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

In the 1950s and 1960s, a peculiar creature of Missouri state law, a Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA), used eminent domain to force the sale of hundreds of acres of now-prime downtown Columbia real estate on the cheap.

Much of it was sold by black folks, and most of it was bought by white folks under the guise of “urban renewal.” To this day, the transferred land represents a watershed wedge in local race relations.

To many readers, it may seem surprising that such a thing might be reincarnated. But to public officials who see an LCRA as the ultimate power play, the only surprise will be for unsuspecting landowners. This time, they will be mostly white.

Blight Fright

Two misconceptions have long held about Columbia’s urban renewal push: that “slum clearance” was the main goal and that black folks owned the slums. In reality, white landlords owned many of the shacks and shanties that dotted places like Cemetery Hill, and with those shanties hundreds of well-kept, black-owned homes and businesses also met the wrecking ball.

According to a 1956 Missourian story, Columbia’s first LCRA recommended “land clearance and rehabilitation” for Cemetery Hill around the Columbia Cemetery; and a second district, “Douglass School,” 16 blocks bounded by Walnut, Pendleton, First and Seventh streets. A third district, Flat Branch, would be similarly cleared about 25 years later.

Then as now, the all-important first step was identifying “blight,” and giving the LCRA a righteous nickname.

“Columbia’s Slum Clearance Authority voted last night to apply for federal funds to use for financing a survey of the city’s blighted areas,” the Missourian reported 53 years ago. “The survey would be the first step in the lengthy procedure of land clearance and eventually a housing authority.”

A key piece in the resettlement puzzle, a housing authority was necessary because banks wouldn’t lend displaced black residents money to buy houses in the only livable neighborhoods left after land clearance: white neighborhoods.

The largest black business district, Sharp End, gradually fell to the Columbia Daily Tribune and Tribune Publishing Company; the Columbia Housing Authority; parking lots; and a new downtown post office, leased to the postal service and owned to this day by river shipping magnate Ray Eckstein, who recently gave $51 million to Marquette University law school.

In the end, land clearance turned an entire generation of black homeowners into public housing renters and put an entire generation of black business owners out of business.

Ol’ Clark

Local historian Bill Clark has written volumes about the double edges of land clearance.

He’s written about white folks like former Columbia City Manager Leo Hill and Mayor Howard Lang Jr., who established the city’s first LCRA and the Columbia Housing Authority.

He’s written about black folks like Sehon Williams, who remembers the days “before land clearance…forever changed the social fabric of both the Douglass community and the families who had lived there since Reconstruction.”

And Clark wrote about how “Land Clearance not only turned Sharp End into a parking lot and a post office, but also brought about the end of Emancipation Day,” a holiday “Gary Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri and a noted researcher of black history in Missouri,” said was rooted in slavery’s abolition.

That’s the same Gary Kremer who recently advocated re-establishing an LCRA and using eminent domain for a new State Historical Society headquarters downtown.

So much for the lessons of history.

End game

On the next-to-last page of a fanciful-sounding September 2008 report to the Columbia City Council – Columbia “Town to Gown” Redevelopment Framework – Spectrum Consulting describes what it calls the Next Step in chillingly brief PowerPoint-ese.

At the top of the page: LCRA Re-establishment.

The report urges council members to “convey power” and “appropriate budgets” for “land assemblage.” It ticks off a “to-do” list: “solicit developers,” survey “blight.” “LCRA” appears on every third line, along with TIF and other redevelopment acronyms that have recently come to pass.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that a new Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority is the end game in all this redevelopment hullabaloo, which has recently cast overpriced downtown land as blighted and the District’s hyper-competitive business environment as teetering on collapse.

Local newspapers are even playing along, most recently casting redevelopment as a bizarre panacea to the presence of our biggest economic generators: non-taxpaying entities like the University of Missouri and Stephens College that apparently own so much land downtown they’re choking the community.

The whole business is as absurd as it was last time.

“By the mid-1960s, I was convinced Columbia would always be a model for other communities to copy,” Bill Clark wrote in one of his land clearance stories. “It hasn’t worked out that way.”

No, it certainly hasn’t. Again, so much for the lessons of history.

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