In Harrisonburg, reconnecting Northeast will help heal urban renewal’s old wounds

September 22, 2023 12:37 am

This map shows the area where the City of Harrisonburg undertook urban renewal projects in the 1960s, effectively cutting off the majority-Black Northeast neighborhood from the city’s downtown. (City of Harrisonburg)

Before 1960, Harrisonburg’s Northeast neighborhood was a vibrant, predominantly Black community filled with homes, businesses and families striving toward a brighter future during the height of America’s Civil Rights Movement. 

But starting in the 1960s, the dreams and progress of many of those Northeast families were crushed by the city’s urban renewal projects, which destroyed dozens of Black-owned homes and businesses.

What the all-white city leadership saw as removing blight and improving aesthetic appeal, residents saw as the wholesale demolition of their community. For some, it permanently severed their trust in their hometown government.  

Now, some 50 years later, there’s an opportunity to repair some of the physical and emotional damage, to reconnect Northeast to the city’s downtown and to strengthen the fragile bonds that hold the community together. 

Northeast disconnected

“A lot of times we focus on the homes that were demolished, whereas when I think about urban renewal, it’s about the community and sense of community that was lost,” said Monica Robinson, a Harrisonburg City Council member, Northeast resident and executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project

“Maybe your home wasn’t burned or razed, but by the community changing and other buildings and markers moved, that collective memory and sense of self was lost,” she continued. “Ms. So and So’s house who watched you as a child, the homes of people you knew, that was all lost. … When you lose everything that’s familiar to you, when you lose that sense of safety that allows you to be able to live freely in that area, you don’t have to lose your house to lose everything.”

Robinson is one of the community leaders who will help determine how grant funds from Smart Growth America that are intended to “repair the damage of divisive infrastructure in small and mid-sized cities” will be used. Harrisonburg is one of 15 cities nationwide to be selected for the organization’s Community Connectors program, which will provide money, technical knowledge and other forms of assistance to communities whose transportation and socioeconomic growth has been hindered by past urban renewal projects. 

In Virginia, the specter of government-ordained urban renewal has haunted many communities of color for decades. Richmond’s “Black Wall Street,” Jackson Ward, was split in half by the construction of Interstates 95 and 64 in the 1950s. Charlottesville’s oldest center of Black business and homeownership, Vinegar Hill, was razed to make way for parking lots during the same time period. Roanoke’s Gainsboro neighborhood once brimmed with cultural spaces and homes, until redlining in the 1930s reduced economic investment. It’s a familiar, sad pattern seen not only in Virginia, but across the country. It’s also why the Community Connectors program is so needed and welcome in Harrisonburg.

Eminent domain’s long-ago racism still hinders African Americans today

“I live in Northeast, the same community I grew up in,” said Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed, the first Black woman to inhabit the role. “This was a community that went through the hardships of urban renewal in the 60s.” 

That included the construction of North Mason Street, which is now an infrastructure barrier that separates Northeast from the heart of the city. Harrisonburg’s R-4 Project in the 1960s delineated Northeast — a part of the city bounded by Broad, Johnson, North Main and Rock streets — as blighted and subsequently, under the auspices of eminent domain, tore or burned down homes and businesses there.

I have aunts who remember that time. I remember them talking about the smell of houses burning; it was very traumatic. It is a piece of our history that we've never healed from.

– Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed

With federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city “demolished those homes, just put the people out. Some folks moved away, but some folks moved into what we call the projects,” said Reed, referring to the public housing communities built by the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority in 1955.

Side-by-side aerial images show Harrisonburg in 1937, before the urban renewal projects which destroyed Black homes and businesses and cut off Northeast from downtown, and in the present day. (City of Harrisonburg)

“I have aunts who remember that time. I remember them talking about the smell of houses burning; it was very traumatic. It is a piece of our history that we’ve never healed from,” Reed said. She envisions the Community Connectors grant as a tool for healing those deep wounds. 

The exact scope of the Community Connectors project in Harrisonburg remains to be determined: Its details will be worked out in a process to be led by community groups like the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, the Northeast Neighborhood Association and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance. 

Steve Davis, assistant vice president of transportation strategy at Smart Growth America, said Harrisonburg was selected for the Community Connectors grant from a pool of 80 cities nationwide largely because of its goal to repair harm the city had done to parts of its community by its urban renewal projects.

A major challenge of Community Connector-style projects, which “retrofit, repair, or remove a road or highway, is that they are most often controlled or owned by state departments of transportation, requiring a major amount of cooperation, buy-in, and complexity,” Davis said in an email. “The fact that the city controls the major road in question” made Harrisonburg a great fit for the grant, he continued. “They’ve got a good group of stakeholders involved so they can rebuild trust, engage the community on a forward-looking plan, and then carry it out without needing to bring higher levels of government to the table.”

Harrisonburg Director of Communications Michael Parks said the city’s Department of Public Works applied for the grant and wants to base everything on what the community wants, the opposite mindset of city leadership in the past. 

“We want to go into the community and have these difficult conversations, and help our residents feel comfortable talking with us,” he said. “Maybe the grant funds will allow us to contract with a third-party facilitator to lead those dialogues. Our goal is to try to repair the ruptures between some families and city government as it pertains to history, and whatever the city can do to address those, that’s what we want to do. Those conversations will be the driving force behind what action we take.”

Parks said that in present-day Harrisonburg, the city sees four-lane North Mason Street as “an overbuilt roadway that is a significant barrier between Northeast and downtown. We want people to be able to walk to shops or even City Hall from Northeast, and they can’t do that presently.” 

Possible solutions include creating walking and biking paths to reconnect Northeast to the city’s center. While Parks said the city doesn’t yet know the exact amount of the grant funds, it will be up to $130,000.

Davis added that the grant money is meant to permanently establish the city’s capacity for this project and others of its kind in the future. It can be used for “staff salaries, consultant fees, data collection and analysis, meetings, supplies, funding support for community-based organization participation, initiative-related travel, other direct expenses,” and other costs the city will determine with Smart Growth America. For Harrisonburg and the other 14 cities in the Community Connectors cohort, Smart Growth America will “connect them with resources available in state and federal transportation programs, providing support tailored to each project’s need.”

Harrisonburg is setting an example that other localities in Virginia should follow

It is heartening to see the city take such steps to repair past harms, however overdue. Other cities and towns should take note, if they hope to contribute to the creation of a more equitable commonwealth where everyone’s heritage and identity is honored and respected. It would also be a wise course for cities and counties if they don’t want to repeat the history of officially sanctioned, destructive land use and eminent domain decisions that have harmed Virginians of color for generations — and over which they have prevailed, against all odds.

The next steps for the Community Connectors rollout in Harrisonburg will be a meeting between funders Smart Growth America, Mayor Reed and the community groups, to be held in Atlanta in November. 

The city will seize the chance to move forward, said Reed. 

“This is just a piece of our past that we need to acknowledge, understand and heal from,” she said. “Harrisonburg is a place for everyone; it used to not be that way, but we are now.” 


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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.