Reforms brought new look to city

The family of Leonard Brooks, fifth from right, then 13) was one of the first to be relocated by urban renewal. The Brooks family, which included Mr. and Mrs. Brooks and nine children, moved from their house at 2810 Gay St.

Urban renewal opened up the city's housing market to blacks and gave rise to retail centers.

By ANDREW JAROSH of The News-Sentinel

Blacks today can live wherever they want in Fort Wayne.

That ability can be traced to a failed urban renewal program of the 1960s, said the man responsible for relocating more than 300 black families from the blighted Hanna-Creighton neighborhood.

Urban renewal was one of many forces that changed the Fort Wayne landscape in the 1960s. New construction – especially of the two big shopping malls and Interstate 69 – expanded the city's boundaries. Accelerated suburban migration helped empty its core.

But urban renewal such as the Hannah-Creighton project may have had the longest-lasting social impact.

While this federally funded redevelopment project in the central city – the largest of its kind in the decade – failed to spur the private investment and renaissance its supporters had envisioned, it had a lasting impact on breaking down racial housing barriers common at the time, said Ed Elkins, longtime community activist.

"The program catapulted the demise of segregated housing in Fort Wayne. Without it, the walls might have never been broken down,'' he said.

The Hanna-Creighton project, of which Elkins was relocation director for five years, in key ways epitomized urban renewal in the 1960s. The area was cleared of buildings, most of them private homes in substandard or, in some cases, unlivable condition. The inhabitants, mostly black families who owned their own homes, were displaced. A wasteland was created that lasted for years in hopes of private development that never happened. A few government-supported apartment projects and commercial ventures appeared, but the city had little else to show for its $5.5 million.

The community somewhat naively believed government intervention in the guise of urban renewal projects such as Hanna-Creighton could stem the tide of suburbanization that was decimating the downtown, worsening slum-housing conditions and causing its population to shrink in comparison with outlying areas.

Alarming trends

In 1960 there were more than 50,000 occupied housing units in the city. About 1,350, or 2.7 percent, did not provide safe and adequate shelter. And about 80 percent of this slum housing was within the central city. In the Hanna-Creighton neighborhood alone, two-thirds of 532 housing units were considered substandard.

Blight not only produced a miserly tax return but used up valuable resources in the process. By mid-decade, slums required about 45 percent of the total city service costs, but returned only 6 percent of the tax revenue.

Meanwhile, the push to the suburbs was accelerated by relatively cheap new housing, an abundance of vacant farmland, and the existence of private utilities and roads that made those areas readily accessible, said John Stafford, a local government planner for three decades.

As a result, Fort Wayne's urban renewal policies – with some modest successes – failed to prevent the demographic makeup of the community from changing forever.


According to "The East Central Neighborhood: A Celebration of Community,'' by Peter Iadicola and Patrick Ashton, the Hanna-Creighton project was begun in 1964 with disastrous results.

It proposed clearing 112 acres in an area bounded by Hanna Street, Creighton Avenue, Anthony Boulevard and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. It was to contain two large garden apartment complexes, light industry, a central recreation center and school, several small shopping centers, and the more desirable residential area near Creighton.

Federal funding for the project followed, and the latter half of the 1960s was spent razing the area.

The Redevelopment Commission, the agency empowered with urban renewal, encouraged developers to meet the demand for new housing. Developers balked, in part because the low-income housing Hanna-Creighton residents could afford was not profitable to build. Builders also worried about blight spreading into their new developments.

Elkins said the successful relocation of residents faced obstacles nearly impossible to overcome:

* "Exploitation robbed many of most of their equity,'' Elkins said in his final relocation report in 1970. Because many blacks couldn't secure private mortgages, they became renters who bought on land contract.

When it was time to buy out these families, there was so little equity in the homes that families got very little as down payment for new homes.

"For example,'' his report said, "one family received $833; another family received $732; still another family received only $105.''

* Real estate agents, meanwhile, were of little help.

"During the early stage of relocation . . . most real estate brokers and salesmen would not show (blacks) houses listed in densely populated white neighborhoods,'' Elkins wrote. "Conversely, they made a vigorous attempt to keep white neighborhoods impervious to (blacks), hoping to confine black people to the despair and agony of the slums.''

Leonard Brooks remembers the time well. Brooks, then 13, was uprooted along with his parents and eight siblings to a two-story home the family still owns at 2810 Gay St.

"People didn't want us there because of the size of the family and that we were black,'' said Brooks, who now lives in Battle Creek, Mich. "Neighbors said if they knew this, they would have bought it themselves'' to prevent a large black family from living next door. The neighborhood had only two black families when the Brookses moved in the fall of 1964.

As time went by, the Brookses assimilated; neighbors realized they were a "disciplined'' family that would cause no problems, Brooks said.

With the buyout, "you didn't get what you put into it,'' but it was adequate to acquire a house large enough to accommodate the family, he said.

The house has stayed in the family. Parents Arthur and Mary Brooks lived there until a few months ago; a sister plans to move in soon.

* Banks were of little help.

Elkins said he remembers several local banks telling him they didn't write mortgages in certain parts of town, which happened to be predominantly black.

Many black families couldn't get financing because of poor credit. And those who could faced exorbitant down payments.

The FHA also would not insure loans in certain neighborhoods, especially those with a high density of blacks.

* Public housing, an alternative for residents who couldn't afford to own a home, came too late.

Brookmill Court, a $1.8 million federally assisted public housing project, opened in 1969, but only after people were forced out by the project.

Over and over, plans for new construction fell apart. By the end of the decade, only a few success stories emerged in Hanna-Creighton. One was the Old Fort YMCA; the other, Eden Green Apartments.


The Redevelopment Commission also turned its attention to the confluence of the city's three rivers, where blight was on the rise. It acquired an 8-acre site and used a special tax to help clear the land for development.

In this instance, the effort paid off. In 1964 the commission got a bid from the Three Rivers Development Corp. to build two 14-story luxury apartment buildings, including underground parking and a swimming pool. Three Rivers Apartments was completed in 1967.

Also in the 1960s the commission developed a 24-acre site on Main Street from Clay to Calhoun streets, which included the City-County Building.

The Main Street project also spawned the creation of The Landing, after decaying stores and warehouses associated with the canal era were torn down.


A new trend in population was being seen in the 1960s as well.

Between 1950 and 1960, Fort Wayne's population increased about 10 percent to 161,000, while Allen County's grew by about 20 percent, to 232,196. Because farm population was declining, nearly all the gain was attributed to suburban growth.

Census figures show the same trend in the 1960s. Fort Wayne's population grew only to 178,021 by 1970, while the county expanded about another 20 percent, to 280,455. By the 1970s more than 80 percent of construction was being done outside the city limits.

Meanwhile, between 1960 and 1970, the central city lost 9,000 people — 12,000 whites moved out and 3,000 blacks moved in. The overall density per acre dropped from 11.5 people in 1960 to 9.2 in 1970.

Outward bound

As a result of the flight to the suburbs, Fort Wayne tried to recapture population through annexation. Through the 1950s and 1960s, annexations helped double the size of the city compared to its 1940 boundaries.

Despite annexation, however, Fort Wayne was unable to keep up with the pace of outward growth. City residents as a percentage of the total population of Allen County declined from 76 percent in 1940 to 63 percent by the end of the 1960s. And the city's growth rate of about 10 percent in the 1960s was the result mostly of annexation.

Shopping, transportation

Meanwhile, business mirrored the flight by residents to the suburbs. Glenbrook Square opened in 1965, with Sears and L.S. Ayres as its anchors, on 120 acres at the southwest corner of the Circumurban, today's Coliseum Boulevard, and U.S. 27.

Southtown Mall, of similar initial size and investment, opened in 1967 at Tillman Road and U.S. 27 South. Georgetown Shopping Center on East State Boulevard broke ground in 1967 as well. On the southwest side of town, Time Corners, at one time an almost rural market, expanded into an urban retail center.

The state and federal governments became players in transportation around Fort Wayne in the 1960s. In 1962 work began on I-69, a four-lane superhighway that ran the length of the state. On its completion in 1971, I-69 became a major growth pole in the metropolitan area.

Although I-69 did little to connect travelers with the downtown, suffering as it was from an exodus to the suburbs, the philosophy of the interstate system was to connect communities, not serve as an urban highway.

Instead, its location encouraged growth out to the west. That's why Aboite Township started to grow.


Stafford said history bears out the errors of 1960s urban renewal policy that tears down, disrupts and relocates neighborhoods.

"You lost the whole community in the relocation,'' he said. A strategy like Hanna-Creighton's might lead to investment, "but you lost the human fabric.''

For Elkins, failure lay not as much in the social displacement but in the community's inability to find homes for blacks in places other than the south side.

In the end, a combination of factors — one being personal preference; the other, the tenor of the times — led most blacks who opted to stay in Fort Wayne to choose neighborhoods immediately south of Hanna-Creighton. Only two families, at most, were able to relocate on the north side of town, even though a lot more tried, he said.

Even the opening of Eden Green Apartments in the Hanna-Creighton area didn't sway dislocated families to move there. "Not everybody wanted to live in the central city. People wanted freedom of choice,'' Elkins said.

That's where the program had its biggest, if unintended, impact. It did away with a mind-set that said blacks should "be relegated to (certain) geographic areas'' and made freedom of choice in accommodations, regardless of race, a way of life here.

"(Hanna-Creighton) was the best thing that happened to this community,'' he said. The project didn't spawn urban renewal, "but it opened up the housing situation in spite of it all.''

unction(w,d,s,l,i){w[l]=w[l]||[];w[l].push({'gtm.start': new Date().getTime(),event:'gtm.js'});var f=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0], j=d.createElement(s),dl=l!='dataLayer'?'&l='+l:'';j.async=true;j.src= 'https://www.googletagmanager.com/gtm.js?id='+i+dl;f.parentNode.insertBefore(j,f); })(window,document,'script','dataLayer','GTM-KVWHXLX'); Contact Us | FortWayne.com