Urban Renewal as "Negro Removal": Before Plumley, There was Laurel-Clayton

A boy last week, he was sixteen, in San Francisco, told me on television — thank God we got him to talk — maybe somebody thought to listen. He said, “I’ve got no country. I’ve got no flag.” Now, he’s only 16 years old, and I couldn’t say, “you do.” I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does. They were tearing down his house, because San Francisco is engaging — as most Northern cities now are engaged — in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. It means Negro removal, that is what it means. The federal government is an accomplice to this fact.
— James Baldwin

Imagine a huge bulldozer clearing out whole urban neighborhoods.  Imagine that the federal government has primarily paid for this bulldozer.  The urban renewal goal in the 1950s and 1960s was to clear out “slums” to rejuvenate our cities.  But who defines what is a “slum”?  Real people lived in these neighborhoods slated for destruction.  Real people had homes and businesses, went to school, fell in love and had families in these neighborhoods.  If you want to understand how urban renewal worked in cities across the country, you don’t have to go farther than the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood in Worcester.

Lauren/Clayton was predominantly a working class African American neighborhood adjacent to downtown towards the east side.  Part of the neighborhood was cleared for the highway 290 completed in 1970.  I’m thinking of the anti-freeway organizing slogan of the time describing “white men’s roads through black men’s bedrooms.”  The Worcester Redevelopment Authority took control of another large section of the neighborhood, displacing 225 households so that the State Mutual Insurance Company could then develop the low income housing project, Plumley Village. 

If you want to understand the destructive impact that urban renewal had on the social fabric of living urban neighborhoods, please take the time to watch this 50 minute documentary film below.  This film produced by the State Mutual Insurance Company, the developers of Plumley Village, highlights the whole urban renewal process from informing Laurel/Clayton residents that they had to vacate the neighborhood to organized neighborhood protests to the final development of the project. 

The story in this documentary is riveting!

I was struck by the old woman who is being informed about her future housing options.  She owns her own house in Laurel/Clayton and has paid off her mortgage.  When the developer’s representative tells her the amount of her future rental payments at Plumley Village, she is visibly upset, explaining that her rent amount will be almost the same as her monthly social security.  How then will she pay for food and eat?

The beauty and strength of relationships in the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood is palpable.  Residents had their homes there but there were also many places that served to bring people together in community.  This was a thriving neighborhood with bars, restaurants, a market, a pool room, a barber, a tailor,  its own public bath and even its own school. 

So, this is what became of Laurel/Clayton.  Plumley Village is primarily a single use project providing primarily residential housing.  No longer did residents live in a multi use neighborhood with retail, educational or cultural offerings.

So, this is what became of Laurel/Clayton.  Plumley Village is primarily a single use project providing primarily residential housing.  No longer did residents live in a multi use neighborhood with retail, educational or cultural offerings.

Discussion questions: 

Who decides the development agenda for a neighborhood?  What power should a larger development authority such as the Worcester Redevelopment Authority have had in this project?  What is the role of the people who actually live there in deciding its future development?

The State Mutual Insurance Company director states that this project is in the best interests of the neighborhood and community.  In what ways do you agree or disagree? Did the final outcome (Plumley Village) justify the means (forced removal of residents and the taking over of private properties through the process of eminent domain)?