Mike Martin, a Columbia resident and science journalist, can be reached at Mike.martin@weeklyscientist.com

Mike Martin, a Columbia resident and science journalist, can be reached at Mike.martin@weeklyscientist.com

I’ll never forget what Almeta Crayton told me standing outside St. Francis House one afternoon.

The First Ward Columbia city councilwoman and I were looking at a long-empty eyesore across the street: a little brick building called the Heibel-March Store, which was jointly owned by two public agencies.

I asked Almeta why one of the owners, the City of Columbia, would let this officially designated Notable Historic Property sit and decay for over a decade.

“That’s the whole point,” she answered. “Let the neighborhood blight out, then take it. They did it before, and they’ll do it again.”

I later learned that “they” were a group of citizens called the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA), created about 50 years ago to “redevelop” the Flat Branch Creek area and 126 acres around Douglass High School in central Columbia.

Ostensibly empowered to clear blighted shantytowns and urban slums, the quasi-governmental authority made liberal use of eminent domain, a powerful tool that allows government to take land from private citizens for public use and “fair” compensation.

But “fair” is in the eye of the beholder. By enabling a massive land transfer from the black community to the white community, the Authority interrupted a well-trod path to prosperity -land ownership – for a beleaguered group of citizens who 90 years earlier had loosed the shackles of slavery.

It also widened a racial rift that festers in Columbia to this day.

With such an inauspicious history, it seems surprising that the Authority might come back. But members of the Downtown Leadership Council have discussed just such a possibility, against a backdrop of eminent domain’s widely drubbed encore, as a way to secure land for a new Missouri State Historical Society museum.

Minutes from the Downtown Leadership Council’s Nov. 25, 2008, meeting show Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said the group reviewed “the authority of the LCRA, (Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority). Community anxiety discussed regarding land clearance.”

Show Me Blight

A creature unique to Missouri statutes – RSMo 99.320 to 99.330 – a Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority lurks in every community, quietly awaiting activation by vote of a “governing body,” be it a city council, or, oddly enough, a Housing Authority.

Activating an authority requires meeting two legal tests:

  • That one or more blighted, or unsanitary, areas exist.
  • That the redevelopment of an area is necessary for the health, safety, morals or welfare of the residents.

Intentional or not, the first test creates an incentive for development-hungry public officials to “blight out” desirably located neighborhoods, often through deliberate neglect. Since no “absolute” definition of blight is possible, the law assumes that officials will know it when they see it – or when they help create it.

And since “morals” aren’t intrinsic to land, but to the people who own it, showing that landowners in the path of eminent domain are somehow immoral – shiftless and lazy, for instance – presumably meets the second test. The law, therefore, encourages unfortunate stereotypes that can become a permanent part of a community’s racial, cultural, and economic dialogue.

A Sharp End

As recently as the late 1950s, businesses and restaurants catering almost exclusively to Columbia’s black community stretched along Walnut between Fourth and Fifth streets.

For entertainment, black entrepreneurs formed the Sharp End, a collection of pool halls, nightclubs and a movie theater that flourished amidst segregation: blacks weren’t welcome in white-owned establishments.

Except for work, “black people hardly went past Eighth Street,” 81-year-old lifelong Columbia resident Sehon Williams said in a 2004 interview.

Missouri, after all, had been a slave-holding state, and an entrenched class system made equal economic progress a slow march in the black community. Nonetheless, land ownership – vital to American prosperity – had become an essential part of that progress. Freed slaves settled the hardscrabble, poorly drained land around the growing downtown area that white residents had ignored.

But then the community grew, and they couldn’t ignore it anymore.

Failing twice at the polls in 1952, an ordinance to create an authority passed in April 1956, on the heels of a federal government “urban renewal” push and public housing construction binge.

Columbia’s first Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority met that June, and for the next 10 years condemned mostly black-owned land all around the central city, paying about 50 cents on the dollar, according to Authority appraisal records.

The consolation prize: cheap public housing. Land clearance had taken the land, and a housing authority would rent it back.

PART 2: Urban renewal, but for whom?

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