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How an urban renewal plan almost erased Southeast Denton

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In June 1966, about 400 residents attended a public hearing about a proposed urban renewal plan.

Southeast Denton had been labeled “blighted” by a Fort Worth consulting firm the city had hired. Barry Humphries, a Master of Public Administration student at North Texas State University, documented the proposed urban renewal in his 1971 thesis. He quoted two anonymous Southeast Denton residents:

“This is suicide for two-thirds of us. If we want to commit suicide, the quickest way is with a gun.”

“Give us a chance, and we will lift ourselves out of the mud if you give us streets.”

After a tense three hours, five white male Denton City Council members voted unanimously for the bond proposal.

The city had forcibly removed Denton’s Black residents from Quakertown in 1922. Southeast Denton remembered this, while white residents apparently had forgotten. Denton’s urban renewal plan would be Denton’s second assault on its Black community.

Black residents who had relocated to Southeast Denton were promised much and given nothing. They paid the same taxes everyone paid, but streets weren’t paved, and they didn’t have adequate utilities or sewage. Residents burned trash because the city didn’t collect it.

The city wouldn’t spend the bond money designated for the neighborhood. In a form of victim-blaming, where recipients of wrongful acts are held responsible for their own harm, the city blamed Southeast Denton for the blighted neighborhood.

Southeast Denton blamed the city.

The federal grant would clear 185 acres of Southeast Denton by purchasing “substandard” homes from owners to sell to a developer. The bond program lacked a relocation plan for so many residents in a small town.

Supporters, led by Tom Harpool and Mayor Warren Whitson, called themselves Denton Citizens for Continued Progress. They believed urban renewal would make the city greater. Denton’s City Council failed to utilize the Planning and Zoning Commission, and the council members didn’t seek public comment or appoint the citizens group that consultants recommended.

Opposition led by businessman Jerry Stout formed the Social Committee for the Protection of Property. Stout pointed out that “excellent men on council listened to a small but vocal group.”

Opponents were concerned about property owners’ constitutional rights and the inappropriate use of eminent domain, using outspoken Columbia University urban renewal critic Martin Anderson’s arguments. The opposition was a curious mix of Southeast Denton residents who feared losing homes, white residents who didn’t want Black residents in their neighborhoods and white residents who opposed the plan on principle.

Prior to the 1966 urban renewal bond election, a feud developed between Mayor Whitson and Stout. The mayor in the council-manager style reinstated in 1960 in Denton’s charter was supposed to be little more than a ceremonial figurehead, so Whitson’s heavy involvement in the bond election made enemies for him.

In the largest voter turnout to date, the bond was overwhelmingly defeated with 2,993 voting against it and 561 voting for it. Denton’s 1966 urban renewal bond election created a divide that apparently still exists between development proponents and residents wanting neighborhood protection.

Bond election fallout unseated three sitting council members, replacing them with candidates endorsed by bond election opponents. At that time, the council elected their own mayor, and they replaced Mayor Whitson with Zeke Martin, a local gas distributor who owned Southeast Denton rent properties. The city manager who was closely associated with the ex-mayor was forced to resign. His replacement, Jim White, was better at seeking compromise.

But the bond election that uncovered Southeast Denton’s problems left the city without a plan.

City officials considered a beefed-up code enforcement program to prevent further Southeast Denton deterioration, but they needed funding. Unnerved by the overwhelming bond loss, the city considered only “publicly acceptable” remedies.

Southeast Denton organized through the Denton Women’s Interracial Fellowship. That group demanded the city finally use the bond money it had been sitting on to pave Southeast Denton streets. The city ultimately used assessment-paving, where owners on each side paid a quarter of the cost of paving and curbs, and the city paid half. After the city finally paved streets, it had no funds for code enforcement or grants to help residents repair properties.

Humphries cited factors that caused the urban renewal bond failure:

Denton was still a small, rural town reluctant to accept change.

Residents were also suspicious of federal intervention.

Instead of using federal funds for Southeast Denton infrastructure, the city chose to propose demolishing structures.

Finally, the city didn’t read the political environment, especially the opposition to eminent domain.

The federal urban renewal program replaced slums with affordable housing. It ended after funding more than 2,000 construction projects between 1949 and 1973.

Urban renewal has been criticized for tearing down Black America.

ANNETTA RAMSAY, Ph.D., has lived in Denton for many years.

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