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Why Knoxville's new Equity Restoration Task Force backs an extensive walkway project

The Knoxville News-Sentinel logo The Knoxville News-Sentinel 6 days ago Angela Dennis, Knoxville News Sentinel

A year after the African American Equity Restoration Task Force held its inaugural meeting, members have zeroed in on their first large federal grant as the group carries out its mission to seek $100 million to make amends for decades of urban removal that harmed Knoxville’s Black communities.

The task force agreed to support the city as it applies for money from a federal program designed to reconnect neighborhoods that have been physically divided by highways.

Knoxville's urban removal project in the 1950s-'70s did just that.

City leaders decades ago razed homes and businesses to create the James White Parkway and other projects, essentially cutting off Black communities from access to the city's civic and business core. The change left Black families physically isolated and disconnected from economic opportunity, and that barrier continues today.

The task force backed a plan from Knoxville's Community Development Corporation and the city to start fixing that by expanding trails and improving walking paths that will stretch from Knoxville's Botanical Gardens through the new Austin Homes development to the site of the Old City stadium.

The project would widen the narrow Summit Hill Drive sidewalk where the street crosses the James White Parkway into downtown. It's the major connector between the neighborhoods just east of the downtown, and the sidewalk is unpleasant for pedestrians as cars whiz by.

Essentially, the paths would make it far more enjoyable and easy to walk or bike to downtown amenities.

Designers envision creating safe, wide, and welcoming sidewalks between the Knoxville Botanical Garden, the Alex Haley statue, Morningside Park, Hill Avenue, Summit Hill Drive, Cal Johnson Park, the city's public transit hub, and the forthcoming science museum and Tennessee Smokies stadium.

"They're able to utilize the existing infrastructure in a much more interesting way so that it's not just the concrete kind of boring view that you might be experiencing if you were walking today," said Erin Gill, chief policy officer for the city of Knoxville.

Councilperson and task force member Gwen McKenzie says the change could attract more economic development deeper into East Knoxville.

Task force members suggested historical markers could be incorporated as well.

The project and costs, which is still being finalized but is estimated to be around $15 million, will be reviewed by the City Council on Oct. 4. and the grant application will be sent out soon after.

According to the Department of Transportation, the grant does not allow the program to cover 100% of project costs. Instead, it functions as a match for communities that are already investing in the work.

What is the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program?

The Biden administration's Reconnecting Communities Pilot program is funded with $1 billion in tax dollars over the next five years. It is the first-ever federal program dedicated to reconnecting communities that were cut off by highways, a common practice that has exacerbated racial divides in major American cities.

The paths will "reconnect historically underserved and disconnected neighborhoods with highly sought amenities," according to information presented to the task force.

Marisa Moazen, the Knoxville Community Development Corporation director of policy and strategic partnerships, told the task force the group will apply for a capital construction grant and may apply again in subsequent cycles if the city's proposal is not approved this year.

Task force chair Tanisha Fitzgerald-Baker told Knox News the project addresses aspects of life in Black communities that have previously been ignored.

"The mission of the task force is to assess and contribute to opportunities that will restore equity and access to the community. When an investment includes the advancement of a community previously ignored and shifts attention to increasing resources and plans that will result in economic growth and opportunities for residents and small businesses, we see that as a win,” she said.

What is the African American Equity Resolution Task Force?

City Council members in December 2020 unanimously approved a monumental resolution by then-Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie apologizing for decades of urban removal that demolished entire blocks of residences and businesses, harming Black communities. The resolution created a task force to obtain and direct grant funding toward programs and organizations that serve the Black community.

In the coming years, the city will commit to seeking $100 million for a plan designed to help those whose lives and livelihoods have been disrupted in an effort to give Black families the same opportunities to prosper as white families.

What is urban removal?

City leaders in the middle of the century, under the guise of eliminating "slums," used eminent domain to take over and tear down homes and businesses.

The Willow Street Project, Mountain View Project, and Morningside Project were three of Knoxville's urban removal projects from 1959 to 1974, according to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. More than 2,500 families were displaced during urban renewal, and more than 100 Black businesses and numerous churches were affected.

In the process, much of the heritage of the Black community was erased near downtown and the Old City. Community members, at great personal expense, had to move to new homes.

What has the task force accomplished so far?

Since the task force’s first meeting in the late summer of 2021, accomplishments include receiving a $30,000 grant from the National League of Cities and hiring a grant writer.

Fitzgerald-Baker said it was necessary to take the time to establish policies, procedures, and protocols that would guide the task force's work.

“We all understood the why. It was the how that needed to be clear and established. While we have listened already to the public attending our meetings as well as organizations and agencies aligned with our work, we are coordinating plans to gather public input to make sure we capture the voice of the community,” she said.

The task force’s focus over the next year is to use research and community input to help secure funding toward the $100 million proposed by the resolution.

“We are looking at opportunities that will generate a long-lasting impact moving beyond just Band-Aids but true solutions and remedies to those things that have ailed the African American community," she said.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Why Knoxville's new Equity Restoration Task Force backs an extensive walkway project


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