July 13, 1970
The New York Times Archives
CHARLESTON, W. Va., July 12—This state capital, nestled in the narrow green Kanawha Valley of the Appalachian) Mountains, has become a testing ground for the Nixon Administration’s policy of financing highways only after adequate replacement housing is fully ready for people living in the highway’s right‐of‐way.
On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, the jaws of a wrecking machine crunched 19 homes to rubble after Police Chief Dallas Bias and his men broke up a man wall of some 50 protestors seeking to pre serve the predominantly black Triangle neighborhood between the Elk and Kanawha Rivers in the heart of Charleston.
The protest, against clearing the right‐of‐way for a six‐lane, combined section of Interstate 64 and Interstate 77, prompted an order Friday by Transportation Secretary John A. Volpe to halt further demolition pending a review of the routing.
The small interstate segment is part of a total of 133 miles of the 42,000‐mile system held up by route disputes in urban areas.
The common past practice of road builders was to route highways through parks and low‐income areas as the path of least resistance. But, increasingly, community groups are objecting.
Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, has put it this way: “Transportation planning is going to have to get away from the habit of destroying black neighborhoods to make commuting faster and easier for white suburbanites.”
To balance past condemnation practices, the 1968 High way Act required state high way agencies to consider social and environmental factors in road‐routing decisions.
“Now we have to change people’s minds and sell them on a relocation plan,” Federal Highway Administrator Francis C. Turner said in a recent interview. “Before, we just bought property and relocation was their responsibility.”
Case Is Dismissed
But not all state highway departments put relocation needs ahead of road building, and the Triangle Improvement Council, a Charleston agency supported by the Office of Economic Opportunity, sued the West Virginia Highway Department last year, charging failure to supply adequate housing.
Federal District Judge John Field ruled that the highway department was not required to provide a comprehensive relocation plan and dismissed the case.
The Triangle Council has appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Overruling objections by the Highway Department, Chief Judge Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. of the appeals court has ordered that a Volpe order of last Feb. 16 be filed with the court for its consideration.
The Volpe order tightens the 1968 Highway Act requirement that state Highway Departments make replacement housing available “to the extent that can reasonably be accomplished,”
The Volpe order said the Ad ministration’s policy would be to grant Federal funds for land acquisition and construction “only upon verification that re placement housing is in place and has been made available to all affected persons.”
The Federal Government pays 90 per cent of the cost of interstate highways.
Charleston has a severe housing shortage. Benjamin Starks, publisher of the Negro Beacon Digest here, said Triangle residents already displaced by the highway and by a West Virginia water company filtration plant planned for the area have in numerous cases had to double up or leave town for substandard housing on the out skirts.
Plans for an urban renewal project in the Triangle also are being opposed by residents as another threat to the long‐established community.
Residents want the interstate looped around the city rather than through it, but would be content with a compromise that would shift its route one block east through the Triangle. This would save many homes by routing a segment of the road over Penn Central Railroad tracks.
Jollies D. Braman, assistant secretary of transportation for environment and urban systems, came here in May and later indicated he favored a change. Last month the City Council passed a resolution favoring the one‐block shift.
Mayor Elmer Dodson voted against a rerouting.
“Right or wrong” he said, “the work of demolition is legal and will continue.”
State Highway Commissioner William S. Ritchie said, “It is too late to make changes.”
The one‐block route shift, he said, would delay the road at least three years.
He pointed out that the city council lacked jurisdiction over interstate highway routing.
Charleston blacks, 10 per cent of the 70,000 population, welcomed the Volpe order to freeze demolition.
But bitterness remained high last weekend. The Save the Triangle Committee of residents demanded that incitement to riot and all other charges against 12 members of the pro testers arrested Wednesday be dropped.
Mr. Starks said this week’s protest with stones and fire bombs and the rocking of the car of police Chief Bias would be tame compared with violence in prospect if demolition is resumed.
Mrs. Ruth Robinson, president of the Save the Triangle Committee, said at a street corner news conference Friday at the scene of the razing that residents would soon begin boycott of downtown busi nesses.
They charge merchants and other downtown concerns with insisting on the present route for selfish reasons, despite the uprooting of families. They con tend business is putting com muting ease and the hope for greater income foremost.
Charleston merchants have worked for the present route since planning began in the 1950’s.
A recent full‐page newspaper advertisement by the Charleston Downtown Association says:
“The big interstates … nearer and nearer they come . . . making it only minutes from your home to downtown Charleston, shopping capital of West Virginia . . . like riding on a magic carpet.”
An editorial page columnist for the Charleston Daily Mail, which favors the present route, wrote:
“True, for those whose homes or businesses fall prey to the ribbons of concrete, there will be heartbreak, expense and inconvenience. But until there is a better way suggested, a few always will have to pay the price of progress.”
He said one advantage of constructing the big highway through the narrow city would be to provide “a long‐needed shift in the city’s population.”
Interpreted, Mr. Starks said, this is “Negro removal.”
He said blacks under the plan of the city power structure, are to be sent to a nearly completed frame housing project on Hanna Drive on the city’s outskirts. He described the buildings as “bar racks” alongside a creek awash with raw sewage.
Mrs. Robinson has presented the city council petitions with more than 300 signatures thanking councilmen for backing the residents’ plea for shift in the interstate route to save their homes.
One of the signers was Secretary of State John D. Rockefeller 4th, who is considering running for Governor in 1972.
“The Triangle community should not be split,” he said in an interview, “I wrote the Department of Transportation earlier in the year to protest the route and asked that it be shifted a block. It should never have come into this narrow, mile‐wide city in the first place.
“At what price progress? The sense of community is dying in America. People are not allowed to participate in decisions that affect them absolute ways. Moving the interstate one block would give Charleston and West Virginia some attention as governments that acted humanistically.”
A version of this archive appears in print on July 13, 1970, on Page 62 of the New York edition with the headline: Charleston, W. Va.: Homes or a Highway?