Gentrification signs

This morning the Washington Post published a story about a D.C. homeowner’s very individual approach to opposing change in his neighborhood. Milfred Ellis posted three anti-gentrification signs in his Brightwood home’s front yard.

Anti-gentrification signs in Washington yard. Photo by author.

Anti-gentrification signs in Washington yard. Photo by author.


Post reporter Perry Stein is doing a solid job covering gentrification and other changes in Washington’s neighborhoods. I think her definition of gentrification is too broad, though: “gentrification is, by definition, wealthier residents displacing longtime poorer residents in neighborhoods.” There’s a compelling case for displacement and demographic change in Mr. Ellis’ neighborhood but there doesn’t appear to be a solid case for the disinvestment that’s essential to any rigorous definition of “gentrification.”

The signs in the Ellis yard are a great illustration of individual/neighborhood resistance to change that is being driven by the same forces that also underlie gentrification: real estate speculation. I think signs posted on utility poles near his home, though, tell the rest of the story:


“We Buy Houses” sign above a bike route sign, Brightwood neighborhood, Washington, D.C.

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein


High school field trip

Over the past four years I have collected thousands of articles, photos, and documents to write a book on gentrification in Decatur, Ga. The journey has yielded lots of WTF moments, some of which will be in the book; others that won’t. This post describes one episode that likely won’t reach print.

In the spring of 2012, Decatur High School social studies teacher Chris Billingsley took a group of students in the school’s “Close-Up Club” to Washington, D.C. Billingsley described the trip in a note to a local blog. According to the teacher, he and the kids had a “Capital [sic] Hill Day”:

The students took a tour of the Supreme Court, the Capital [sic.], met with staff from John Lewis and Saxby Chambliss offices, and had a seminar at the Heritage Foundation.

The Heritage Foundation's Washington, D.C., headquarters.

The Heritage Foundation’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.

We’ve spent more than a decade (split into two parts) living in the Washington metropolitan area. Like many residents, we frequently get queries from friends, relatives, and colleagues about places to visit on trips to Washington. And, of course, we also read local newspapers and magazines that report on the region’s most popular (and educational) tourist destinations. The Heritage Foundation — a conservative Capitol Hill think tank and influence peddling operation — has never been on any of those lists.


Designing a wealthy white suburb

Residents of Decatur, Ga., who question whether their elected and appointed leaders have a genuine commitment to preserving affordable housing in the Atlanta suburb can find the answer to their query among the crop of 2015 Decatur Design Award winners.

Decatur Design Award plaque, downtown Decatur.

Decatur Design Award plaque, downtown Decatur.

Last month, a home at 156 Feld Ave. was one of six recipients of a Decatur Design Award. The awards, doled out by the Decatur Historic Preservation Commission, recognize projects “that promote excellence in preservation, design, sustainability, and advocacy.”

Over the years, the Decatur HPC has given awards to teardown projects in the “sustainability” category. Under Decatur code, the Feld Ave. project is considered a “substantial alteration” to an existing building — an “addition” — and that’s the category in which it was recognized. In other jurisdictions, the Feld Ave. project likely would be considered a “teardown.”

Continue reading

Invitation only

Invitations were sent out to a private viewing of a home for sale in Decatur, Georgia’s gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood. Is this a new trend in gentrifying neighborhoods, middle-class millionaires marketing McCraftsman McMansions as though they are located in historically upscale neighborhoods like nearby Druid Hills or the gated communities of the suburban nouveau riche?

Like many of its neighbors, the Greenwood Avenue lot had a modest one-story vernacular home on it:

365 Greenwood Ave. in 2009. Credit: City of Decatur Historic Resources Survey.

365 Greenwood Ave. in 2009. Credit: City of Decatur Historic Resources Survey.

And then a developer came along and scraped it away. According to DeKalb County tax records, in 2010 the developer paid $135,000 for the teardown and then sold the new home the following year for $550,000.

After four years, the property is again on the market:


Decatur, Georgia’s monument to white supremacy

In part, it’s a case for historical knowledge: the world of Jim Crow seems increasingly distant and incomprehensibly foreign to blacks and whites born in the wake of the civil rights movement. In part, it’s also an issue of relevance and public policy: the segregated history of the United States is inextricably intertwined with the state of modern race relations, one of the most significant unresolved items on the nation’s political agenda. Few would go as far as the man in St. Louis who suggested that every American community should preserve at least one site associated with segregation in order to remind us that there are two racial universes in the United States and that we are not a single unified nation. Whatever the merits or practicality of the proposal, his larger points will resonate for many, both white and black: the country remains divided by race, and historic preservation has a potential to inspire reform. — Robert Weyeneth, The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past (2005).


Between 2013 and 2015, the City of Decatur, Georgia erased the final reminders of its “problematic past.” In what could have been an opportunity to teach about the city’s history — preserving the city’s historic African American schools — Decatur leaders and residents instead chose to build a monument to enduring white supremacy: the Beacon Municipal Center, which the City officially dedicated last month. Continue reading

U-Hauls and tears: moving day in a gentrifying neighborhood

I can remember when my next-door neighbor, they had been here probably as long as my mother and the last thing, when that U-Haul took off to move them out of here, I couldn’t do nothing but cry. I couldn’t do nothing but cry, it really hurts to see them go knowing that this was their neighborhood. — Oakhurst resident, January 2014.

An Oakhurst family moving out of the neighborhood in October 2011.

An Oakhurst family moving out of the neighborhood in October 2011.

A few days after the U-Haul left, the trash bin was delivered just before dawn one morning.

A few days after the U-Haul left, a trash bin was delivered just before dawn one morning. Shortly after that, the house flipper’s contractors began work enlarging the home (photo below). Before moving, the previous owner had repeatedly been contacted by builders to sell the family home. She held out until one made her an irresistible offer.


The house flipper’s contractors began work without permits and were shut down by the City of Decatur. Once construction resumed, work continued well into the nights (after 9 p.m.), beyond what was allowable under City code. Trash was strewn throughout the yard of the house, spilling into neighboring yards. Neighborhood email lists regularly carry complaints about builders who create noise, trash, and traffic nuisances.


Note: The resident quoted above was describing a location in the Decatur neighborhood near the property illustrated here. U-Hauls, tears, and trash bins are common sights in Oakhurst.

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

The thrill is gone: B.B. King dies

B.B. King in Atlanta, June 1991. Photo by the author.

B.B. King in Atlanta, June 1991. Photo by the author.

Lots of musicians, journalists, ethnomusicologists, and fans will be sharing memories of Riley “B.B.” King (Sept. 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015). My favorite memory that best captures King — for me — come from the musician’s 1951 New York City debut.

I wasn’t there but I did get to speak with King and someone else who was.

Robert “H-Bomb” Ferguson (1929-2006) was a boogie-woogie pianist when he met King in backstage at the Apollo Theatre Harlem. “I came out in a gray suit. He came out in a purple suit, man. This cat came on stage with a purple suit, red shirt, and green tie,” Ferguson told me in a 1990 interview.

King told Ferguson that the promoters suggested that he dress “flashy.”

“I said, man you look like a clown. Man, you look like Ringling Brothers,” Ferguson recalled. “I said, ‘Man, if we going to work together, I don’t want nobody to think I’m like you.”

According to Ferguson, King took his advice and bought a gray suit to wear on stage.

The following year I interviewed King in an Atlanta, Ga., hotel room. He remembered Ferguson and the encounter. “No, [it was] a red suit with a red tie with red shoes. Red
and black sock and black shoes,” King said. “Yeah, that’s true, they just talked about me so much, talked about me so bad that I went and changed it.”

King was a sublime entertainer — a true professional and entrepreneur. In 1991 I asked him which hat he wore most comfortably: “All I do is play Lucille,” King said with a smile, pointing toward his trademark Gibson guitar.

Thank you B, for everything.

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

Gentrification stories: two Decatur women

Two recent articles document the human side of teardowns in Decatur, Georgia’s Oakhurst neighborhood. The articles are about two very different women who experienced gentrification and displacement in Decatur.

The first article, Fragile History in a Gentrifying Neighborhood (National Council on Public History’s History@Work) is about playwright Valetta Anderson, her 2008 play Hallelujah Street Blues, and the politics of public memory.

oakhurst-deodorantThe second article, Doing Public History: This Is What Success Can Look Like (History News Network), is about a graduate student who found a creative way to resist the alienation she felt among a growing number of McMansion-dwelling families.


© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

The Race Card

Last week NPR’s The Race Card Project featured my submission on gentrification in Decatur, Georgia. The post was a surprise since I submitted the entry a year or so ago …

race-card copy

Click the image to go to the full Race Card Project entry.