- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Henry Bolden Jr. — young, working-class and black — was not your average American home buyer in 1946.

Mr. Bolden was a U.S. Army veteran who spent World War II driving supply trucks in Belgium and France. With help from the GI Bill, he was able to buy his house in a Columbus neighborhood that was revolutionary in its day: Hanford Village, an enclave of single-family homes marketed solely to blacks.

“I would have been stuck, like a lot of other people are still stuck, renting houses in the poor, run-down neighborhoods,” said Mr. Bolden, who at 82 still lives in the same small house on the city’s eastern side.

Some of the early black homeowner neighborhoods across the country are trying to win historic recognition before their place in the history of homeownership fades.

The residents want to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which would make them eligible for federal tax credits or grants for historic preservation. The designation doesn’t protect against demolition but requires anyone involved with a federally funded project, including developers, to take the listing into consideration when the work could endanger the structure.

In New Orleans, developers in the early 1950s created the Pontchartrain Park subdivision around a golf course designed by black landscape architect Joseph Bartholomew.

Pontchartrain Park residents were preparing a 50th anniversary celebration and an application to the National Register when Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the homes in 2005, halting the effort.

In Las Vegas, residents of the Berkely Square neighborhood on the city’s western side have applied for a listing for the subdivision of modest ranch homes built after World War II for the city’s growing black population, many of them veterans.

The neighborhood is a reminder that homeownership for blacks, once rare, became a reality for many, said Ruth D’hondt, who has lived there since 1959. Just a few years earlier, city developers were advertising homes in “whites only” subdivisions.

“It just grieves me we would walk away from something that was so hard fought for and was so valuable,” said Ms. D’hondt, 65, a retired server at Caesars Palace.

The neighborhoods were developed as the GI Bill made homeownership a reality for millions, including blacks, for the first time. Cities partnered with the government, the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) or the Federal Housing Authority, and private developers.

One challenge to historic recognition is how much the areas have changed. In Delaware, owners have made improvements from new windows to adding a story to houses in the Dunleith neighborhood south of Wilmington, created in the 1950s as the state’s first housing development marketed to blacks.

Another challenge is the relative youth of the housing developments. Eligibility for the National Register begins after 50 years, a time span that could now make “historic places” of split-level ranch subdivisions and shopping plazas.

“It doesn’t seem to be imperative to save these buildings right now,” said Christine Madrid French, president of the Arlington-based Recent Past Preservation Network, “versus an 1890s mansion, where it might seem more obvious.”

The National Register, a listing of about 80,000 properties, considers the architectural and historic importance of buildings and their condition.

Persuading black property owners to seek the designation can be difficult because some equate preservation with gentrification or higher taxes.

“There is the concern that venturing into some aspects of historic preservation could lead to neighborhood change that isn’t necessarily wanted,” said Jeffrey Harris, director for diversity at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit advocacy group.

In Columbus, the Hanford Village subdivision got its start in 1946 when real estate developer Ivan Gore advertised the first houses.

“Homes for Negro Families,” read the April 21 ad that year in the Columbus Dispatch. Houses were available for about $6,500, a relative bargain considering the median value of a single-family home at the time was about $8,500.

William Watkins was a Tuskegee Airman who lived in one of the first houses while stationed at nearby Lockborne Air Force Base. Mr. Watkins, now 94, remembered how happy he was to have a house as a newly married soldier.

There was gratitude, but something less comfortable too: The segregated houses were a reminder of blacks’ station in society, even in a Northern city.

“There was always a bitter spot in our hearts because they’re building houses all over Columbus and the only houses available for Afro-American vets was this one little Hanford Village,” Mr. Watkins said. “This is only a drop in the bucket of the number of houses that we actually need.”

Today, Hanford Village is downtrodden, with a mix of renters and homeowners, including a few original residents. Many of the single-story Cape Cod-style cottages are still well-kept, looking more or less the same as when they were built. Others are showing signs of neglect; some are boarded up.

The Ohio Historical Society considers Hanford Village historically significant and deserving of further study, but it will take a resident to step forward and ask for the process of listing on the National Register to begin.

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