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‘We’re about to lose this thing’: Cahaba Project residents debate future of historic neighborhood

By Gary Lloyd

TRUSSVILLE – Bob Davis remembers riding his red tricycle around the Cahaba Project.

Now he drives a truck, and he has seen the numerous changes through the decades.

“We’re about to lose this thing,” Davis said amongst a group of close to fifty members of Trussville’s Cahaba Project neighborhood Tuesday night at the Trussville City Council workshop. “This might be the last gasp to save this thing.”

The Cahaba Project (photo by Gary Lloyd)

That last gasp he refers to is the potential creation of a local historical district that could govern the guidelines for major additions to homes, demolitions, and more in the Cahaba Project. Mary Shell, the Community Services/Preservation Planner/Certified Local Government Coordinator for the Alabama Historical Commission spoke at the meeting, outlining what a local historical commission would be able to regulate. Shell spoke of other cities with certified local governments for the purpose of historical preservation, house design guidelines, and how residents would go about making additions or demolishing homes.

“Demolition is very much advised against,” Shell said.

There were 287 homes constructed in Trussville’s Cahaba Project in the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, a series of economic programs enacted between 1933 and 1936, focusing on relief, recovery, and reform as part of progressing from the Great Depression. The programs centered on relief for the unemployed and poor, recovery of the economy, and reform of the financial system to prevent another depression.

Trussville City Councilman Zack Steele said two Cahaba Project homes have been demolished in the last 18 months, with one more scheduled to be. In the previous eighty-plus years, only five were demolished, mostly due to fire or natural disaster, Steele said.

“What we’re seeing happen, and I’m beginning to see the dominoes fall, is we’re having people wanting to live in that neighborhood but not wanting to live in those houses,” Steele said.

The crowd Tuesday night (photo by Gary Lloyd)

Steele said he had invited Shell to ride through the Cahaba Project with him, to learn about the homes and history. Shell said historic preservation has many benefits, including walking, biking, parks, neighborhood schools, and more.

“This village that you have doesn’t exist anywhere else in the state of Alabama,” she told the council. “I think you need to find a way to preserve this area.”

Steele said his main goal is to have a set of guidelines for home remodels, add-ons, and demolitions in the Cahaba Project. If there is an addition, it needs to match the rest of the house in terms of siding, rooflines, and more. There needs to be a good reason for complete demolition, he said.

It is impossible to blame people for wanting to move to Trussville, especially into the Cahaba Project. It’s the center of the city. It is where the city truly began. There is a newly revived neighborhood school, the Trussville Public Library, parks, and sidewalks along almost every street. It is a treasure.

But how do you knock down a historical treasure to build a state-of-the-art home? How do you supplant not only local, but national history, with walk-in closets the size of bedrooms? But, at the same time, how do you tell someone who lives in the neighborhood now what they can and can’t do on their property? How do you tell a husband that he can’t build an addition for his growing family? It is a tough argument that will involve compromise, even if residents and councilmen are not to that stage just yet.

“This is a divisive issue,” said Cahaba Project resident Donnette Plant, who also serves on the Trussville Historical Society.

Alabama House of Representatives member Danny Garrett, a Cahaba Project resident, likened the issue to the saving of the historic school building in the Cahaba Project. It was worked out locally through passionate citizens and a tax increase. The school was preserved and now serves as a neighborhood elementary school, a huge appeal to people seeking residence in Trussville.

“I think our desires are all the same,” Garrett said. “We worked it out before, and I think we can again.”

A man who lives on Oak Street agreed that it needed to be handled locally, without the assistance of the state or federal government.

Parkway Drive and Lake Street (photo by Gary Lloyd)

“Every time the government gets its hands on something it gets wacky,” he said.

Demolition was the “elephant in the room,” as Mayor Buddy Choat put it, and he was right. How do you find the balance between preserving your city’s unique history and growing in a progressive way? It’s a tightrope with historical significance on one side, and property owners’ rights on the other.

“Let’s get together and find common ground,” Choat said.

Here is a somewhat abbreviated version of the Cahaba Project’s history.

The property on which a blast furnace was in Trussville – near the site of modern-day Cahaba Elementary School – was sold in 1935 to Birmingham Homestead Incorporated, a Federal Housing Administration project. In the time the furnace was idle, the site served as a prison camp, called Jefferson County Camp No. 3.

During the Great Depression years, the federal government attempted to relieve many citizens in the low-income bracket. The idea of developing homesteads with a moderate amount of acreage was considered and later pursued throughout the United States. In Jefferson County, a committee of prominent local citizens including Robert Jemison Jr., Charles F. DeBardeleben and J.F. Lies selected a site in Trussville in plain view of the slagheap from the dismantled furnace, giving the homestead project the name “Slagheap Village,” later to be known as “Cahaba Village” and “The Project.”

Senator John H. Bankhead and Dr. M.L. WIlson accompanied the trio on its inspection trip to Trussville, where it became apparent that the property would not be suitable for a homestead development. Resettlement Administrator Dr. Rexwell Tugwell came to the area on an inspection trip. The area included 30 houses for whites and 40 houses for blacks, part of the housing formerly connected to the furnace. Tugwell and his associates decided to provide homes in the area not for homestead operation or for victims of the Great Depression, but for a quality suburban residential development. Being tired of fancy names for these developments, Tugwell declared the project to be called “Slagheap Village,” since a mountain of slag from the furnace was still visible. It was later called “Cahaba Village,” after the nearby Cahaba River.

At Tugwell’s suggestion, W.H. Kestler drew up the layout plans for the project and was from thereafter called “town planner.” Cahaba Village consisted of 287 residential units — 243 homes and 44 duplex units, constructed from 1936 to 1938 at an overall cost of $2,661,981.26. The total cost included work on public utilities, streets, curbs, gutters and public buildings comprising the high school, community building and co-operative store. The acreage cost was not included. Skirting the housing development was a green stretch of properties designated as park areas to protect the encroachment of any development that may detract from the beauty of the community. The properties took two years to construct and were opened in April 1938. A waterworks, sewage disposal plant, paved and lighted streets, and some sidewalks were provided.

The Cahaba Association was formed in June 1938. The new community manager, A.C. Hester, was introduced at the Nov. 9, 1942, association meeting. He explained the transfer of the project from the Farm Security Administration to the Federal Public Housing Authority, family selection and family transfers. Hester stated the following:

  • No transfer to a larger house unless there has been an increase in the family
  • A man and wife alone can’t have a house larger than a four-room house.
  • A man and wife with one child would be eligible for a five-room house.
A tree-lined street in the Cahaba Project (photo by Gary Lloyd)

Hester explained at the March 9, 1944 meeting the plan of the Federal Public Housing Authority to de-federalize the handling of the Project by June 30. The Co-op Association stated that it was possible for the community to purchase inventory at cost from the housing authority and be debt free of the government. Hester suggested the board and some other Co-op Association members be a committee to consider this seriously and meet with the housing authority and work out the plan of carrying out the suggestion.

In a letter dated July 15, 1946, it was stated that the Cahaba Project would be disposed of on or before April 1, 1947. “The plan for distribution is in progress of formulation but none of the details of the plan have been announced by Washington,” the letter states. According to the letter, it was the government’s policy to give every residential tenant, provided the tenant met eligibility requirements for homestead occupancy at the time of admission, the first opportunity to purchase his dwelling. The prices reflected normal market value, but a substantial down payment would be required.

At the Aug. 22, 1946 Cahaba Community Association meeting, pros and cons of incorporation of Cahaba alone, and also of including Trussville, was discussed. It was suggested that the people of Trussville advise the government that they desired to be included in the corporate limits. All who attended this meeting were requested to contact 10 or 12 of their neighbors, explain the proposed plan, and report back at an executive committee meeting on Aug. 30, 1946.

At that meeting, feedback was given, and it was reported that 45 of 50 Trussville residents were in favor and that five of nine Roper Hill residents favored incorporation. According to the Oct. 8, 1946 annual report of the Liaison Committee of the Cahaba Community Association, there was a joint committee meeting on Sept. 24, 1946, between Cahaba and Trussville representatives. It was unanimously agreed that the incorporated municipality should include both Cahaba and Trussville. A.C. Hester, the community manager, stated at this meeting that he had advised the Cahaba Executive Committee that the government would defray the expense of incorporating the government property, and that he felt certain that the government would be agreeable to extending the corporate limits to include a part of Trussville, provided it was shown that this was the will of the Trussville residents. A Trussville representative, Horace Norell, was then instructed to write to Hester, requesting that a portion of Trussville be included in the incorporated municipality.

A March 11, 1947, letter from the Federal Public Housing Authority briefly outlines the proposed incorporation of the town of Trussville. The letter states that the Cahaba Project is a fine example of planning for semi-subsistence homes that would be protected from the uncontrolled growth of its neighbor, Trussville.

The letter recommended that both sides of the Cahaba River be dedicated as park lands, as well as The Mall and triangular area near present-day Brentwood Avenue. The grassy area between Magnolia Court and Hewitt Street was also recommended to be kept as park land, and also as parking for a nearby church. The letter goes on to say that the housing authority was fully aware of Trussville’s process of incorporation. The letter acknowledges that Trussville proposed to incorporate as a town according to law, setting up a mayor and commission, and then revising the setup so as to have a city or town manager type of government.

At the April 8, 1947 Cahaba Community Association meeting, Henry Rogers, chairman of the Survey Committee, explained the work his committee had done toward the purchase of the Cahaba homes. He explained the terms of 14 loan companies that answered a questionnaire sent to them by his committee, concerning their terms of obtaining various types of loans. Charts containing all interest rates and fees based on a $4,000 loan were handed out to all association members. Rogers assured the association that by cooperating, the community could greatly reduce the cost of handling the loans. Hester reported that the Federal Public Housing Authority was working earnestly toward the sale of the homes, and that the authority wanted Cahaba residents to obtain the best possible loans with the best interest rates. Hester said that no prices would be set nor homes sold until June 1, 1947. He explained that alleys and green belts would be added to lots adjoining, and that parks and vacant lots would be dedicated to the municipality by the government.

In a May 1, 1947 letter from Rowland Long, Horace Norrell and Alton Williams to Arthur Taylor, who was assistant director for real estate and disposition for the Federal Public Housing Authority, plots of land were listed that the community wanted dedicated to the city of Trussville upon incorporation. “We have observed the growth of communities such as ours and have noticed the many times that the city fathers have erred in not allocating sufficient space for parks and playgrounds,” the letter states. “We anticipate a healthy growth in this community and hope to avoid some of these mistakes by giving much forethought and long range planning.”

On June 2, 1947, an election was held to determine whether to incorporate the town of Trussville into a city form of government. The election carried and all property owned by the Federal Public Housing Authority with four legal voters per 40 acres of land was included in the area to be incorporated. Cahaba Village was absorbed into the town of Trussville when it was incorporated on June 10, 1947.

In 2017, Trussville declared a moratorium on the demolition of homes in the Cahaba Project to further discuss how to preserve the historic homes. According to the minutes from that Feb. 28, 2017 meeting, Councilman Jef Freeman stated that the demolitions that had already occurred were legal, “but we want to prevent it from happening in the future.”

Councilman Brian Plant said at the times the homes were inventoried and designated as contributing or non-contributing when the district was designated by the National Register of Historic Places as a historic area. Any hardship requests were to come before the city council.

Choat said at the time that the council get input from area residents. According to the Cahaba Project Homeowner’s Association, a survey was sent out this August. It solicited 112 responses representing 92 homes in the neighborhood, with 81 percent of respondents voting in favor of some sort of guidelines for the neighborhood.

Magnolia Street and Park Place (photo by Gary Lloyd)

Councilman Perry Cook said he wanted to see something done to protect the historical value of the homes in the neighborhood. Ian Maddox, a Cahaba Project resident, spoke at the meeting about the Edgewood community in Homewood losing its historical character due to things like this being allowed.

“By the time an effort was made to stop it, it was too late,” he said, according to the minutes.

Much of the conversation that night in 2017 dealt with the true meaning of “demolition.” Did it mean complete demo? Exterior demo? Interior demo? The city attorney was to work on that aspect.

Steele, the son of a history professor, said preserving Trussville’s unique history is paramount.

“Those houses are special,” he said. “They don’t make them like that anymore. They’re pretty amazing. It’s a great neighborhood, and I don’t want the neighborhood to get ruined by a bunch of speculators coming in and buying up houses and flattening them like they did in Edgewood and like they’ve done in Mountain Brook. You’re just going to lose a piece of American history if that happens.”

The meeting Tuesday night seemed to lose its collective patience as the night approached 8:30 p.m. It was late. There were many opinions and a presentation that seemed to leave many answers up for interpretation. Plant said he did not agree with the ordinance the Alabama Historical Commission brought. He said it was “a very strong ordinance.”

“This is too much power,” he said, holding it up.

Freeman seemed agitated that one resident was getting her facts wrong, and he encouraged her to come to more meetings. Steele and City Council President Alan Taylor seemed to have a small disagreement about the future of the historic neighborhood after the meeting adjourned.

“I think that certain people on the council feel strongly that it’s OK to demolish a home, and certain people on the council don’t feel that way,” Steele said. “It’s a classic clash of personal property rights and preserving the history of a community.”

Taylor summed up the night as “an emotional issue.” He believes there is a way to handle this issue locally, starting with the Cahaba Project Homeowners Association.

“We want to do what’s right,” Taylor said. “We want to do the right thing.”

Steele said: “I’m not going away with this. I’m planning on keeping fighting for this because I think it’s important. I think that neighborhood is the most important part of Trussville.”

The seal above the dais at Trussville City Hall (photo by Gary Lloyd)

There is a long way to go in this discussion of property owner rights versus historical preservation and how much demolition is too much, but one thing is certain for now: this issue is not going away. It is going to take time. It is going to take compromise. It is going to take cool, calm, and collected minds sitting down together to discuss what they want the future of this historic neighborhood to be.

Above the city council dais at Trussville City Hall is a large city seal, dominated by a photo of the famous gazebo that serves as the entryway into the Cahaba Project. Underneath, the city’s moniker is printed: “Gateway to Happy Living.”

There was a touch of irony in that moniker Tuesday night, with lost patience, sneers and smirks and rolling eyes, and divisive ideas about the future.

“It’s ironic to me,” Steele said. “It is because it’s on our website. The Cahaba Project is on our website. It’s the most important part of this (city), and to me it’s such a no-brainer to protect it, even if it’s going through the bureaucracy of being a certified local government and a historic preservation commission.”

Taylor was reminded of a Trussville resident mentioning to him one time that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“The question I have as we move on down the road is a duplex was the intended use (of these houses) and has been turned into a single-family dwelling and modified, does that take away the historical significance? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that.”

All that to say this: it’s fitting that this historic area was initially named Cahaba Village, because it’s going to take a village to decide its future.

The historical accounts in this story came from Trussville, Alabama: A Brief History by Gary Lloyd. Get it here.

1 comment on “‘We’re about to lose this thing’: Cahaba Project residents debate future of historic neighborhood

  1. Jo Ann Milam

    If Cahaba Project residents are serious about “guidelines” they need to stop asking Design Review to be their guideline police. They need to do what every other subdivision does and form an HOA. The problem is that the people who take issue with additions and demolitions ( and increased property values, i might add!) are in the minority.
    How do you tell someone who has bought an existing home that they cannot tear that home down when termites or a cracked foundation is found? How do you tell someone who wants to add to an existing home that they cannot do so, even when their addition is well designed and falls within the setbacks on the property?
    These people seem much more worried about change than they are concerned with The quality of the additions and/or new houses built, and the character of their neighbors.

    Like

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