Holding onto the Bible and the land

Meeting attendees study handouts illustrating bike lane alternatives.

Meeting attendees study handouts illustrating bike lane alternatives.

Yesterday the District of Columbia Department of Transportation held a public meeting to share revised alternatives for proposed protected bicycle lanes in the city’s Shaw neighborhood. The meeting followed an earlier event in October 2015 where African American church congregations found themselves in an adversarial position against bicycle lane proponents.

It was the latest chapter in more than a century of gentrification in Washington.

More than 300 people packed the auditorium in a D.C. charter school. After presentations from D.C. transportation officials, nearly 50 D.C. residents shared their comments. According to the meeting moderator, District officials had already received more than 2,000 comments about the proposed bike lanes.

KIPP DC-Will Academy auditorium shortly before the meeting began.

KIPP DC-WILL Academy auditorium shortly before the meeting began.

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Antioch’s story

Shortly before my wife and I moved back to the Washington, D.C., area from Atlanta I was contacted by representatives of Decatur, Georgia’s, oldest African American church congregation. They had read a blog post I published in early 2014 on the impending demolition of their historic church.

Tigner Rand, who edits the newsletter, The Anchor, wrote, “September 28th is Antioch AME’s annual homecoming.  I would like to include excerpts and photos from your blog in our September church newsletter.”

Anchor-2014

The Anchor, September 2014 issue cover.

I consented and then we began discussing the church’s history. I suggested doing an oral history project that would bring current and former congregation members into the church, along with their memories and their photos. The goal would be to record interviews and digitize photos for the church’s archives.

I prepared a technical proposal for the church. Our relocation in November 2014 made moving forward with the church impossible and I connected the church with University of West Georgia public history professor Dr. Julia Brock. Earlier this year, Rand emailed me:

I wanted to give you an update on the progress of Antioch Church History.  Julia [Brock] received a grant to help coordinate History day at the church.  We will also host a series of workshops which are two-fold: they are designed to teach participants how to research family/church history, record the history and preserve the history.

The Church will host a public forum – Black Religion – The Black Church 200 years: National, State, DeKalb County – AME history – Dr. Larry Rivers specializes in Black Religion.

What an incredible outcome. After being displaced in Decatur (and ultimately from the city itself) and seeing its beloved sanctuary demolished in 2014, Antioch now has a firm path forward to preserve its history for future generations.

Former Antioch AME Church, demolished April 17-18, 2014.

Former Antioch AME Church, demolished April 17-18, 2014.

Of all the products stemming from my work on gentrification and race in Decatur, this is one of the best memories I have from the experience. As a historian who crossed the line from observer and documentarian into activism and advocacy, I am humbled by a January 2016 note I received from Mr. Rand. “You writing the story was meant to be! You were the key that unlocked the quest for me to take this alchemist journey,” he wrote. “I’m excited and cannot wait to see what the journey will bring.”

So am I.


© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

 

Can historians help defuse gentrification conflicts?

My latest article on the conflicts that arise in gentrifying neighborhoods when bike lanes are proposed has been published in the National Council on Public History’s History@Work site.

A bike lane passes across the street from Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, M Street NW in Washington, D.C. Cyclists battled the church in 2013 over building a bike lane in M Street.

A bike lane passes across the street from Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, M Street NW, in Washington, D.C. Cyclists battled the church in 2013 over building a bike lane in M Street. The historic church is home to one of Washington’s oldest African American congregations.

Over the past several years, urbanists and cycling enthusiasts have clashed with churches and residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. Can a comprehensive understanding of a neighborhood’s and a city’s history avoid heated exchanges that end up being polemic battles about race, class, and privilege?

From the new History@Work article:

Gentrification: It’s not just for sociologists and anthropologists any more. Though historians have been making inroads documenting and interpreting gentrification and displacement, there are abundant opportunities for historians to make significant contributions in public policy and planning. One recent kerfuffle involving proposed bicycle lanes and African American churches in Washington, DC, provides a window into how a better understanding of the past could have defused a racially and class charged debate over painted lines in public spaces. – See more at: http://publichistorycommons.org/a-public-history-role-for-building-bike-lanes/

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

 

Snowzilla 2016

The forecasters did label it historic, after all.

On Wednesday January 20, 2016, weather forecasters issued a blizzard watch for the Washington, DC, area. The following day, the notice was upgraded to a blizzard warning. The National Weather Service has named the event ‘Winter Storm Jonas”; Washington Post meteorologists have named it “Snowzilla.” For me, Snowzilla it is. Seriously, does the name “Jonas” inspire fear and awe?

Anywhere from 1.5 to 2 feet of snow was predicted. Mass transit is shutting down for the weekend. There’s a run on grocery and hardware stores — even Washington City Paper reported that a local Trader Joes had sold out of all its veggie flaxseed tortilla chips. Pepco, the electric company, announced that we could be spending days in a pre-electric living history museum.

Clearly, this is the BIG ONE. Besides staging firewood and all the necessary supplies (except the flaxseed anythings) to cope with the storm, I’ll be documenting the event as it unfolds. So sit back, grab something to eat and drink, and watch the end of the world from the comfort of your browser window. Continue reading

Screwed blues, screwed journalism

Last year, Philadelphia City Paper folded after 34 years in print. I read it religiously while I attended the University of Pennsylvania. I was excited when I got a chance to write for the weekly — almost as much as I was when I got my first Philadelphia Inquirer byline four months earlier.

And, I was devastated when I read that it was going out of print.

My disappointment stemmed partly from nostalgia and partly from concerns about the future of local news reporting. As local news reporting organizations are disappearing, so too are their roles informing people and holding public officials accountable for their actions. As a historian, I also was concerned about what the closures meant for online newspaper archives and for what’s popularly known as history’s first draft. Continue reading

Modernism in the ‘hood: The Four Corners Safeway story

Unless you’re a big fan of mid-century modern architecture, the Four Corners Safeway store in Silver Spring, Maryland, probably doesn’t seem like anything special. It’s just the neighborhood supermarket. But if you’re a 20th century architecture aficionado, the neighborhood Safeway store is a true gem.

Located about 1/2-mile north of the National Capital Beltway, the Four Corners Safeway is one of a dwindling number of distinctive supermarket buildings that the chain built in the Washington area after World War II. Architectural historians have dubbed the distinctive curved roofline and vaulted interior space “Marina Style” after the chain’s 1959 prototype store built in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood.

Four Corners Safeway opening advertisement. The Washington Evening Star, October 4, 1962.

Four Corners Safeway opening advertisement. The Washington Evening Star, October 4, 1962.

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Proposed bike lanes in Washington pit cyclists against churches

DC-BikeLane

Existing Washington bike lanes, 2015.

My latest History News Network article examines the historical basis for the conflict that erupted when the District of Columbia Department of Transportation proposed building bike lanes through the city’s Shaw neighborhood.

Bike lanes don’t cause gentrification and they are not necessarily products of gentrification. Yet, judging by the adversarial situations that have emerged in cities across the United States over the past decade, bike lanes appear to be inextricably tied to debates over whether gentrification is beneficial or damaging to neighborhoods and people.

Read the new article here: The Battle Over Bike Lanes in Washington, DC.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

Ms. Wynn’s legacy

I met the former owner of 526 McKoy Street in Decatur, Georgia, on a cool winter morning the second week of January 2012. She was one of the first interviews I did with Decatur homeowners in the city’s gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood. Earlier this year, she died at age 86.

526 McKoy Street, Decatur, Ga. May 201

526 McKoy Street, Decatur, Ga. May 2015.

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Flip house gray Decatur style

Washington architectural writer Amanda Kolson Hurley recently examined the origins of what she’s dubbed “flip house gray” for Washington City Paper. According to Hurley, house flippers prefer a neutral, boring color palette. Over the past few years gray has emerged as the dominant bland color in the nation’s capital.

Hurley’s article provided an answer to a question I had back in 2012: why was a Decatur, Ga., house flipper painting a red brick bungalow and its garage matching shades of gray?

East Lake Dr. house, 2009. Credit: Decatur Citywide Historic Resources Survey.

East Lake Dr. house, Decatur, 2009. Credit: Decatur Citywide Historic Resources Survey.

East Lake Dr. house, early 2012.

East Lake Dr. house, Decatur, early 2012.

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Staying prayed up

Over the weekend I got a Facebook message from a woman I met while living in Georgia. “Not sure if u knew my son michael. He was kill one year oct 16, last year,” Decatur resident Veronica Edwards wrote to me.

Our paths crossed in early 2014 when I interviewed her about a statement she made in October 2013 before the Decatur City Commission. Her brief and highly emotional comments imploring the city commission to enact a moratorium on the demolition of single-family homes made a lasting impression on me. She begged her city’s leaders to protect her and her elderly neighbors as gentrification pressures were making life unbearable in the neighborhood she and her family had called home for nearly 50 years:

Of course when we came to the Decatur neighborhood, it was called the “white flight.” They took off. You all took off and went away. We endured. We stayed. Now it’s time for you all to have our back.

Veronica Edwards (center) at the Tearing Down Oakhurst program, Charis Books and More, March 11. 2014.

Veronica Edwards (center) at the Tearing Down Oakhurst program, Charis Books and More, March 11. 2014.

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