The “Decatur Plan” revisited

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.

[1] 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

[2] 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

[3] 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

The “value gap” in history, historic preservation

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.

Delta-slide-cover-2016

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

New Silver Spring historic preservation thrust

2015-09-05_110200297_77D1C_iOSHistoric preservation leaders in Silver Spring, Maryland, announced a “historic” new effort to reverse decades of failures to preserve historic buildings. Today Historical Silver Spring, Inc., declared that it is asking the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission to declare as historic all of the sites the group wanted preserved since 2000.

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Two Dukes, one building, and a whole lot of speculation

Curious coincidence? About 1913 young Edward “Duke” Ellington began hanging out in a pool hall operated by Frank Holliday in a building in the 600 block of T Street NW owned by Washington, D.C. physician Louis Kolipinski.

Howard Theatre vicinity, c. 1919. Arrow indicates former Frank Holliday pool hall location. Credit: Baist's Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia, Vol. i, Plate 32.

Howard Theatre vicinity, c. 1919. Arrow indicates former Frank Holliday pool hall location. Credit: Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia, Vol. I, Plate 32.

Kolipinski was a Russian (Polish) immigrant who graduated from Georgetown medical school. He began practicing medicine in 1897 and by the first decade of the 20th century was investing in real estate throughout Washington. He owned several buildings in the 600 block of T Street NW including the two-story brick building where Holliday and later proprietors operated a pool hall. The Howard Theater, completed in 1910, is located across an alley to the east.

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Fairway: Silver Spring’s ghost town

During World War II, the U.S. government built “temporary suburbs” throughout the United States. One of those suburbs was located just north of the District of Columbia in a part of unincorporated Silver Spring, Maryland, called Four Corners. For a brief period during the war, the development was a ghost town. At least that’s what some critics of the 238-unit public housing project called it.

Fairway Houses location. Adapted from Google Maps.

Fairway Houses location. Adapted from Google Maps.

In 1942, Washington’s slum clearance agency (the Alley Dwelling Authority; later, the National Capital Housing Authority) began scouting sites in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties for temporary defense housing sites where migrants to the metro region could live while working in government agencies and defense-related industries.

The agency selected two sites in Prince George’s county where it built one 500-unit project near College Park and another 315-unit project near Suitland. After hitting considerable opposition to a proposed 800-unit development near Kensington in Montgomery County, the ADA settled on building in Four Corners. Twenty-eight acres north of Forest Glen Road and south of University Blvd. (then known as Old Bladensburg Road) in scattered sites were condemned. The Montgomery County project was called the “Fairway Houses,” a name derived from surrounding residential subdivisions.

Map showing Alley Dwelling Authority projects.

Map showing Alley Dwelling Authority projects. Fairway is highlighted. Report of the National capital housing authority for the ten-year period 1934-1944.

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Silver Spring’s Perpetual Building may be historic …

Former Perpetual Building Association building, 8700 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md.

Former Perpetual Building Association building, 8700 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md.

… But not necessarily for the reasons preservationists suggest.

In 2007 Montgomery County, Maryland,  historic preservation advocates asked county leaders to add the former Perpetual Savings Association bank building in downtown Silver Spring to the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The designation would have ensured the 1958 building’s presence along Georgia Avenue in perpetuity. Instead, the proposed designation led to litigation and recriminations. The Perpetual case was precedential, examining the pitfalls of preserving buildings of recent vintage and the minutiae of due process in county master plan legislation.

The Perpetual Building Association was a Washington banking institution founded in 1881. It built branches throughout the District during the early 20th century and expanded to Montgomery County after World War II.  The bank became one of the leading local mortgage lenders, helping provide the capital for homebuilding in Washington’s rapidly expanding automobile suburbs.

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(Re)-Imagining Decatur: Gentrification, Race, and History in a Southern Suburb

A plaque outside Decatur's city hall proclaims it is a city of "Homes, Schools, and Churches ... settled by Scotch-Irish pioneers."

A plaque outside Decatur’s city hall proclaims it is a city of “Homes, Schools, and Churches … settled by Scotch-Irish pioneers.”

I was invited to present a paper at this year’s Delta Symposium at Arkansas State University. My paper is titled, “(Re)-Imagining Decatur: Gentrification, Race, and History in a Southern Suburb.”

From the paper abstract:

Decatur, Georgia, is an Atlanta suburb of about 20,000 people. Founded in 1823, the city is the seat of DeKalb County. Its history is much like other Southern courthouse towns and it follows a familiar path: farms, stores, slavery, Civil War, World Wars, and Civil Rights.

A Confederate monument is the most prominent historic object in Decatur's courthouse square.

A Confederate monument is the most prominent historic object in Decatur’s courthouse square.

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DC’s first tiny house movement was in the 1880s

Last fall, Washington, D.C., Councilmember Vincent Orange (At-Large) proposed building 1,000 “tiny houses” for low-income residents and millennials. His bill — “The Minimum Wage, Living Wage, and Millennial Tiny Housing Amendment Act of 2015” [PDF] — quickly drew criticism as being “gimmicky” and potentially discriminatory. What many don’t know is that Orange’s initiative wasn’t the first time District leaders sought to solve big housing problems with small houses.

Boneyard Studios Tiny House Village

Tiny houses. Photo by Inhabitat via Flickr.

In Washington’s earliest years, alleys housed horses and privies. As African Americans began streaming into the city during the Civil War, most alleys were converted to residential uses and many small wood shacks went up. These quickly became overcrowded and concerns about disease and crime followed. Continue reading

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