Urban renewal began as part of the Public Works Administration in the 1930’s to help spur growth in the economy during The Great Depression. Many civil rights advocates accused the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) for “red-lining:” denying loans to those who wanted to live within certain areas of a city that planning councils had decided were not part of their planned growth. The United States Housing Authority (USHA) provided funds to local governments to raze city slums and build public housing.
After World War II Congress passed the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act (1949), which offered federal funding for loans for private homes, but for providing funds to local governments to rejuvenate commercial businesses as well. This infusion of federal funds depended on the local and state government decisions — made of course, by all-White assemblies (and appointed committees) — and almost always negatively affected areas highly populated by minorities, leading ultimately to urban decay.
The general hope was that with government power to clear “undesirable” areas of the inner city, many people who were leaving the inner city for the comfort and convenience of suburbia would come back to the urban areas to work, live, and spend money. By the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s, city planners and politicians across the entire nation, including Lexington, explored various models of urban renewal.
Nestled into the north-eastern sector of the city of Lexington, the area (now Martin Luther King Jr. Neighborhood) was an initial prospect of city officials and politicians as a candidate for urban renewal. The proposed plan was to offer some compensation for destroying the businesses and homes in that area with a “redevelopment” of a residential area further north and outside the area targeted for the auto-friendly “drive in” commercial site.
With businesses of their own and the likes of a well-knit community where the local members walked to nearby gathering spots, it is confusing why this area was slated for such a project. The reasons cited by city officials and planners are listed in design plans and analyses of the Lexington-Fayette county Planning Commission of the 1960’s. Some reasons included in these reports are “land use confusion”, circulation congestion”, along with surveys of aesthetics, utilities, and structure quality. It is no surprise that when conducting such a report why this neighborhood scored so low in most of these categories.
The reason for such a low scoring evaluation can be blamed on areas with predominately African-American populations like this area not receiving adequate funding from the federal government that would help maintain the neighborhood. With a sufficient lack of funds and the added burden of an already declining urban core, this part of Lexington had very few ways to improve the infrastructure of its neighborhood. Because of segregation, most residents could neither move to a suburban neighborhood, nor qualify for loans to improve their existing conditions. As we were told in the oral histories, residents of this area felt that if they accepted urban renewal, most would be displaced or even homeless. Adequate housing for all was not provided in the plan nor would urban renewal revitalization allow those who had businesses in the once condemned area stay since the prices would rise to a point to which they could no longer afford.
However, one major grading component that city planners overlooked was community life. A sense of identity and the way in which the community was organized through outlets such as the Shiloh Baptist Church, the Charles Young Community Center, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) kept the neighbortwhood together and provided a belief that building a community on a foundation of unity, equality, and virtue could be stronger than a neighborhood renovated out of steel and concrete. (NOTE: Urban renewal projects included this neighborhood in later years, including the building of a four lane expansion of Rose Street parallel to Deweese Street that became Elm Street.
The remaining structures in this area were inventoried in 2009 in relationship to their value circa 1965. See the excerpted report by the LFUCG Division of Historic Preservation in a .pdf file uploaded here. The Bluegrass Trust developed a podcast on the historic value of the homes in the Constitution Street area, including several buildings along East Third Street.