Racial Disparity In Eminent Domain Rears Its Ugly Head Again

A few months back I wrote about an David T. Beito and Ilya Somin op-ed that appeared in the Kansas City Star about how the battle over eminent domain has become a civil rights issue. In that piece they quoted an amicus brief filed by the NAACP in Kelo v. New London:

“[t]he burden of eminent domain has and will continue to fall disproportionately upon racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and economically disadvantaged.” Unfettered eminent domain authority, the NAACP concluded, is a “license for government to coerce individuals on behalf of society’s strongest interests.”

That burden continues unabated. A few days ago the AP highlighted one of the projects in San Francisco where race was a factor in declaring the area a blighted district:

A half-century ago, this neighborhood was nicknamed “Harlem of the West” and hundreds of black-owned businesses thrived here. At night its gritty streets were filled with the sounds of jazz and blues drifting from nightclubs.

Then the government, using race as a factor in its decision, decreed the area blighted and forced thousands of people, including King, from the neighborhood by way of eminent domain. The din of bulldozers and wrecking balls replaced the saxophones and snare drum-raps with the promise of a better neighborhood.

To understand just how devastating this was to the black community in San Francisco just soak in these following passages.

Holding her cane and shuffling carefully down the sidewalk in the city’s Jazz Preservation District, 88-year-old Leola King stopped and looked at the words stamped in concrete: Leola King’s Birdcage, 1505 Fillmore.

Today, the site of King’s 1960s nightclub is a Starbucks on the ground floor of a condominium tower.


“In her day, she was one of the wealthiest women in San Francisco and that’s no joke,” said San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes Western Addition. “They took a self-made woman and basically subverted her stature.”

Documents show that King lost businesses — two nightclubs and a barbecue restaurant — and numerous residential properties. She spent decades in a losing battle with the agency that ended in bankruptcy after she defaulted on real estate loans.

She now lives in a garage that was converted into an apartment, surrounded by gilded mirrors and chandeliers that once decorated her clubs.

You can read more in the article about how King would move to new areas with her businesses (areas that were supposed to be safe according to government officials) only to have her new locations condemned also and torn down for “upscale” projects.

The city’s black population was growing rapidly when redevelopment began in the 1950s. By the mid-1970s, however, blocks sat vacant and the black population had started its decades-long slide from about 13 percent to half that in 2005 — the biggest percentage decline of any major city.

The project is set to come to an end at the close of this year. Let’s hope that no new projects start up in its place.