When Urban Renewal Actually Was Rural Renewal

But the results invariable the same: what residents described as “Negro Removal.”

The stretch of River Road in the vicinity of Macedonia Baptist Church and the former Moses Cemetery in Bethesda was one of several project areas Montgomery County government targeted for “community renewal.” This was Montgomery County’s attempt to use federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funding in a mostly rural variant of “urban renewal.” Such communities as Tobytown, Scotland, Cabin John, and Emory Grove became project areas where the county purchased properties, displaced residents, demolished buildings, and resold the properties to the private sector for redevelopment.


The county also built infrastructure: paved roads and extended water and sewer lines into historically African American communities that had existed for decades adjacent to white residential subdivisions with these necessities. The infrastructure was something that residents in these communities had asking the county for decades to improve.

Montgomery County “Problem Areas” map published in 1971. Landy Lane is highlighted at the bottom. Credit: Montgomery County Archives.

By the time Montgomery County got into the urban renewal business in 1965, the River Road African American community had already been erased. Segregated — whites-only — residential subdivisions had been closing in on River Road since the 1930s. The forces displacing African American residents from River Road also were fed by industrial development encouraged by county zoning and proximity to the B&O Railroad’s Georgetown Branch. It made some River Road residents feel like they were in tightening vise.

Landy Lane at River Road, November 2017.

River Road was called the “Landy Lane Program Area” by Montgomery County’s urban renewal program. A report produced in 1971 described the erased River Road community:

The Landy Lane Program Area is primarily an industrial and commercial sector in Lower Montgomery County. The few deficient residential units have been eliminated, but this does not call for a change in the treatment recommended by the CRP [Community Renewal Plan]. Namely preparation of a design plan to deal with obsolete and unsightly commercial and industrial uses.

One statement in the report stands out: “The few deficient residential units have been eliminated.” Those “deficient residential units” were homes occupied by families with names like Clipper, Dorsey, Watkins, and Matthews.

Sources: Montgomery County Archives; The Washington Post; Harvey Matthews. #BlackHistoryDay

Note: This post originally appeared on the Save Bethesda African Cemetery Facebook page.

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