My book research brought me to Richmond to try to understand the years directly before and after World War II, when the Kaiser Shipyards hired up 100,000 people and then just as quickly let them go. The story is wild: the government built tens of thousands of housing units as the city’s population nearly quintupled. Then, they tore almost all of them down. At the same time, black people built their own homes and community in North Richmond, which to this day, remains independent of the city, for good or for ill. Most of my documents on Richmond, then, relate only to this period of history.
1944: An Avalanche Hits Richmond
Even before the war ended, Richmond city officials realized that they were facing a strange and uncertain future. The Federal government had built 24,000 units of housing for wartime workers. No one expected them to last, but if they tore them down, where were all the workers who’d migrated to the city supposed to go? This report, which I’ve partially digitized here from the Richmond Historical Society archive, captures the city in disarray.
“The Federal government built temporary war housing without providing concurrently the necessary schools, commercial facilities and recreational facilities, and without assuring adequate police and fire protection. Schools were doubled up on a two-shift basis, then to three shifts, and finally, in extreme cases, to four shifts of students utilizing the same rooms successively,” we read. “Tens of thousands of all types of people, and from all parts of the United States, were thrown into Richmond where, because of the impossibility of obtaining adequate community services, even normal social controls could not be maintained. The result was congestion and utter confusion. Richmond was literally bursting at the seams. “
Especially vexing for a fairly conservative town was what to do about the public housing. The problem was twofold, as Richmond planners saw it. First, public housing “competed” with private development, and furthermore, the type of people (black) who lived in the housing were a threat to the home values of otherwise white city.
“Another important factor in determining the future of Richmond is the policy of the Federal government in removing the tens of thousands of temporary war housing units. The City cannot expect the resumption of private residential building if these units are allowed to compete with, or to remain as a threat to private residential development,” the report states. “If these public housing units are allowed to remain after the war need for them is passed, they will not only be a threat to future home building, but will undermine the value of existing private homes in Richmond.”
1950: Housing and Redevelopment, Master Plan
In 1945, California passed the Community Redevelopment Act, and the Federal government followed suit with the Housing Act of 1949. These pieces of legislation opened up the possibility and created the need for cities to develop “master plans.” This is the “Housing and Redevelopment” portion of Richmond’s Master Plan from 1950. It shows how Richmond’s plans for dealing with “the avalanche.”
At the time the report was written, Richmond had roughly 13,500 private housing units and more than 15,000 public housing units. Pretty much everything south of Macdonald and west of the railroad tracks (as well as spilling over east to San Pablo).
The white residents of this war housing had been emptying into newly built suburban areas with Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration-backed loans. But Richmond was a racially segregated city in which black people were not allowed into white neighborhoods. Many white residents simply wanted the black southerners who had come to the city to simply leave. And if there were no homes for them, they’d have to. Of course, the city could not mention this racial dynamic, talking instead about the “economic advantages which they enjoy as tenants of the government.”
“It is obvious that such housing must eventually be replaced. The occupants are aware of its deterioration and of the increasing costs of maintaining it. They area also conscious of the present shortage of permanent dwellings, and of the prices asked for new homes,” the report states. “They appreciate the economic advantages which they enjoy as tenants of the government and are disturbed by the prospect that they will eventually have to move.”
City managers were obsessed with the idea of “blighted areas,” which were seen as contagious areas of social and economic decline. Only by bulldozing and starting anew could the blight be killed off in an area.
The city, then, was intent on bulldozing the wartime housing—and possibly parts of North Richmond, which was another almost all-black neighborhood outside the city limits. But it did not intend to “replace” all the public housing with an equivalent number of units. Instead the city argued that a “reasonable” amount of public housing would be 2,500 units, which would be enough to accommodate at least some of the people with very low incomes in the city. “The plight of low-income families everywhere has been aggravated by rising prices. Their best protection comes through control of rents and government low-rent housing. Any steps to modify present policies which threaten the advantages now enjoyed by these families will undoubtedly meet strong resistance,” the report stated. “The City of Richmond officially must accept and support a reasonable amount of public housing, and use its influence to make such housing available for families that are demonstrably underprivileged and distressed.”
In addition, outside the blighted areas, the neighborhoods that contained “small, pleasant, single-family homes” needed “utmost official support and protection.” These neighborhoods represented “the long-established ideals of America.” As such, the city wanted to help its “home-owning citizens.” And the report details a list of 15 things that could be done from marking truck routes to planing trees. Tucked into this very nice list, right at number 8, was an official sanction for the segregation of the city. “Control home occupations and operations of boarding and lodging houses to maintain the harmonious residential character of neighborhoods,” the report recommended. “Harmonious” was a not-so-subtle codeword for racially homogenous.
So, in short, Richmond’s Master Plan was to bulldoze more than 80 percent of its public housing and keep its single-family neighborhoods segregated for the stated purpose of maintaining all-white home-owners property values.