bridge the gaps.

    The first step is to understand the problem.

    It is New Urban Region wide, and will not be papered over with some nice neo-traditional “mixed use” projects with nice landscaping and outdoor cafes.

    See “The Shape of Richmonds Future” from 16 Feb 2004.


  7. Anonymous Avatar

    “urban planning” is a verb

    “human settlement patters” is noun

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “50+ years ago, when the FHWA enacted Eisenhower’s visionary interstate system, the prevalent and preferred method for reconciling high-density highways with urban areas was central artery and beltway. “Slash and bypass” as I like to call it. A 295/495-ish highway to let tractor trailers and long distance travelers bypass a city, while letting local traffic into the city center. It’s not just Richmond that cut a highway through the center of a vibrant urban community, it was everyone, everywhere:”

    Indeed – and it became one of the more important provisions of NEPA – the Environmental Justice assessment.

    and while we are at it – more than roads – smokestack industries -typically were placed NOT where the better off folks lived downwind..

    In many places, polluting industries were also sited where the economically vulnerable lived.

    Now days.. any proposed road that goes through such areas gets an “official” kiss-of-death.

  9. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    “FHWA enacted Eisenhower’s visionary interstate system, the prevalent and preferred method for reconciling high-density highways with urban areas was central artery and beltway. “Slash and bypass” as I like to call it.”

    Perhaps I need to be more specific:

    What was needed in 1945 was the 1924 “Interregional Highway Plan” by a committee of generals who understood what MacKay was talking about.

    We did not need the 1955 plan supported by GM, et. al. (Stewart Udall in a recent note to his grandchildren appologized for voting for the IH&DA.)

    What we needed in the 50s and 60s were more urban roadways designed by Joe Passonneau and none designed by the VPI / BPR engineers withwhom I worked in the summer of 1955.

    What is important now is a design of human settlement patterns that does not rely on Large, Private Vehicles.


Leave a Reply