The Role of Race and Money in Harrisonburg's 'Urban Renewal'

Feb 12, 2020

Lowell and Ruth Toliver. Lowell's childhood home in Harrisonburg was destroyed as part of urban renewal projects in the 1950s and '60s.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

In Part One of this report, Harrisonburg resident Ruth Toliver recalled when her husband’s childhood home on Myrtle Street was destroyed as part of urban renewal projects in the 1950s and ‘60s.  Many homes in the predominantly African-American neighborhood were destroyed, and families uprooted.  Some never came back. In this second report, WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi explores the legacy of that project, more than 50 years later.

The Toliver family had to take out a mortgage to build a new home on Myrtle Street, because the compensation they received for their Mason Street house was insufficient to replace it. Some families moved into apartments that the housing authority had built precisely for the people they were displacing, according to a News Leader article from 1961. Other families left the area entirely. Karen Thomas, president and founder of the Northeast Neighborhood Association, grew up in Grottoes, hearing her family’s stories of leaving Harrisonburg.

Karen Thomas is president and founder of the Northeast Neighborhood Association. She provided this photo, taken at the historic Dallard-Newman House and Museum in the Northeast Neighborhood.
Credit Karen Thomas

KAREN THOMAS: They talked about it a lot, and cried about it, and you know, it was just a very sad thing. It was so hurtful, to displace so many people and to uproot these people and for them not to know where they were going to go, what they were going to do with their families. It was just a tragedy, it was just so, it was an injustice.

All told, 32 ½ acres in the R-4 area were redeveloped. According to a report from the Superintendent of Public Works, around 1965, that area previously brought in $7,000 in annual taxes to the city. Years later, the Daily News-Record reported that by 1976, that area was bringing in almost $45,000 annually on that 32 ½ acres and the nearby 7 ½ acre R-16 plot.

THOMAS: Someone needs to be held accountable for what happened to this neighborhood. And to be held accountable, I mean to help this neighborhood, to invest in this neighborhood. … I think there’s so much, there’s so much rich history in this community, and so many things that could enhance the community.

How many families this displaced is a matter of question. The Public Works document from 1965 says 93 families; the News Leader article says 148; and a Daily News-Record article from 1978 claims “almost 200.”

Michael Wong is the current head of Harrisonburg's Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

MICHAEL WONG: It’s been a challenging legacy to deal with in my career here as executive director.

Michael Wong has been the head of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority for about 20 years.

WONG: Reviewing the minutes and the historical documents that the authority has, it was really an initiative that came up from the city planning, which the planning director … saw this funding available, and the opportunity to enhance the downtown area. The Main Street-Mason Street corridor specifically. In addition to that, there was some identified blight and blighted properties that they saw they could help in regards to addressing infrastructure: sidewalks, sewer, water in this section of town.

He acknowledges that, according to their records, some of the redeveloped properties could be called “blighted,” and some could not.

WONG: If you look at the economic cost, clearly the land in this area was probably less of a price than other areas. Was that specifically driven by racial focus? I can’t tell you that.

According to “Remembering Project R4,” an article by Lauren McKinney published in the October 2000 issue of the magazine eighty one, Harrisonburg made $500,000 by selling the property to developers, making it [quote] “one of only two ‘profitable’ redevelopment schemes in the state of Virginia.”

The very first building erected on the razed property was an ABC store, according to a Daily News-Record story from 1962. Over time, that was followed by what is now the Rockingham County Administration Center, Rose’s department store, the Elizabeth Street parking garage, and other nearby businesses and parking lots. Toliver says that many of those who lived through Project R-4 have either passed away or left the area.

TOLIVER: What was home is gone. And there’s still a lot of bitterness. But it’s, it’s just not Harrisonburg anymore.

As she puts it in Keeping Up With Yesterday, there was a quality of community in the neighborhood that many feel was never regained after urban renewal.

TOLIVER: There was a strong sense of community with neighbors looking out for each other. … Nobody went hungry; nobody wanted for the basics in life; children were rarely left uncared for. If someone in the community could not pay rent for a month, neighbors chipped in and helped out. There was an altruistic sense of loyalty and respect that can only be described as innate.