Losing Home: University Expansion

Jun 3, 2021

 

Business area on University Avenue. Photo provided by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

Urban renewal was often framed as the sacrifice of existing -- mostly Black -- neighborhoods for the greater good of the broader community. In Knoxville, that approach to redevelopment has extended beyond urban renewal -- and beyond downtown. A prime example can be found in the expansion of the University of Tennessee in the 1960s, and continued pressure on the neighboring Mechanicsville community.

Yale Avenue Urban Renewal

The Yale Avenue Urban Renewal Project, unveiled in 1962, was a vehicle for the university to double its size. Enrollment had almost doubled in the 1960s, driving the need for more dorms, classrooms and recreational facilities. To build them, 393 families were relocated from 135 acres. The area stretched from Rose Avenue (now Andy Holt Avenue) toward Fort Loudoun Lake. The $12 million project, named for a street that is now Volunteer Boulevard, marked the only time Knoxville focused federal urban renewal funds outside downtown. 

It forced Jamesena Washington’s family to move. “What I remember as a child was the fact that we began to see other families moving out,” she recalled. It was only when she asked why that she learned her own family would have to leave, too. 

Washington’s mother worked three blocks away as a domestic servant for a white family on Circle Park Drive. They were also forced out. The majority of people whose houses were taken under the Yale Avenue urban renewal project were white. But Washington also described a middle-class Black neighborhood in the 15th Street area, near where Thompson-Boling Arena is today.

Washington can rattle off a list of her neighbors, including a Black firefighter, a dentist and the first Black employee hired at Rich’s department store. Three generations of her family lived in a home owned by her grandparents. 

“Most of the people owned their property,” said Washington. “But we had to move. Either you moved, or of course, they could condemn your property.” 

There were, in fact, a few high-profile cases of eminent domain eventually leading to the physical removal of several white homeowners.

In order to use federal urban renewal funding for the project, the city had to show that the majority of the area was blighted. But portions of the neighborhood were dominated by large, historic houses owned by wealthy Knoxville families like the Hazens and Rheas. Although some Victorian mansions were being broken up into student housing, others remained occupied by community leaders like the editor of the News Sentinel, the foreman of Cherokee Textile Mills, and the owner of Comer’s Drug Store. 

Robert Carter and his mother in Mechanicsville. Photo provided by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

A Knoxville Housing Authority survey of the neighborhood in 1962, documented in the university archives, found 60 deteriorating houses and 47 already deteriorated. But a building could be deemed “deteriorating” for things like rotted window sills, deep wear on floors, loose stair treads, or missing bannisters. Of the roughly 341 structures destroyed, only 81 were found to be dilapidated -- with holes, roof damage, sagging floors or other major structural problems. KHA noted that some of the buildings were old homes with large rooms, high ceilings and “antiquated” plumbing or kitchen facilities -- a description that would fit many valuable historic homes before renovations. 

Regardless of whether they were run down or not, all the houses in the university’s way were bulldozed. 

According to research conducted by UT student Michael Cathey in 1992, “In most cases, $5,000 to $8,000 were given as fair market values on property” taken for the Yale Avenue project. The amount was based purely on an assessed price per square foot on that block. The university offered to pay owners’ moving bills or compensate $15 per room in moving expenses. Renters with no furniture got a flat $5. Occupants were instructed to remove doors, sinks and other fixtures before leaving -- providing free labor toward the demolition of their own homes.

Those homes had been a source of pride and self-sufficiency for Black owners. Washington’s grandfather sometimes met with the mayor as a spokesman for the neighborhood about street conditions, she said. The family ate well, because her grandmother raised chickens, turkeys and pheasants in the backyard. Her grandfather built a driveway and garage for their two cars. The house had curb appeal: He made the curb himself.

“He would pick up these slabs of marble, bring them home, and after he collected enough of them, he leveled off the area right in front of our front hedge, and put the marble down, and he made the sidewalk,” Washington said.

After the neighborhood was demolished, the university built Fraternity Park, recreational facilities, athletic fields, and buildings for theater, art, music and communications, plus parking. (Documents from the time show residents were particularly angry when their land was going to be used for recreation.) The Yale Avenue project won an award in 1965 for the most successful college expansion in a 10-state Southeastern area, from the Southeastern Regional Council of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

But the university wasn’t finished. Fort Sanders was immediately slated for the next urban renewal project to benefit UT. The majority-white neighborhood fought back all the way to Washington, D.C., where “Defenders of Fort Sanders” traveled in 1969 to lobby federal housing officials to kill the project. 

In 1971, the Urban Renewal Committee of Knoxville’s Community Improvement Program recommended abandoning the Fort Sanders project as its residents threatened a lawsuit. 

Instead, it decided to focus on Black neighborhoods like Beaumont and Lonsdale. Committee members agreed it was more realistic “to push urban renewal where it is more readily welcomed,” according to a News Sentinel article at the time. (The federally-funded urban renewal program wound down a few years afterward, and these projects were never pursued.)

In the years since, however, UT has continued to gobble chunks of Fort Sanders and also leapfrog north into Mechanicsville, a historic Black neighborhood. 

Mechanicsville

Men on a porch in Mechanicsville. Photo provided by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

Annexed by Knoxville in 1883, Mechanicsville was named for the skilled workers that lived there and worked in factories nearby. The factory owners, as well as Welsh workers, tended to live there too, making the neighborhood unusually diverse into the early 20th century.

Local historian Bob Booker has written many books about Knoxville’s Black history, including The Story of Mechanicsville 1875-2008. He said that from the start, Mechanicsville was an upper-class Black neighborhood because of the institutions founded there in 1875: Knoxville College for Black students, Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church, and Fairview, the first Black elementary school in Knox County. “So Mechanicsville was perhaps a more elite Black community than any other part of town,” Booker said.

But throughout the last century, government decisions eroded Mechanicsville’s housing and its Black community. 

Knoxville’s first public housing complex, College Homes, was built there in 1940. During  the following decade, Interstate 40 construction destroyed many houses. Desegregation led to the slow decline of Knoxville College and the closure of most public schools in the neighborhood. It also led the city to sell off Leslie Street Park, deeming it no longer “necessary.” According to Booker’s book, the park had hosted Negro League baseball games, the city’s Black swimming pool, and fairs for Black residents to share their canned goods, sewing and other products. The News Sentinel building and other offices were built in the former park.

A portion of the Mechanicsville was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. However, University of Tennessee student Colin Riley concluded in a thesis 15 years later that this “managed” gentrification effort had failed to attract private investment. Riley noted that, although the Mechanicsville community was predominantly Black (74 percent), the population inside the historic district was majority white (53.7 percent) and declining. He recommended that the historic designation should be withdrawn. (It wasn’t.) 

Over the next decade, revitalization efforts mostly took the form of knocking down houses to make room for light industry. Charles Wright, president of the Mechanicsville Community Association, says widening streets such as Western Avenue for the 1982 World’s Fair wiped out Black-owned homes and businesses. His former home on University Avenue was demolished at about the same time. 

During the 1990s, a Center City Business Redevelopment Neighborhood was created to buy Mechanicsville properties, including some houses, and bundle them for redevelopment as a business park. Those who lost their homes were directed into public housing, although many didn’t choose to take that option. This was not a federally-funded urban renewal project, but it was managed by Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation -- the successor to the housing authority -- and its purpose and approach were similar. 

Affordable housing became even more scarce in the neighborhood after KCDC demolished the deteriorating College Homes complex in the late 1990s. In its place, the agency built duplexes and single-family homes using $22 million in federal HOPE VI funding. That program was intended to eliminate dilapidated public housing in favor of mixed-income neighborhoods. Some of the low-income units were not replaced, pushing residents to other parts of town.

Girl biking in front of College Homes, circa 1940s. Photo provided by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

Renters of the Mechanicsville Commons houses built through HOPE VI could eventually buy them, opening the door to market-rate resale. Knoxville sociologist Enkeshi El-Amin argued in her dissertation that this contributed to gentrification, further diluting the character of the historic Black neighborhood. 

El-Amin earned her doctorate at UT studying the long-term effects of urban renewal on Knoxville’s black community. “One of the things that I remember hearing when I was doing my research was: The university and neighborhood cannot coexist,” she said. “Because the university is going to continue to expand and eat up the neighborhood.”

Wright said many current Mechanicsville residents now believe -- and fear-- UT will build dorms on the mostly-empty campus of Knoxville College. The college lost its accreditation in 1997 and has not held regular classes on campus since 2015. Campus buildings are now severely deteriorated and a significant environmental cleanup had to be done at the former science building. A new leadership team is embarking on a long-term effort to reopen the college.

Wright, Booker and El-Amin all expressed dissatisfaction that UT moved some administrative offices to Mechanicsville about five years ago. The buildings had been owned by KCDC and leased to the state for a Tennessee Career Center, helping residents find jobs and job training. Locals say it was also touted as a space to incubate small neighborhood businesses. Instead, the property was sold to the university. 

“UT moves in, and to hell with the community,” said El-Amin.

As someone trying to establish a permanent space for Black creatives -- called The Bottom, after one of the neighborhoods destroyed by urban renewal -- she’s particularly frustrated by this decision. In it, she sees some of the patterns established during urban renewal: Push out Black residents -- or services that benefit them -- for new development. Maybe leave things empty for a while first, in the hopes that locals forget. 

That part doesn’t work, she said: “Folks haven’t forgot it.”

 

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Archival photos and supportive historical content provided for these stories were courtesy of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, the only state-designated repository for Black history and culture in East Tennessee. Beck is proud to collaborate with WUOT to educate the public on stories of Urban Renewal's impact on Knoxville's Black community. If you are interested in in sharing your own experiences through an oral history or donating materials to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, please feel free to contact them at 865-524-8461 or visit  www.beckcenter.net for more information on how you can help their collection grow. 

Funding for "Losing Home: Black Neighborhoods and Urban Renewal" came from the East Tennessee Foundation's "Hope in Action" Fund. The fund was established in 2018 to support programs that protect populations most likely to face discrimination or programs that nurture hope and equality in our culture. In 2020, ETF activated this fund to award grants to nonprofit organizations addressing racism and injustice in our region.

All episodes in the Losing Home series on urban renewal can be found here.