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Harmful History of Urban Renewal

A view of downtown Roanoke with empty streets and large buildings including one large building in the foreground.
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VPM News Focal Point
Henry St. was once the center of Roanoke’s thriving Black community. Businesses on the street were torn down as part of urban renewal.

Many Roanoke residents are still haunted by their memories of urban renewal. A new development plan is bringing back issues of distrust between the community and city leaders. 

In Roanoke, there are people who lived through urban renewal are still haunted by the memories of what happened to their homes, churches and businesses back in the 50s, 60s and 70s. City leaders oversaw the destruction of these properties in the name of urban renewal.


ADRIENNE McGIBBON: George Riles has fond memories of his early childhood in Northeast Roanoke.

GEORGE RILES (ROANOKE RESIDENT): The neighborhood would come together in the backyard barbecue, especially on fight night.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Northeast had a vibrant Black community filled with churches and hundreds of businesses and homes. But in 1955, city leaders began tearing it all down with the help of federal funding for urban renewal. Over decades, what made up that part of town was wiped away.

GEORGE RILES: Being young, I didn't know what was taking place. I just knew that people was moving. I knew they was tearing their homes, and I knew they was building Lincoln Terrace projects to absorb these people that were moving out.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Riles was in third grade when he and his family were forced to move.

GEORGE RILES: Like I said, they took down churches, they took homes, and when they got to the grave site, they took the graves up. Leaving my mother very disturbed about it because her grave site of my grandfather was dug up, but she never did really find out where her father was buried at.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Nearly 1,000 bodies moved to make room for the new highway. And when the city was done in that part of town, they did the same thing in the places where many of those people had relocated.

MARY BISHOP (FORMER REPORTER, ROANOKE TIMES): It was just mass heartbreak and terrible for people's health. I heard of so many old people who just died, died of heartbreak.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Journalist Mary Bishop covered the story for the Roanoke Times.

MARY BISHOP: They wanted to spruce up how downtowns looked, the approach to downtown. Many of the older white people told me they didn't want them to see Black children sitting on curbs.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Despite outcries from the Black community, city leaders destroyed 1,600 homes, 200 businesses, and 24 churches, all replaced by new roads, the civic center, and the post office. Now, plans to develop the last remaining green space in Roanoke are reopening old wounds and coming right to George Riles's back door.

GEORGE RILES: Oh, Evans Spring. Evans Spring is right behind me.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Evans Spring is 150 acres of undeveloped land in Northwest Roanoke. In March, City Council approved a plan for the area surrounded by predominantly Black neighborhoods. Chris Chittum is leading the project.

CHRIS CHITTUM (EXEC. DIRECTOR, ROANOKE COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT): We're encouraging a mixed-use development bringing retail, restaurant, along with new housing.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: But leaders are facing a backlash from a weary community.

BRENDA HALE (AT HEARING): We stand in opposition of the master plan concerning Evan Springs.

CHRIS CHITTUM: We have documented in the plan how we have heard concerns.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Concerns about the development's environmental impact and about what will happen to the people living around Evans Spring.

CHRIS CHITTUM: We really abhor what happened during urban renewal, and this is not the same thing.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: The city says its plan reflects community concerns, preserving nearly half of the green space, and adjusting traffic routes around existing neighborhoods.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Cam Terry runs Lick Run Farm in Northwest Roanoke.

CAM TERRY (FARMER, LICK RUN FARM): We do a lot under the banner of community building here.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: This three-and-a-half-acre urban farm is half mile downstream of Evan Spring. Terry attended one of the city's community meetings.

CAM TERRY: It's literally the same people looking up and saying, "I remember when this happened 50 or 60 years ago, and we were forced to move. Now they're just going to develop around us and not tell us we have to move but change again everything about the neighborhood that we moved to and have loved since we were forced to come here."

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: At 82, George Riles has lived in his Northwest home for nearly half a century. He acknowledges he may not be able to stop the change.

GEORGE RILES: Ideas, you know, got new ideas,
young ideas and so forth, but sometimes it's nice to hold on to the old sometimes.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: For VPM News, I'm Adrienne McGibbon.

Over the past year, Roanoke city leaders have been drafting a formal apology to present to those uprooted by urban renewal.

Regarding Evans Spring, the city is waiting for developers to submit proposals that meet the requirements set for the area.

Community groups are still working to stop the development.

Virginia Humanities provided research support for this story. Mary Bishop, former Roanoke Times reporter, has written an article about Roanoke’s history of urban renewal, it will be published as part of an Encyclopedia Virginia series on urban renewal in Virginia.

Special thanks to:

Debra Carter, Founder, Roanoke Coalition for Environmental Justice


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