Slum Clearance Referendum of 1950
Successful passage of the Slum Clearance Referendum of 1950 empowered the City of Little Rock to accept federal assistance to remove dilapidated urban housing. Using funds provided under the 1949 Federal Housing Act the city tore down 628 houses and replaced them with 928 low-rent apartment units. Clyde E. Lowry, a Little Rock insurance executive, spearheaded the successful 1950 effort to a pass the referendum. Slum clearance was later renamed "urban renewal."
History of Slum Clearance
In 1930 city planner John Nolen said of the city, "Little Rock has handicaps, common to many communities, among the the extreme ideas in community development -- those people who are too conservative to go ahead and those people over eager to go ahead without giving consideration to others." Conservatism reigned where public housing was concerned. In 1942 the city added wartime housing for blacks by constructing the Tuxedo Courts, and Highland Park and Sunset Terrace for whites -- a total of 250 units.
In the fall of 1949 the Little Rock City Planning Commission identified 3,115 "blighted" houses in the city, about ten percent of the total housing stock. Most were described as overcrowded, lacking modern plumbing, or structurally deficient, and almost all (2,818) were occupied by black residents. The commission found particularly grave slum conditions in the East End, Granite Mountain neighborhood, South End, Broadway, and Livestock showgrounds neighborhood. Local fire chief Gann L. Nalley noted 344 fires in these neighborhood in only the last four years.
In 1950 members of the Little Rock Housing Authority led by R. Redding Stevenson and a city advisory committee headed by J. V. Satterfield Jr. of Peoples National Bank began pushing local citizens to accept $3.2 million in potential matching slum clearance funds available under Title I of the Housing Act of 1949. The local funding match would come from a local bond issue for $359,000 in improvements to black-only Gillam Park and other public community-enhancement projects totaling about $1.2 million. The Satterfield Report identified eight positive outcomes from the referendum's passage: (1) slum clearance , (2) expanded parks and playgrounds, (3) an lengthened airport runway, (4) improved sewer and water lines, (5) a black community center, (6) needed zoned-industrial land, (7) eight hundred new homes, and (4) one thousand rental units.
Debate over the proposal was vigorous, in some ways rivaling the debate over integration later in the decade. Conservatives, some of whom organized themselves under city alderman Arthur Mills into the Taxpayers Defense Council, called urban renewal "socialistic" and dubbed Stevenson the "Public Housing-Santa Claus." Wrote one resident in his letter to the editor of the Arkansas Gazette, "I say give an uneducated person a million dollars and soon he will be back broke and want another million." Liberals called it "Negro removal." Adolphine Terry, who organized a citizen's Committee for Progress in 1949 to address the problem of slum housing, called it "an exercise in responsible democracy and a solution to health problems among the poor." City health officer William P. Scarlett agreed that clearance was desperately overdue. Remembering the 1946 typhus outbreak in the city, Scarlett recalled "one big frame house in a bad housing area" contained thirty-three residents, six cases of typhus, babies covered in fleas, and numerous rats.
The Board of Directors of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, citing the potential for acquisition of condemned East End land for airport and industrial expansion, lined up in favor of the ordinance. Many on the pro-ordinance side agreed with Flossie Parker of the Pulaski County Juvenile Court who argued that young people in the area "have been deprived by their environment of an understanding of why society expects them to conform to its rules." Other groups in favor of the proposal included the Mayor's Office under Sam Wassell, several branches of the A.F. of L., the City Beautiful Commission, the Little Rock Health Department, the American Legion, the Visiting Nurses Association of Little Rock, the Little Rock Fire Department, the Little Rock Police Department, and the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Commission.
The opposition complained that what these youths needed was not improved housing -- there were no slums in Little Rock in their estimation -- but better parenting. Moreover, complained attorney Thad Tisdale of the Taxpayers Defense Council, "The original survey from which these 'blighted' areas were mapped out was made by the WPA, and it is universally accepted that anything done by that organization is incorrect." In the end the forces for social and infrastructural reform won by a slim margin. A referendum on the issue -- expected to draw only six thousand voters -- passed on May 9, 1950, by a margin of 5,032 to 4,026 and Ordinance 8163 became law. The law passed with majority black support, aided in large measure by the Negro Housing Committee's free rides to the polls on election day. The spokesperson for the Negro Housing Committee was attorney J. R. Booker.
The slum clearance plan was helmed by Stevenson and architect George H. Wittenberg, who consulted directly with federal housing officials. Gillam Park was upgraded from an undeveloped lot to include a swimming pool, pavilions, baseball diamond, and small amusement park. In return, the federal government supplied $3 million funds for the Booker Homes project in the minority Granite Mountain neighborhood near the east end of Gillam Park. Granite Mountain was described in official planning documents as "the largest and most blighted area in the City of Little Rock." The neighborhood was identified and demolished after the extra-constitutional Operation Honesty found the neighborhood noncontributing to the local property tax base. Operation Honesty was a self-selected citizen's group supported by the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, the Central Trades and Labor Council, and school and other civic leaders.
The project included four hundred new homes for black families. The $1.3 million Granite Mountain slum clearance effort by the Little Rock Housing Authority and Urban Progress Association led to the condemnation and demolition of one hundred and seventy two small homes scattered over 100 acres and occupied by black Little Rock residents. Only two of the homes had indoor plumbing. Residents instead fetched water from free-standing faucets. Sixty-nine new homes replaced the older structures. One thousand low-rent apartment units were also approved. The clearance, approved on December 3, 1954, by the federal Housing and Home Finance Agency, was part of the Central Little Rock Urban Renewal Project.
The battle over slum clearance was contentious. On the 1200 block of East Second Street, on land now occupied by the Clinton Library one landowner pushed four houses into the Arkansas River rather than seeing them removed by the city and himself billed for the clearance. Remembered Raymond Rebsamen ten years later, "When the urban renewal was first proposed, I was one of the few business men who spoke out in its favor. And don't think we didn't have plenty of opposition. Little Rock had some knock-down, drag-out, name-calling sessions prior to the referendum and before public forums, including our former City Council."
Harry Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette has since argued that "[l]ocal authorities could get federal grants for so-called slum clearance and they could clean out an old slum, which in almost every case, of course, tended to be a black neighborhood. And then they were required, if they did that, to provide equivalent housing within presumably the reach of the income groups of the displaced. And then they could then sell this land for any purpose. It didn't have to be for housing if they built equivalent housing somewhere else."
The federal Housing Act of 1954 expanded the provisions of the Housing Act of 1949 to go beyond simply eliminating slums to providing financial assistance for urban renewal. The 1954 act required Workable Programs documents showing how local communities planned to eliminate substandard housing, bring life back to old neighborhoods, and prevent the recurrence of blight.
- "Chamber Directors Back New City Slum Clearance Program," Arkansas Gazette, May 4, 1950.
- "Character Assassination is Not the Issue [advertisement]" Arkansas Gazette, May 9, 1950.
- Blaine Delaney, "Vote for Housing," Arkansas Gazette, May 4, 1950.
- "Do You Want ... Without Additional Taxes ... [advertisement]," Arkansas Gazette, May 7, 1950.
- Gene Foreman, "Urban Renewal: A Decade of Progress Has Brought Impressive Changes to Little Rock," Arkansas Gazette, May 29, 1960.
- "Is Santa Claus Coming to Town, -- Daddy Tax Payer?" Arkansas Gazette, May 7, 1950.
- "It's Good Business," Arkansas Gazette, May 7, 1950.
- "It's Up to Voters Now: Shall City Accept Housing Gift?" Arkansas Gazette, May 8, 1950.
- Metroplan, A Workable Program for the City of Little Rock, Arkansas (November 1955).
- Sara Alderman Murphy, Breaking the Silence: Little Rock's Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, 1958-1963 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997), 20-23.
- John Nolen, City Plan: Little Rock, Arkansas (Cambridge, MA: Hale J. Walker and Justin R. Hartzog Associates, 1930), 6.
- Frank Nosilla, "A Plea for 'Yes' Votes on Housing," Arkansas Gazette, May 7, 1950.
- "On Condemnation," Arkansas Gazette, May 4, 1950.
- "The Opportunity of a Lifetime for Little Rock [advertisement]," Arkansas Gazette, May 6, 1950.
- "The People Approve," Arkansas Gazette, May 11, 1950.
- Raymond Rebsamen, Little Rock: Poised Poised for Progress, (Little Rock, AR: Urban Progress Association, 1960).
- "The Slum Clearance Program: An Editorial," Arkansas Gazette, May 9, 1950.
- Earl C. Sowder, "No Help Possible," Arkansas Gazette, May 9, 1950.
- Mort Stern, "The City Health Department Finds It Expensive Business to Fight Slum-Bred Diseases," Arkansas Gazette, May 5, 1950.
- Mort Stern, "City Votes Housing, First Contract May Be Let By August 1," Arkansas Gazette, May 10, 1950.
- Mort Stern, "In the City of Roses One Out of Ten Families Lives in a Crowded, Unsanitary House," Arkansas Gazette, May 3, 1950.
- Mort Stern, "Little Rock Has Had Eight Years Experience With Its Three Public Housing Units," Arkansas Gazette, May 6, 1950.
- Mort Stern, "Public Housing is Only Part of the Slum Clearance Plan Before the Voters Tuesday," Arkansas Gazette, May 7, 1950.
- Mort Stern, "You Begin to Understand the Problem of the Slum Dweller When You Visit Him at Home," Arkansas Gazette, May 4, 1950.
- "Taxpayers! Look at This 'Heart Throbbing' Picture and Story That the Arkansas Gazette and the Political Bosses are Using to Cram Socialist Public Housing Down Your Throats! [advertisement]" Arkansas Gazette, May 5, 1950.
- "We Couldn't Stand It Any Longer, Taxpayers - Read! [advertisement]" Arkansas Gazette, May 8, 1950.
- "Who Recommended Little Rock's Slum Clearance and Low Rent Housing Program? [advertisement]" Arkansas Gazette, May 8, 1950.
- "Who Will Make the Fees Off of the Sale of 'Blighted Houses' -- And Who Will Make the Fees Off of Managing the Project? Who? Guess? [advertisement]" Arkansas Gazette, May 9, 1950.
- "You Can Stop the Socialist Squandering of Your Taxes - Taxes - Taxes! Today," Arkansas Gazette, May 9, 1950.