In early August 1925, 16-year-old Mary Elizabeth Price claimed that she had been attacked by an African American man. The assault, she told authorities, occurred in a residential street in Silver Spring, Maryland, near the Washington, D.C., line.
After police detained one African American and searched the homes of several others, Price retracted her allegation that she had been attacked by an African American. On August 14, 1925, the Washington Post published a letter to the editor about the episode. It bears revisiting following the events of last week in Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and Dallas.
Nearly a century later, we haven’t eradicated “the spirit of ill will” the author described.
One of the greatest injustices in South of Market redevelopment has been the callous obliteration of its past. — Chester Hartman, Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (San Francisco: Glide Publications, 1974).
Urban planner Chester Hartman’s observation about San Francisco’s Yerba Buena neighborhood looms large as one Washington, D.C., neighborhood is trying to prevent its past from being displaced and rewritten as the forces of gentrification sweep through. Residents of Bloomingdale, an early District of Columbia suburb that was absorbed in the late 19th century by Washington, have mobilized to undertake an innovative interdisciplinary effort to seize control of the neighborhood’s future by gaining a better understanding of its past.
My latest article for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work examines Bloomingdale’s project. In the H@W piece I touched on how Bloomingdale residents and the volunteer researchers and community planners struggle to define gentrification. It’s not an easy task.
Suburbia has many critics and defenders. The former excoriate the space as wasteful sprawl and the latter defend its place in architectural and social history. Somewhere between the two extremes lie stories originating in suburbia’s mythically sterile origins and which celebrate the adaptations residents and entrepreneurs made to newly created residential spaces.
Silver Spring’s Alexander School and camp — the place where Bird Legs dwelled in underground caves — is one of those stories.
When developers finished platting residential subdivisions and building physical infrastructure and houses, they turned the spaces over to new residents: homeowners. These residents needed stores, schools, and other services to complete their new communities. Sometimes the builders provided these; other times it was up to the public sector and entrepreneurs. Continue reading
When [Anne Quatrano] and her husband, Clifford, first moved Bacchanalia from its original location in Buckhead to the Westside in 1999, the neighborhood was hardly a neighborhood at all. “It was desolate,” Quatrano says. Seventeen years later, Howell Mill Road is prime real estate, hot with new apartment complexes, boutique clothing stores, and hip coffee shops — Atlanta Magazine on the relocation of first-wave gentrifiers in Atlanta’s Westside Provisions District.
Once the heart of Atlanta’s stockyards and meatpacking district, the Howell Mill Road area west of the city’s midtown suffered from disinvestment and abandonment until the 1990s when upscale restaurants and boutiques began moving in. Many of the new businesses drew heavily on the area’s history. New businesses incorporated meat industry names into their titles. Establishments like the Abattoir restaurant, White Provisions, and Star Provisions anchored the district, which was rebranded the Westside Provisions District.
Now, as Atlanta Magazine recently reported, a pair of the first-wave gentrifiers, Star Provisions and Bacchanalia (owned by the same company) are relocating. Reasons given include parking pressures (new developments have private decks) and the business owner’s inability to reach a new rent deal with the landlord.
Gentrified meatpacking districts are one of the phenomenon’s ironies. Whether it’s New York’s Meatpacking District or Washington’s changing Benning Road area or Pittsburgh’s Northside, there’s something about places where animals were converted into dollars that now are spaces where neighborhoods are being cut up, repackaged, and sold to new types of consumers.
© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein
Four Corners was a sleepy Montgomery County, Maryland, crossroads hamlet in the late 1880s when Carolan O’Brien Bryant began buying large farm tracts from an old Washington family, the Beales. Bryant’s Gilded Age effort to build a large estate marks a false start in the transformation of Montgomery County agricultural communities into inner-ring Washington suburbs. Though nothing remains of Bryant’s sprawling estate, it is an intriguing chapter in Silver Spring history.
“That Infamous Villain, Carolan O’Brien Bryant”
Born Carl Bryant sometime in the 1830s, his entire family changed their names in 1859 adding the O’Brien middle name. Bryant first appears in the historical record in the 1860s working as a journalist in New York City. He became part of the Democratic political machine, serving in municipal office and the state legislature before running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1864. During the 1870s Bryant found himself on the edges of Tammany’s Tweed ring as a self-described confidant of William “Boss” Tweed.
Bryant lived a life shrouded in mystery and bedeviled by controversy. In New York he made a living as a journalist, yet people wondered whether he was an attorney or a real estate speculator. Even his appearance was a topic ripe for gossip. “He possessed an uncommon personality, and for a long period affected an oddity of attire and manner that accentuated his otherwise unique appearance,” wrote the New York Times in Bryant’s obituary. “He usually wore his hair very long, and in later years it fell in profuse folds about his shoulders.” A witness in a lawsuit against Bryant once told the court, “He is a peculiar looking man, and any one who had seen him once would know him again.”
Though Bryant had friends and relatives among New York’s elite business and political crowds, most people beyond his immediate family described him as a dishonest and untrustworthy cad. In Bryant’s obituary, the New York Times did concede,
Although some men said harsh and unpleasant things about him, the relations between father and daughters always appeared to be of the most tender nature. Continue reading
Sometime after World War II a creature moved into tunnels beneath a nursery school and summer camp in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The children who attended the Alexander Camp called it “Bird Legs.”
“There was a legend about a monster called Bird Legs,” said Kaye Giuliani. “Scared the hell out of everybody.” Giuliani is Ernest Kendall’s granddaughter. He founded the camp and nursery school in 1947 after nearly 20 years as the principal of the Capitol Page School in neighboring Washington. I was interviewing Giuliani in her Maryland home about the school and camp’s history when she mentioned Bird Legs.
The Alexander Camp occupied a six-acre tract in Silver Spring, Maryland’s, Four Corners neighborhood. For much of the last half of the 20th century, the site had been used as a private school and camp. In 1997 its last private owner sold the property to the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission which had plans to redevelop it by expanding the neighboring North Four Corners Park.
Like much of the property’s storied past, the Bird Legs legend quickly faded once Montgomery County razed the school buildings and allowed the grounds to lie fallow for 20 years before completing the park expansion. But to former campers and students, the story lives on in personal narratives and in posts to social media sites.
Open spaces are important parts of the cultural landscape. The Washington region is chock full of parks with histories as magnificent as the settings with which they are associated. The National Mall and Rock Creek Park are two notable examples. Other metro area parks have lesser-known histories or have been overtaken by development and erased from the landscape. Bladensburg, Maryland’s, Spa Spring is one example with close ties to Washington’s history.
Bladensburg is an 18th-century Prince George’s County town that hugs the east bank of the Anacostia River. Adjacent to the original town limits there was an undeveloped and frequently flooded tract with free-flowing springs. Today it includes property within the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission’s Anacostia River Stream Valley Park and Bladensburg’s light industrial fringes. But 200 years ago it was part of Henri Joseph “H.J.” Stier’s 729-acre Riversdale plantation. Continue reading
Did Decatur, Ga., have a plan to turn its city all white as some urban legends and local rumors suggest? In a conspiracy theory sense, it’s not likely. But, the city certainly created an atmosphere through 35 years of official policies and resident actions that instilled in many African American residents a belief that there was a “Plan” to remove them.
 I told my mom recently that I don’t even want to live here any more because I can’t go to work in the morning without looking around, wondering which way I should go to avoid being stopped because I’m driving her car. I can’t come home at night without wondering if I should go down DeKalb Avenue or come down [Interstate] 20 and go through Kirkwood. I don’t know which way to even make it home and I can’t be comfortable. — Decatur resident, Decatur City Commission, 21 April 2014
 Decatur’s a great place. I love it. I love seeing the signs saying one of the ten greatest places in the U.S. to live. It makes me feel so good. But then I know there’s something under the carpet and y’all should know it and a lot of African American people do know it.
That we feel like we’re not wanted in Decatur.– Decatur resident, Decatur City Commission, 21 April 2014
 They’d be every day trying to get you to sell, to get out. I guess to get out so they can just finish so it will be all white. That’s what I think it is — Decatur resident, April 2012
The Decatur Plan wasn’t hashed out in a smoke-filled backroom in the towering former Decatur Federal bank building. Instead, it is a cluster of loosely fitting motifs or rumors built on a conspiracy theory originating in Decatur’s African American kitchens, living rooms, barber shops, and churches. Continue reading
I recently read Princeton University African American Studies professor Eddie Glaude’s new book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. Glaude elegantly described what he called the “value gap”:
When I say that the value gap is rooted, in part, in our national refusal to remember, I am not invoking some politically correct notion of history that simply includes previously excluded groups. How we collectively remember is bound up with questions of justice. Or, to put the point differently, what we choose to forget often reveals the limits of justice in our collective imaginations.
As I completed my paper for this year’s Delta Symposium, Glaude’s book informed how I analyzed the creation of Decatur’s Authorized Heritage Discourse and the city’s historic preservation program. Glaude’s value gap is the most apt way to view Decatur and its relationship to African Americans, their history, and their historic resources.
It’s not that Decatur hates African Americans in an old-school white supremacist fashion. Rather, Decaturites (city officials and many residents) simply don’t place as high a value on African Americans and their history as they do whites and the historic places with deep attachment among the city’s white residents. It shows in their policies towards affordable housing, taxation, community engagement, education, and, yes, historic preservation. Continue reading