Harrisonburg neighborhood rebuilds from project that tore through community

This photo shows a before and after of Jennifer Vickers' grandparents home which is now Kline's...
This photo shows a before and after of Jennifer Vickers' grandparents home which is now Kline's Dairy Bar.(WHSV)
Published: Feb. 13, 2017 at 6:15 PM EST
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The northeast part of the city of Harrisonburg is almost unrecognizable today, compared to what it was nearly 70 years ago.

In the 1950s and 60s, the federal government offered large grants to redevelop downtown areas in a process known as 'urban renewal.'

"It was one of those neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone and it was just like one big family," said Henry Whitelow, who lived in the northeast neighborhood during the urban renewal project in Harrisonburg.

The site of what were once homes became the site of businesses and a community turned to parking lots.

"They just came through, started demolishing all the homes in the neighborhood of people who lived there all their life," said Whitelow.

The project focused primarily on the northeast section of Harrisonburg, which is now filled with businesses like Roses and 7-Eleven.

"It's really funny to go down that part of Mason Street where they tore down beautiful homes and there's nothing, there's a 7-11 on the corner," said Whitelow.

James Madison University has an archive of many photos from the urban renewal project - titled 'JMU Special Collections from the Harrisonburg Rockingham Revdevelopment and Housing Authority Photographs.' Many of these archive photos can be seen at the bottom of this article.

Art history professor David Ehrenpreis has studied the project and says the issue has many layers.

"It's important to know that this was not some sort of evil plot," said Ehrenpreis. "The thought was that this is going to make things better."

But, he says, while some homes were in poor shape, the project was a mistake.

"When you get down to what actually happens to people, it's pretty ugly," said Ehrenprise. "And if you talk to someone saying actually 'I remember lying in my bed, having been moved out of the area and listening to my house burn while I was like eight years old, that's not so pretty."

According to Ehrenpreis, homes of both whites and African-Americans were demolished or burned, but about 60 percent of the community were African-American.

"They tore the heart out of a black community and reduced them to rubble almost, they never really recovered from that," said Jennifer Vickers, whose family lived in the neighborhood.

Vickers says her grandparents lived in a home along Wolfe Street in Harrisonburg which is now the site of Kline's Dairy Bar. The wounds left by urban renewal passed through generations, reaching down to people like Vickers, whose grandparents experienced the project.

It even reached others who were too young to remember, but still felt the effects.

"They felt like they lost everything they had and it wasn't right because they didn't have, it was hard for them to rebuild," said Valda Brown, who lived in the community but was too young to remember the project.

In the early 2000s, the community was facing a different problem with drive-by shootings, a stabbing and a murder. Karen Thomas started the Northeast Neighborhood Association (NNA) ten years ago to help the area.

"It had gotten to the point, you know, what's happening to our community," said Thomas.

The organization started as a neighborhood watch program with the Harrisonburg Police Department but grew from there. Thomas says, now, the community does not have the crime it used to and they want to focus on beautification and preservation. The organization hopes to get the northeast area recognized as a historic district, including creating a museum for local African-American history at a home in Harrisonburg built by freed slaves.

The next step to get recognized as historic district will happen in March 2017. Ehrenprise says he is also hoping something can be done to acknowledge and remember what happened as well, so the entire community can be aware.