This New City, Part 3: Since Houses So Built

Alabama’s first dalliance with federal housing programs came in the form of relief – from the dying light of Birmingham’s steel industry, from the cities and urban poverty. It was 1933 and the National Industrial Recovery Act found a test bed in Alabama.

Of the 25 million appropriated for solving “the overbalance of population in industrial centers,” a little over six million, or about a quarter of the total, wound up in central Alabama. Five communities in poverty stricken Jefferson and Walker counties – Palmerdale, Gardendale, Trussville, Bessemer, and Jasper – split the money between them. Each blossomed from Birmingham’s lagging steel production: Palmerdale was actually founded by the Resettlement Administration, Gardendale only incorporated as a real city in 1955, and neighborhoods in Jasper and Trussville both date from the period.*

North Alabama, deemed sufficiently rural by the federal government, avoided the constraints of various resettlement schemes until the outset of World War II. At that time the Lanham War Housing Act allowed Huntsville to begin receiving funds. Defense housing initiatives differed greatly from previous rural resettlement plans. Whereas the communities in Jefferson and Walker counties were allowed farming plots and often assigned a local industry; usually textile mills. The housing situation in Huntsville reacted to preexisting needs.

It soon mutated into something else entirely.

Defense housing came to Huntsville in September 1941. Five local businessmen, the first board of director for the Housing Authority of the City of Huntsville, met with Colonel R.C. Ditto of Redstone Arsenal. They asked Colonel Ditto to declare Huntsville and the surrounding communities a “defense area” so that they might start requesting federal funding for housing projects. It only made sense, Huntsville had the one big arsenal and the Army planned to construct a new chemical warfare plant next to it.**

Discussions lasted for several months. The Local Authority reached out to Representative John Sparkman. He offered to help in the fight. Finally on November 3, 1941, the United States Housing Authority stepped forward and politely declined Huntsville’s offer to become a defense area.

Then the Japanese attacked.

The United States no longer needed to prepare for war, it was there.

In February 1942, the USHA decided to approve a 300-unit housing complex for the Redstone Arsenal and the Huntsville Chemical Warfare Plant. They’d be made of brick, “since houses so built would bring a better price at the end of the emergency.” Even as the bloodiest war began to rage the men of the HHA thought of ways to turn this new defense housing to the city’s advantage.

*Cursory googling shows that the names for the planned communities; Cahaba Village (Trussville) and Farmstead (Jasper), survived and thrived to the present day. So although the original industrial settlements were eventually swallowed by their more organic counterparts, they managed to splatter their legacy all over everything.

**A surprisingly short lived endeavor, the plant merged with Redstone Arsenal on April 1, 1950.

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