Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.
Morning Star, February 13, 1994, pg. 6
February is black history month, and in the next few weeks here in our Historical Notebook we are going to skip the usually-repeated stories about how the black community came to Albion on account of the Albion Malleable Iron Company, and of course the story about the West Ward School, how it became an all-black school and how it was closed by a boycott in 1953, etc. There is much more to local black history than those two aforementioned stories. In fact, Albion’s rich black heritage dates way back to even before the Civil War when there were black families living here. So in the next few weeks we’ll learn about some interesting aspects of local black history which we’ve never written about before.
Mention the words “Urban Renewal” and immediately in the minds of many Albion residents are emotions of anger, sadness, mixed feelings; and for some, hope, relief and gratitude. During the 1960s the City of Albion teamed up with the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish substandard homes in the western portions of the city. Many of these were the homes of just-retired workers at the Albion Malleable Iron Company, who were among the first blacks who had come to Albion in 1916. They lived in their own private homes, that formerly had been “company housing” in the 1920s. These houses were located in the W. Cass St., Gale St., and Gadsen Court area just south of the Gale Manufacturing Company.
Although their incomes were low, they were getting a retirement and their homes were paid for, with just regular utilities and taxes for their expenses in their retirement years. Imagine the emotional stress, the outrage and shock of being told the house you had lived in all your adult life was going to be “purchased” at a cheap price, and you would have to move into public housing (unless you happened to have an extra $15,000 lying around to buy a new home)? This is similar to those who were dislocated when I-94 was built--you had no choice.
There were several aspects of Urban Renewal in Albion. We’ll briefly touch upon some of them here, although there was much more involved. The major aspect of Urban Renewal was the acquisition of land and properties. The UR program resulted in the acquisition and demolition of about 200 homes on the west side of Albion, and the displacement of these families.
Another aspect of Urban Renewal was rehabilitation. Each house was assessed “points” or violations, that is, things that were wrong with the house that needed to be brought up to standard. Urban Renewal gave grants and loans to individual home owners to bring their houses up-to-code. By the end of 1969, there were 171 notices delivered to property owners to improve their property to an acceptable standard. The 1969 report showed that only 16 grants were given to accomplish that, as well as 76 parcels that were also brought up-to-code.
A major aspect of Urban Renewal was relocation. Where formerly residents had lived in their own private homes, they were now placed in public housing constructed in the Dalrymple St. and Cherry St. areas, and also apartments on Boyd Drive. Some also moved to rented facilities (if they could afford it) in other portions of the city. My own grandparents, who lived on Gale Street along the Kalamazoo River, were dislocated by Urban Renewal, and ended up in a house on N. Mingo St. In one of the UR brochures that was printed, I discovered recently that UR used a photograph of a shack behind my grandparent’s house as a “before and after” example of relocation. The second photograph showed the house on N. Mingo St. my grandparents moved into. The 1969 brochure mentioned that 40 families moved into public housing, five families moved into private rental housing, and twelve purchased their own homes. What conclusions can we draw from that?
The most unsuccessful part of the Urban Renewal program was the disposition aspect--the sale of Urban Renewal land. The idea was that with the substandard houses demolished, developers would swoop in and purchase lot and erect new modern houses, which would soon be filled with wage-earning, taxpaying families. Drive by W. Cass St. in the vicinity of Gadsen Court today, and see how successful that aspect was. There are two brand new houses that have been built on W. Erie St. that can’t sell for $60,000 and sit vacant today. So much for the “development” of that area. UR did, however, sell the land for the construction of the housing units, and Peabody Place.
The dislocation of Albion’s black citizens also fueled racial fears among white residents, who featured that blacks would be moving into their white neighborhoods. One of my memories as a junior high student is walking to school every day and seeing a custom-made “for sale” sign in front of a house that said, “We will sell to any color, but the money must be GREEN,” with the last word painted in that glorious color. As it turned out, most blacks were placed in public housing on the far western portions of the city. Only those who had the money were able to purchase homes in areas of their own choice. In time, that gradually was accomplished.
The 1960s as we all know was a time of political, social and economic upheaval in our country. The Urban Renewal program in my opinion, was Albion’s most significant story of that decade, which affected hundreds of Albion residents. Its effects are still with us today. It should not be thought however, that Urban Renewal was entirely a negative thing. Its goal was to help people live in safe, efficient housing. Many people from all parts of the community joined together to help administer, direct, and oversee the entire process, which quite naturally was a difficult situation for all.
From our Historical Notebook this week we present a familiar scene during the late 1960s--the demolition of a house in the Urban Renewal area, and an Urban Renewal sign.
Sign for Urban Renewal
Next: PIZZA PETE'S
All text copyright, 2019 © all rights reserved Frank Passic