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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, April 11, 2006. Interview U-0186. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Biddleville neighborhood and their grassroots response to urban renewal

Fillette discusses the efforts of the Biddleville neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, to resist the demolition of their homes during urban renewal in the late 1970s. Likening the experience in Biddleville to that of the Cherry neighborhood (described in interview U-0185), Fillette explains how a grassroots response from the community helped turn the tide in the city council's plan and resulted in an alternative plan that provided public housing for displaced residents.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, April 11, 2006. Interview U-0186. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

You had discussed how you had had some success with that effort, partly because of changes in Charlotte politics, changes on the city council. I wanted to maybe pick up with that story and extend it a little bit, and ask you to describe the similar work you did with the Biddleville neighborhood in Charlotte. Could you tell me a little bit about what was going on in Biddleville in the mid-70s and what brought you into work with that neighborhood?
Sure, Biddleville is a neighborhood in west Charlotte that's probably within a mile of the immediate downtown commercial district that surrounds Johnson C. Smith University, the historically black college in Charlotte. This neighborhood was built back in the late 1800s and early 1900s and had mostly fallen into a state of disrepair on most of the streets. Some of the streets were dominated totally by very low-income rental housing. There were a few homeowner streets that were very close to the university, but for the most part, it was a very deteriorated neighborhood and it was one of the nine neighborhoods selected by the city for so-called redevelopment through the community development block grant program. The main plan as it had been adopted in 1975 was to demolish virtually all of the housing, again similar to what had happened in the First Ward urban renewal area in Brooklyn and the Cherry community. What happened in this neighborhood was that a VISTA volunteer project, that had been organized by a part-time professor out at UNC-Charlotte, had sent young VISTA volunteers through the neighborhoods to do surveys of the residents about how they felt about the prospect of their neighborhood being torn down. That was really the catalyst for an attempt by an indigenous neighborhood leader named Louise Sellers, who reacted to that by deciding to do her own door-to-door campaign to organize people and started having meetings of residents in churches. The essence of their meeting was that people did not want to be displaced wholesale. Most of them did not want to go into what they perceived as dangerous and bad public housing in other parts of the city, which is what a lot of them assumed would happen to them if they were forced to move. Ms. Sellers contacted our office for assistance in trying to stop this demolition plan. I was the main lawyer that was available at that time. This was about the end of 1979 and, I think, the beginning of 1980. At that time, we had pretty much finished the litigation in the [Margaret] Harris-[Mitchell] Kannon suit and we didn't really see any necessary relationship of that litigation to this new community fight. I can't remember the details about that analysis, but regardless, we thought that we were probably going to have to have a political solution rather than a legal solution. So what was interesting about this fight was that the district representative for that neighborhood was someone who befriended the administration at Johnson C. Smith University and it became clear from dialogue that we had, that he thought that the city's plan for demolition would inure to the benefit of the university, because they would probably be able to get very inexpensive or free land from the city once it had been cleared.
And who was that city representative?
That was Charlie Dannelly, who serves in the General Assembly now as a state senator. So when the community organization approached Mr. Dannelly for help to try to modify the plan, he pretty much rebuffed them and said there wasn't anything wrong with the plan and it needed to proceed. Although that was somewhat disappointing, what it did was make the neighborhood organization even more motivated and angry about the initial lack of sympathy for their position. They started taking carloads and busloads of residents to the city council meetings and completely filling the audience to express their displeasure with the plan.
Was Louise Sellers the leader of this?
Oh yes, she was. She would go door to door and tell people they needed to come out. They needed to find babysitters or they would bring the children with them. Sometimes there were children of all ages who were coming down to these city council meetings and packing the room. After having that done once or twice, the decision by the city council, which was not made in public, I think out of deference to Mr. Dannelly, was to tell the staff to go negotiate with the community organization about a new plan so that nobody would lose face. The upshot of that was that a new plan was devised and what it did was save all of the structurally-feasible housing that was in the community. So instead of demolishing everything, a more selective analysis was done to determine the buildings that could be reasonably rehabilitated and saved. That was fairly successful with most of the single-family homes. The one section that had very small and severely dilapidated housing we conceded needed to be replaced and what we were able to do there was negotiate for a brand-new apartment complex to be owned and operated by the housing authority, where residents would have the first right to apply and live there. What that ended up doing was providing housing that was actually more affordable than some of the previously-owned substandard housing, where some of those low-income families were paying more than thirty percent of their net income for really bad houses and having to pay their own utilities. By getting public housing, the federal subsidy limited the tenants' contribution to only thirty percent of their net income for rent and utilities and they got much better housing. That was a lot better than having people go to some of the older public housing in other parts of the city. So I think generally speaking, people in the community thought that was a good compromise and overall preserved the neighborhood as being a low-income neighborhood, but with better quality housing and with some options.