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Frustration remains decades after Roanoke’s urban renewal projects

Hundreds of homes were bought and destroyed to make room for Interstate 581

ROANOKE, Va. – This article is a continuation of a previous piece published in August focusing on the lasting effects of urban renewal on Roanoke’s Black community.

Throughout history, urban renewal in Roanoke, in many cases, meant splintering that community.

It certainly meant moving it from Gainsboro and the other surrounding areas, now thought of as downtown Roanoke.

Many people who are still alive continue to feel the pain of being uprooted by those urban renewal projects.

WSLS 10 archival film footage shows Roanoke firefighters learning to fight flames in one of the hundreds of homes condemned by the city in the name of urban renewal.

Though those houses had been condemned to make way for the interstate and would eventually be leveled, it was still painful for those who once lived in them to see the blazes.

The fires and acquisition of the homes through eminent domain were part of the inevitable march of progress, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t sting.

A sound bite from Roanoke Mayor Willis Anderson shown on grainy black-and-white footage in the early 1960s shows him describing the need to “develop property to its highest and best use,” referring to the need to make way for Interstate 581.

In his view, the “best use” was not the poor, mostly-Black neighborhoods that existed in those locations.

They produced little tax revenue for the city and many felt the run-down homes made a poor welcome mat for downtown visitors.

In some cases, news footage shows houses being moved.

In Roanoke, an entire cemetery, containing more than 1,000 bodies, was relocated.

And most often, the city, by way of eminent domain, forced homeowners to sell and then leveled entire neighborhoods.

“Urban renewal just came in with a sledgehammer,” said Dr. Reginald Shareef, a Radford University professor with a Ph.D. in public administration from Virginia Tech.

Shareef grew up in Roanoke and later researched the impact on Roanoke’s urban renewal project, publishing the book, “An Evaluation of the Impact of Federal Urban Renewal and Redevelopment Programs on Three Roanoke, VA Neighborhoods” in 1992.

“So who are the losers? The losers are the residents,” Shareef said.

See John’s full conversation with Dr. Shareef:

Watch John Carlin's complete interview with Dr. Shareef

Shareef said the city paid below market value for the homes, making it difficult, expensive, and in some cases, impossible for people to purchase new homes.

“Had the city come in and paid just compensation for these houses and not put people in such dire economic straits to try to go to another neighborhood and have less money to try to buy a new house, the psychological social impacts of urban renewal wouldn’t have been as bad as they were,” explained Shareef.

“We have been given a dirty deal. I hope that the people of Roanoke, if they come up with any new plans, that they will reject plans for any other clean-up in the city of Roanoke,” said Roanoke resident Eugene Brown in an archived interview from the early 1960s.

Claudia Whitworth, 93, still publishes the African American paper the Roanoke Tribune, but years ago the paper’s headquarters were bulldozed without notice.

“The phone rang at 8 o’clock the next morning and said you know they are bulldozing the Tribune. And I went flying down there. Everything was laying across the side. The whole building. There was no building at all, I lost everything,” Whitworth said. “It’s like you were dead and just looking at a nightmare.”

“Even today people in those communities affected are still angry. I mean they are really, really angry,” Shareef said.

Today, Roanokers see the Berglund Center, the main post office, Interstate 581 and even the expanded Coca–Cola plant, but we don’t see the pent-up frustration created decades ago when those projects were undertaken.

About the Author:

John Carlin co-anchors the 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts on WSLS 10.