Preservationists work to recognize subdivisions built for blacks

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Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Young, working-class and black, Henry Bolden Jr. was not the kind of person who bought a new house in 1946, even in the North.

But Bolden was also a U.S. Army veteran who'd spent World War II driving supply trucks in Belgium and France. With help from the GI Bill, he was able to buy his house in a Columbus neighborhood that was revolutionary in its day: Hanford Village, an enclave of single-family homes marketed solely to blacks.

"I would have been stuck, like a lot of other people are still stuck, renting houses in the poor, rundown neighborhoods," said Bolden, who at 82 still lives in the same small house on the city's east side.

Some of the early black homeowner neighborhoods around the country are trying to win historic recognition before their place in the history of homeownership fades.

The residents want to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which would make them eligible for federal tax credits or grants for historic preservation. The designation doesn't protect against demolition but requires anyone involved with a federally funded project, including developers, to take the listing into consideration when the work could endanger the structure.

In New Orleans, developers in the early 1950s created the Pontchartrain Park subdivision around a golf course designed by black landscape architect Joseph Bartholomew.

Pontchartrain Park residents were preparing a 50th anniversary celebration and an application to the National Register when Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the homes in 2005, halting the effort.

In Las Vegas, residents of the Berkely Square neighborhood on the city's west side have applied for a listing for the subdivision of modest ranch homes built after World War II for the city's growing black population, many of them veterans.

The neighborhood is a reminder that home ownership for blacks, once rare, became a reality for many, said Ruth D'hondt, who has lived there since 1959. Just a few years earlier, city developers were advertising homes in "whites only" subdivisions.

"It just grieves me we would walk away from something that was so hard fought for and was so valuable," said D'hondt, 65, a retired server at Caesars Palace.

The neighborhoods were developed as the G.I. Bill made home ownership a reality for millions for the first time, including blacks. Cities partnered with the government -- the Veterans Administration or the Federal Housing Authority -- and private developers with a conscience.

Thomas Berkely, for example, who helped finance what became Berkely Square, was a black civil rights activist.

One challenge to historic recognition is how much the areas have changed. In Delaware, owners have made improvements from new windows to adding a story to houses in the Dunleith neighborhood south of Wilmington, created in the 1950s as the state's first housing development marketed to blacks.

Early residents included blue-collar workers and teachers as well as veterans. Like Pontchartrain Park and Berkely Square, it's still largely a black community.

The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs considers Dunleith potentially eligible for the National Register but would need to know more about what made the houses unique if an application were made.

Another challenge is the relative youth of the housing developments. Eligibility for the National Register begins after 50 years, a timespan that could now make "historic places" of split-level ranch subdivisions and shopping plazas.

"It doesn't seem to be imperative to save these buildings right now," said Christine Madrid French, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Recent Past Preservation Network. "Versus an 1890s mansion, where it might seem more obvious."

The National Register, a listing of about 80,000 properties, considers the architectural and historic importance of buildings and the shape they're in.

Persuading black property owners to seek the designation can sometimes be difficult because some equate preservation with gentrification or higher taxes.

"There is the concern that venturing into some aspects of historic preservation could lead to neighborhood change that isn't necessarily wanted," said Jeffrey Harris, director for diversity at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit advocacy group.

In Columbus, the Hanford Village subdivision got its start in 1946 when real estate developer Ivan Gore advertised the first houses.

"Homes for Negro Families" read the April 21 ad that year in The Columbus Dispatch. Houses were available for about $6,500, a relative bargain considering the median value of a single-family home at the time was about $8,500.

William Watkins was a Tuskegee Airman who lived in one of the first houses while stationed at nearby Lockborne Air Force Base. Watkins, now 94, remembered how happy he was to have a house as a newly married soldier.

There was gratitude, but something less comfortable too: The segregated houses were a reminder of blacks' station in society, even in a northern city.

"There was always a bitter spot in our hearts because they're building houses all over Columbus and the only houses available for Afro-American vets was this one little Hanford Village," Watkins said. "This is only a drop in the bucket of the number of houses that we actually need."

In those days, Hanford Village was its own municipality with a mayor, fire department, police department and several stores.

Surviving veterans and their children recall a tidy neighborhood where neighbors all knew each other.

Children rode their bikes late into the night. They fished, swam and rafted in nearby Alum Creek. Families played and picnicked in the park around the corner.

A mom calling her son home could yell his name from her door and neighbors would repeat it house after house until the message arrived.

"Everybody knew each other, everybody's parents parented everybody," said Carol Haile, whose father, Major Haile, an aircraft mechanic who served in the Pacific in World War II, bought one of the first houses.

The neighborhood began to change in the 1960s when the state routed Interstate 70 through Hanford Village, removing several houses. The highway split the park that a generation of children had grown up in, rendering the remaining few acres almost inaccessible.

People began to move away.

Today, Hanford Village is slightly downtrodden, with a mix of renters and homeowners, including a few original residents. Many of the single-story Cape Cod-style cottages are still well kept, looking more or less the same as when they were built. Others are showing signs of neglect; some are even boarded-up.

The Ohio Historical Society considers Hanford Village historically significant and deserving of further study. But it will take a resident to step forward and ask for the process of listing on the National Register to begin.

After the war ended and Bolden came home, he and his wife, Betty, were so eager to move into their home they huddled in the cold basement while the house was still under construction.

The house was less than 1,600 square feet, small by modern standards. It had five rooms and a single bathroom. But the couple happily settled in and raised four sons and a daughter, all of whom still live in the Columbus area. The second Sunday of every month they all get together at the Hanford house for dinner.

"It was really something to live out here," said Bolden, who worked as a busboy and janitor in Columbus restaurants and later as a jewelry store deliveryman and mail clerk.

"If anything happened, everybody was here and they were going to take care of it," Bolden said. "So we were very fortunate, and we are still fortunate."


On the Net:

Ohio Historical Society:

Recent Past Preservation Network:

National Register: