From Adamstown to Bluegrass-Aspendale: Mass Displacement and Erasure from Lexington’s Residential Landscapes

The history of Lexington is inextricable from Black history, more generally. Basically every essential feature of Lexington culture has been shaped in considerable part by the city’s black residents, regardless of whether such achievements have been acknowledged. Whether one looks at the central importance of slave labor to the development of Bluegrass agriculture, or to black jockeys like Isaac Murphy who were key figures in the horse industry, or even to the contributions of black athletes’ unpaid labor to the basketball and football teams at the University of Kentucky, Lexington’s black community has made innumerable contributions to the things the city holds dear.

It is undoubtedly a good thing that these contributions are increasingly being recognized. Recent examples include the statue outside of Commonwealth Stadium devoted to the UK football players who broke the color barrier in the SEC, the naming of a UK dorm after Lyman T. Johnson, the student who sued to desegregate the institution (though it is worth noting that it is a privately-owned and operated dorm that will likely be torn down in 25 years — hardly the kind of permanent symbol Johnson’s legacy deserves), and the renaming of a city street in honor of former vice mayor Harry Sykes just last month.

In his latest Herald-Leader column, Tom Eblen tells of plans to honor the contributions of Pierre Whiting, the first black employee at UK, to the university and the city. Thanks to the work of two local historians, Whiting, and the Adamstown neighborhood where he lived, will finally receive some of the recognition that’s largely been reserved for more high profile figures and places, such as the historical marker noting Cheapside’s role in the local slave trade. That such a historic marker will make note of a predominantly black neighborhood that was demolished in order to facilitate the expansion of the University of Kentucky and the financial gains of nearby landowners marks a considerable break with how Lexington has treated such matters in the past. Rather than this kind of embrace, when it comes to the imprint of black residents on the city’s residential landscape, Lexington’s approach has long been one of attempted erasure.

Visualizing the overlapping histories of racial residential exclusion in Lexington. Data on black residential areas in 1887 adapted from James Hanlon’s 2011 article “Unsightly Urban Menaces and the Rescaling of Residential Segregation in the United States”. Data on redlining adapted from 1936 HOLC map of Lexington available from the Mapping Inequality project.

As Eblen’s story notes, Adamstown was a predominantly black neighborhood that both private landowners and the university had long sought to displace in favor of ‘higher and better uses’. James Hanlon’s excellent 2011 article on Adamstown in the Journal of Urban History demonstrates that even though Adamstown’s black residents predated both the growth of the University of Kentucky and the construction of stately homes nearby along Rose Street, it was Adamstown that was seen to be ‘out of place’, and necessary to be removed. So as roughly 80 houses were demolished to make way for Memorial Coliseum, the majority of former Adamstown residents were forced into what Hanlon calls…

“the city’s emerging ghettos on the north and east sides of downtown, where by that time a vast majority of housing options available to blacks were located” (p. 747)

Because just 5% of Adamstown residents owned their homes, it was primarily large, private landowners who profited off of the university’s expansion plans, while…

“Adamstown’s residents…were left to their own means, as no efforts were made on the part of the university or the city to facilitate their relocation” (p. 747)

But Adamstown was just the first of many such instances of attempted erasure in Lexington’s history. While racial inequality and residential segregation have long been underlying features of Lexington’s landscape, the city’s history of mass displacements of black residents throws this inequality into sharp relief.

As Eblen only briefly alludes to, it would be less than 30 years between the demolition of Adamstown and the city and university’s plans to effectively decommission Memorial Coliseum in favor of a new downtown arena, at the expense of an additional 130 or so homes in Lexington’s South Hill neighborhood. In order to make way for Rupp Arena’s vast parking lot nestled between High and Maxwell, roughly 200 majority-black and low-income families were displaced, again with no assistance from the city or university. Again, just 14% of the houses that were demolished were owner-occupied, meaning that even the payouts to those who sold or had their land seized through eminent domain didn’t reach those who were most affected by the policy. While a considerable effort was made by citizens and some local politicians to both save the neighborhoods and to compensate residents who were being displaced, these efforts ultimately failed.

1957 Sanborn map of the South Hill neighborhood. Interactive map available here.

While initiated entirely through private channels, the demolition of roughly fifty houses on Ellerslie Avenue in the mid-1980s tells a similar story of concentrated property ownership allowing for the mass displacement of predominantly poor and black residents. While the area — tucked behind the Bell Court neighborhood, but largely separate from it — is now being developed into townhomes, the particularly pernicious element of the Ellerslie Avenue story is that Bell Court and Kenwick neighbors effectively blocked the construction of 50 units of affordable housing on the site in 1995 due to their only thinly-veiled racist and classist attitudes.

1907 Sanborn map of Ellerslie Avenue area. Interactive map available here.

It would be only a few more years before the arrival of the federal HOPE VI program led to the demolition of both of Lexington’s low-income housing projects, Charlotte Court and Bluegrass-Aspendale, each situated in historically black neighborhoods along Georgetown Street and in the East End. Between the demolition of Charlotte Court in 1999 and Bluegrass-Aspendale from 2002–2006, the city tore down over 1,600 units of affordable housing, very few of which were replaced during the redevelopment of those sites as mixed-income projects. And while the stated intent of the Charlotte Court and Bluegrass-Aspendale demolitions, and the larger HOPE VI program of which they were a part, was to deconcentrate the poor, a recent report released by the Lexington Fair Housing Council suggests that the outcome of Lexington’s HOPE VI experiment hasn’t been a solution to the problem of racial segregation and concentrated poverty. Instead, Lexington has seen a growth in racially/ethnically concentrated areas of poverty in recent years, suggesting that…

“the lack of a comprehensive policy approach aimed at replacing over 1,000 demolished housing units has meant that the problem of concentrated poverty hasn’t been eliminated in Lexington, it has simply moved elsewhere in the city” (p. 5)

Given the recent growth in racially concentrated poverty documented in the LFHC report, it would be a mistake to see these concerted attempts at erasure as merely a historical artifact. Indeed, the very same logics pervade Lexington’s contemporary disposition towards its historically black neighborhoods, as is seen through the ongoing process of gentrification in the Northside and East End neighborhoods. As we’ve documented on multiple occasions, despite the prevalence of discourse that focuses on ‘improving the neighborhood’, the real estate practices of house flippers and speculators suggests that even if the end goal is to improve the neighborhood, their primary means of doing so is through the displacement of black residents in favor of young and/or affluent whites. Even for projects that might not directly displace residents, the impact of these historical mass displacement events sets the stage for future gentrification by removing both potential resistance and ostensibly ‘undesirable’ elements.

And while there is a growing, if still nascent, recognition amongst some of the city’s leadership that gentrification is indeed a problem — rather than something to be encouraged and accelerated — proposed policies focused exclusively on homeowners neglect that the significant majority of residents in these neighborhoods are renters who are at risk in much the same way as residents of Adamstown, South Hill, Ellerslie Avenue, Charlotte Court and Bluegrass-Aspendale were at various times over the last century. While property tax relief for longtime homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods is a noble step in the right direction, it will ultimately do little to stem the speculative tide in the Northside and East End, where apartments are being rented at dollar per square foot rates that exceed basically anywhere else in the city.

While the fact that Eblen’s piece is mostly a human interest story avoids making the connections between much of this history and its present day manifestations, it does call attention to a little remembered fact: those who are displaced by these kinds of deliberately hostile and substantively racist public policies are actual human beings who deserve to be treated as such. But the way that the city of Lexington — both its leaders and residents — has historically handled such matters has ultimately privileged the financial gains from real estate development over the well-being of the city’s citizens. And while stories like those of Pierre Whiting, or Isaac Murphy, or even someone like Albert Boyer — a black jockey who lived on Ellerslie Avenue in the 1890s—may catch our attention, it’s important that we not forget the impact of such policies on people whose names history hasn’t remembered, and strive to ensure that our current and future decisions don’t replicate the same mistakes.