Urban Renewal?: Eminent Domain, Displacement, and the Origins of Progress Village - Part One
By Andrew Gregory, Nichelle Lynn, and Janelle Vann
1: Comprehensive Plan for the City of Tampa, Florida, 1956-1957
As part of an attempt to win federal funding for Tampa’s urban renewal project, Mayor Nick Nuccio and the city planning commission employed George W. Simons, Jr., a city planning and zoning consultant from Jacksonville, to identify Tampa’s existing economic conditions, problems, and solutions. The Comprehensive Plan for the City of Tampa, Florida, 1956-1957, a 157-page book, presents statistical data related to the city’s population and demographics. In the early 1950’s, Tampa’s population greatly increased due to the annexation of unincorporated land in areas such as Palma Ceia and Sulphur Springs. Optimistic about Tampa Bay’s economic potential in shipping, phosphate mining, citrus production, and tourism, Simons argued that the Bay area was well positioned to participate in the economic revolution reshaping the southeast region. But this economic growth would come at a great cost to minority residents of the city. Simons recommended the adoption of minimum city housing codes similar to those enacted in other southern cities including Miami, Atlanta, and Jackson. Simons criticized “slums and blighted areas filled with immoral sordid seeds of crime and delinquency” and declared that such areas represented an unnecessary burden on taxpayers, police, fire, and welfare boards. He explained, however, that the implementation of minimum housing standards would immediately pave the way for the city to legally demolish homes deemed substandard. The Comprehensive Plan laid the groundwork for the destruction of several Tampa neighborhoods.
2: NAACP Statement on Urban Renewal
This document is a statement released by the Tampa branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) explaining the significance of Urban Renewal for the city’s black community. The first section discusses what Urban Renewal is and under what circumstances it would be desirable. From there, the document explains why Urban Renewal would not necessarily help the black community of Tampa. The last paragraph of this document makes a series of recommendations for Urban Renewal, relevant to Tampa and the entire United States. The document states that the “NAACP will work cooperatively with the entire community to promote good wholesome, clean housing to every citizen without regard to color.” In effect, the NAACP offered a statement of best practices for Urban Renewal. In an ideal world, the community and its leaders would work together in spite of racial divisions, for the benefit of the city as a whole. It remained to be seen if the city of Tampa would follow these guidelines.
3: Bea and Cheryl Rodriguez Interview
Urban renewal in Tampa was a series of public works projects that resulted in the destruction of residential neighborhoods. The residential areas targeted were predominantly African American neighborhoods, suggesting that this system was being used to perpetuate discrimination. Bea and Cheryl Rodriguez, wife and daughter of Tampa civil rights activist Francisco Rodriguez, share their memories of the urban renewal effort in one of Tampa’s populous African American neighborhoods, the Central Avenue district. Aptly referring to the program as “urban removal,” they describe how the close-knit community was torn apart to make room for the building of an expressway. Citizens were forced to leave the homes in which they lived, the people they knew so well, and the black-owned businesses they patronized. Both women also lament the fact that, after being removed from their homes, African Americans were highly restricted in where they were able to move. Black Tampans faced fierce opposition if they sought to move nearer to a white neighborhood. The Central Avenue community was not unique in its clash with urban renewal, as many other African American communities in Florida experienced this sort of displacement as well.
4: Robert Saunders Letter on Progress Village (1959)
Urban Renewal efforts led to the development of Progress Village, a planned community located southeast of downtown Tampa, which aimed to draw those displaced by the demolition of the Central Avenue district. The board of Progress Village naturally wanted the support of the Florida NAACP in order to be more attractive to the African American community. They were disappointed, however, when the organization, headed by Florida president Robert Saunders, refused to lend their support, claiming that such communities only hindered the advancement of integration. In a letter to St. Petersburg NAACP leader F.A. Dunn, Saunders expressed his concerns with developments that were created solely for African Americans. Saunders was skeptical of urban renewal programs, which, under the guise of goodwill, removed black people from their homes and concentrated them in areas that were often further away from white neighborhoods. This, Saunders felt, was counterproductive. True renewal should focus on integration. Recognizing a lack of support from the NAACP, the developing board of Progress Village had to look elsewhere to make the development more appealing to Tampa’s African American community.
5: Cody Fowler Speech on Progress Village (1959)
Heralded as an interracial effort, the board of Progress Village was headed by white Tampa lawyer Cody Fowler, former president of the American Bar Association. The elite white community of Tampa was excited for what they pitched as an effort at racial reconciliation. Some members of the African American community, including Tampa’s Urban League, matched their enthusiasm. Fowler was honored with a Lane Bryant Award for his work with Progress Village and, traveling to New York City, gave an acceptance speech that laid out his hopes for the development. Feeling it was the responsibility of the white community to address and fix the problems of the black community – while ignoring the fact that most problems in the black community were caused by white discrimination – he depicted Progress Village as a classy suburban development that included various recreation facilities, schools, and even an 18-hole golf course. He also claimed that the development could potentially house 20,000 residents, a number far larger than the figure of those who were displaced from Central Avenue. This suggests that the board may have wished to draw black people from other parts of Tampa into a single concentrated area. Relatively quickly, however, sales began to falter, leading Fowler himself to declare in 1968 that the venture was a failure.
6: Progress Village Promotional Packet (1959)
Progress Village, Inc., created this promotional packet around 1959. Among other things, the packet includes a town history, list of amenities, and a bus schedule. It would seem that the overall purpose of this packet was to promote Progress Village and to outline the different opportunities its residents enjoyed. The cover image depicts an idealized, suburban, African American family. The exact audience for this packet is unclear. It may have been distributed to potential residents and community leaders. The town was built to provide an affordable alternative living option to the non-white residents of Tampa. Progress Village, Inc. attempted to create a sense of residential equality without actually disrupting segregation. As a model subdivision for non-white families, Progress Village worked to keep African Americans from buying homes in white neighborhoods. In this packet and in other promotional material, however, Progress Village was simply depicted as an opportunity for black families to enjoy better living conditions and a safe suburban environment in Tampa.
7: The Tampa Times Lauds Urban Renewal (1960)
Appearing in the March 6, 1960 edition of the Tampa Times, journalist Frank Klein’s article “Tampa Tackles the Slums,” explains Tampa city leaders’ strategic efforts to capitalize on $6,296,666 in federal funding aimed at revitalizing downtown Tampa. At the center of Tampa’s 1950-1960’s urban renewal project were proposals to clear the downtown of “blighted areas” while encouraging displaced persons to purchase single family homes in the Progress Village housing development. Klein’s article presents a decidedly positive, optimistic perspective regarding Tampa’s redevelopment projects, noting the brisk sale of homes in Progress Village and applauding the aggressive redevelopment strategies of Tampa attorney Cody Fowler and Arkansas building contractor Ray Ragsdale. Fowler and Ragsdale, both original members of the non-profit Progress Village corporation, were instrumental in expediting Tampa’s revitalization plans. While Fowler issued condemnation suits, Ragsdale filed an early land acquisition application, permitting the city to purchase land before surveys and plans were complete. Citing a 1959 law, Ragsdale sought to enforce eminent domain laws and control the downtown Tampa land with no solid plan in place for dislocated residents. Addressing public concerns regarding displaced residents, Ragsdale pointed to the success of Progress Village. Such strategies, Klein’s article suggested, were necessary to resolve Tampa’s “blight headache.”
8: C. Blythe Andrews’s Editorials (1961)
Without the support of the Florida NAACP, the board of Progress Village turned toward its most influential black member, C. Blythe Andrews. Andrews, editor of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, was the prime candidate to “sell” the development to his black readership. Soon the board was purchasing full-page ads in the Sentinel Bulletin (to Andrews’s financial benefit) while Andrews himself wrote editorials praising the development. His main argument ran counter to the views of the NAACP. Andrews felt that Progress Village was ideally situated to prevent racial friction since black people would be moving further away from white neighborhoods. Surprisingly, Andrews essentially argued that segregation was simpler and beneficial to both races. He also presented Progress Village as attractive by listing the planned amenities, reflecting Cody Fowler’s promise of top-tier parks and a golf course. Finally, Andrews denied the accusation that the development was too far from downtown Tampa. However, this soon proved to be the development’s biggest complaint among the African American working class. Andrews’s efforts appear to have been moderately successful, as the early stages of the development sold well. Over time, sales in Progress Village slowed.