The Bottom: how Urban Renewal destroyed Black heritage

The Bottom is a historic community in East Knoxville whose name comes from the marshy bottomland that was there in the early 20th century. For most of its history, it was home to primarily Black residents. When Urban Renewal began in the 1950s, these were the first people to be bought out of their land and moved out of the area to allow for changes.

Urban Renewal is redevelopment of certain areas of a larger city. This can lead to gentrification, which is when the character of an area changes with an influx of wealthier residents. It often leads to displacement of the former residents, who can no longer afford to live in that area after wealthier residents drive the prices up.

East Knoxville, and specifically the Bottom, went through a period of Urban Renewal from 1949-1974. The Beck Cultural Exchange Center states that 2,500 families were displaced during this time, with over 70% of them being Black. The renewal consisted of the Willow Street Project, the Mountain View Project, and the Morningside Project. The renewal of this entire area led to the loss of lots of the heritage of the Black community in this area. The Civic Coliseum, for example, required razing 72 residences, nine businesses, and two churches in 1961, all in the primarily Black area of the city at the time.

The reasons behind the Urban Renewal were twofold, with one likely being the poor living conditions in the area. The Bottom even got its name from the First Creek bottomland, which is the area east of the Old City. There was annual flooding, disease, such as cholera or smallpox, and most of the houses did not have plumbing or electricity. The second being that the 1950s was not a good era for Knoxville, according to the Knoxville History Project. It lost several of its large employers, 10 percent of its population, and according to historical evidence, it was doing little to take care of its poorer population. Urban Renewal would have given the city a chance to bring in more people.

“I'll mention one irony--that the problem with flooding, which made the Bottom a pretty awful place to live for several decades, ended about the time everybody had to leave,” said Jack Neely, executive director of the Knoxville History Project, in an email interview. “So at the same time [Urban Renewal] forced everybody to move out, it was becoming a potentially nicer place to live.”

City Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie requested a resolution in 2020 apologizing for Urban Renewal, predecessors’ participation in slavery in Knoxville, and for denying Black families the opportunity to own homes through redlining. The Knoxville City Council passed the resolution, entitled the African American Equity Restoration Resolution, in December 2020. The resolution also requested committing $100 million through grants in order to support solutions offered by a task force charged with addressing the lingering problems from racism in Knoxville.

These are steps towards addressing the complicated and outright racist history in Knoxville, though nothing will completely erase the lingering effects of Urban Renewal. It eradicated decades-worth of Black heritage that can never be completely brought back, though new efforts are being made to fill the gaps in the community left in the Bottom. A prime example of this is The Bottom, a community center and bookstore located in the area that it is named after that seeks to “build community, celebrate culture, and engage the creativity of Black people in Knoxville.” The Beck Cultural Center is working on an expanded history of the Bottom, as well.

These efforts may help the displacement left behind in the area, and, at the very least, can begin to cultivate safe community spaces in an area devastated by racism.

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