The hammers have stopped swinging in Decatur, Ga., and the city’s white middle class hegemons have returned to their McMansions. Another municipal Martin Luther King Service Project has concluded and the back-slapping congratulations have begun. “The 13th annual MLK Service Project is the most ambitious yet,” blogger Dan Whisenhunt wrote. The annual spectacle attracted hundreds of volunteers who made repairs to 31 low-income homes in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood. Continue reading
I am not Charlie Hebdo but I have experienced the sharp retaliatory violence that comes from speaking truth to power.
In late 2011 I began writing about teardowns and gentrification in Decatur, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. After writing just two articles on the subject a person who lives in the neighborhood about which I was writing confronted the local historical society’s executive director and demanded that I be banned from the institution’s archive. Why? Because he didn’t like what I was writing. Continue reading
Burbs bashing is all the rage these days. It sometimes seems like suburbia has been blamed for just about everything except foreign terrorism. Despite sprawl and its costs to the environment, health, and the economy, there are some positive stories. One of those stories involves doughnuts.
Because of religious proscriptions on work (and driving) during the Jewish Sabbath, Orthodox Jews have carved out niches among strip malls, freeways, and cul-de-sacs. They have recreated and reimagined the small urban neighborhoods common in the 19th century by created walkable and small-scale ecosystems with synagogues, stores, and restaurants catering to the kosher crowd.
Sometimes the goodies created in these places cross ethnic boundaries. Continue reading
Gentrification. Few words and subjects can turn a friendly conversation into an argument faster, especially here in metropolitan Washington.
In early 2011 my wife and I exchanged one suburb for another. We moved from Silver Spring to Decatur, Ga.—an Atlanta inner-ring suburb six miles east of the Georgia state capitol. Less than four years later we came full circle when we returned to Silver Spring. My wife’s job took us to Georgia and gentrification returned us to greater Washington and our old Silver Spring neighborhood.
Many folks see dog parks, cupcakes, bike lanes, and coffee shops as markers for gentrifying neighborhoods. Once these places begin appearing, many longtime residents think: “there goes the neighborhood.”
It is a safe bet that few Decatur, Ga., residents know Cotis Weaver and Atef Mansour. Despite their relative anonymity, both men occupy important places in the city’s land use history. In 2003 Weaver and a handful of residents in the city’s Oakhurst neighborhood fired the first shot in Decatur’s 21st century gentrification wars when they sued the city over a proposed rezoning and subdivision. Mansour, in 2005 and 2006, made headlines when he demolished a 1,450-square-foot one-story Lamont Drive home on the city’s north side and began building a 5,000-square-foot two-story replacement. Both cases illustrate one role race plays in Decatur’s hot real estate market and the different outcomes of opposition to new development. Continue reading
Thanks for your witness and devotion to justice — Rev. Nibs Stroupe, Oakhurst Presbyterian Church (Decatur, Ga.), Oct. 21, 2014.
After almost four years in Georgia, I am back in the Washington, D.C., area. Back home. The Georgia experience was one of incredible professional and personal growth. We lived and worked in a place where Old South racism mixes in a toxic civic cauldron with New South neoliberalism. Structural racism and privilege permeate all levels of Decatur, Georgia, society from city hall to city streets.
Decatur’s residents have shed their white hoods and replaced them with social media accounts and middle class respectability, PR firms, and false choice urbanism. For me, it was a rare opportunity to go from being an unwitting participant observer in a gentrifying neighborhood to an advocate for economic and racial equity.
The Decatur experience was transformative. I will use what I learned to be better: a better historian, better citizen, and better person. This week I began that journey on a walk with Rev. Jeffrey Thames, founder of Hope Restored, Inc., a Silver Spring, Maryland, nonprofit with a mission to work with the homeless and to open up the pipeline from incarceration back into the community.
© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein
Last month the I put together a photo essay on a gentrifying Atlanta, Ga., neighborhood for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work site. The essay combines photos from Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood with places from Nathan McCall’s 2007 novel, Them.
I compiled the photos after developing a self-guided bicycle tour of the area depicted in Them. My friend, Nedra Deadwyler, read the post and decided to create a community engagement opportunity using the business she founded earlier this year, Civil Bikes. Nedra’s business combines history, sustainability, and urbanism. According to her website,
Civil Bikes is not your average bike touring company–Civil Bikes envisions itself as a member of a larger community. For this reason Civil Bikes hosts fun and progressive programs to promote biking, social dialogue, and the arts.
I was honored after Nedra read my Them essay and she decided to incorporate my informal tour into her programming. Check out Civil Bikes and keep an eye out for the book discussion and tour later this year:
For more about Civil Bikes, read Alex Baca’s wonderful October 2014 CityLab profile of Nedra, “Touring Civil Rights History on Two Wheels.”
© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein
I came across this 1937 planning newsletter article titled “Revive the Old Ones” while working on a project in the Library of Congress. Its message is as applicable in 2014 as it was in 1937.
Look closely and you will see not a damaged and decrepit Mississippi River town, but the anguish and despair of inner-city neighborhoods across the United States. — Steve Goldstein for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 19, 1992.
Helena, Arkansas, in the 1980s was a struggling Mississippi River port town when city leaders embarked on an ambitious economic turnaround using blues music and history as its foundation. I first visited Helena in the early stages of this “revitalization” during the spring of 1988 while working as a folklorist for the State of Arkansas. Results of some of my research there were published in a 1992 Southern Folklore article, “The Helena Blues: Cultural Tourism and African-American Folk Music.”
Ethnomusicology was the basis for my work in Helena and the subsequent article. Concepts like displacement and gentrification weren’t on my radar screen as I turned ethnographic experiences into written accounts. More than 25 years later I look back on Helena’s efforts to jumpstart its economy and the social engineering that went into turning the city away from its industrial past and towards its tourism-based future and I see the forces reshaping cities around the world in play in the Mississippi Delta. Continue reading