Finding Vera

carmaniaIn the mid-1970s I found an old diary in a house that was about to be demolished in Daytona Beach, Fla. The diary was written by a 24-year-old woman and it recounted her December 1905 trip on the maiden voyage of the ocean liner Carmania from England to New York.

In 2010, I posted a transcript from the diary and scans of various photos and other items. Last year, the woman’s great-granddaughter found the post and left a comment on the post. We began corresponding and I connected with other family members. Soon a plan emerged for us to meet and for me to return the diary to the family. Continue reading

Living in a salad bowl suburb

Last year we moved back to Silver Spring, Md., after living for nearly four years in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Atlanta — the city and its many sprawling suburbs — is one of the most racially and economically divided places in the United States. That point was quickly driven home in our experience with Decatur, a suburb that is undergoing rapid demographic inversion and gentrification becoming whiter and wealthier.

Since 1980, Decatur has lost more than 60% of its African American population, mostly through displacement. That process and the complicated history the city has with Jews, African Americans, and the politics of history and memory is the subject of a book I am completing.

Northwood-Four Corners Civic Association newsletter editor Jacquie Bokow asked me to write about demographic changes in our neighborhood. This post is derived from the article I wrote for the October 2015 issue.

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Slaughterhouses on the Schuylkill

In the mid-1870s, the Pennsylvania Railroad consolidated its livestock operations in Philadelphia and built sprawling stockyards and a slaughterhouse on the Schuylkill River’s west bank. Now the site of Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, for nearly half a century, this area was Philadelphia’s version of Chicago’s Packingtown.

Philadelphia stockyards and abattoir illustrated in Hexamer's General Surveys of Philadelphia, Vol. 12 (1877).

Philadelphia stockyards and abattoir shortly after they were completed illustrated in Hexamer’s General Surveys of Philadelphia, Vol. 12 (1877).

Before the Pennsylvania Railroad complex opened, hogs, cattle, and sheep were held and sold at independent drove yards along rail lines leading into the city. Many of the yards were located in West Philadelphia near today’s University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University campuses.

Avenue Drove Yard

Avenue Drove Yard, near Lancaster Avenue, West Philadelphia (formerly Hestonville), c. 1867.

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Off the books at First and T

Salon owner Latosha Jackson-Martin interviewed by a local TV crew, April 2015.

Salon owner Latosha Jackson-Martin interviewed by a local TV crew, April 2015.

Last spring a long-lived Washington, D.C., hair salon shut its doors after about 50 years in business, 27 of them in the 100 block of Rhode Island Ave. NW. Jak & Company’s owner spent a few weeks in the media spotlight after a Washington Post reporter spotted a letter taped in the storefront’s plate glass door.

The letter announced that the business was closing; gentrification was one of the reasons the letter cited.

The history of changes in people and businesses at the intersection of First and T streets NW in Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood includes a hidden history of ties to Washington’s African American underworld. Continue reading

History is in the eye of the beholder

NFC-park-signIn 2013, the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) evaluated recreation buildings in Montgomery County parks and recommended designating seven of them historic. The North Four Corners Local Park building in Silver Spring was not among the ones selected for protection under Montgomery County’s historic preservation law, Chapter 24A of the County Code.

Though county officials declined to recognize the North Four Corners building’s historical significance, that doesn’t mean the building doesn’t have a history and deep attachment to our community.

North Four Corners Park recreation building, March 2015.

North Four Corners Park recreation building, March 2015.

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The incipient slum

Fayetteville Road urban homesteading property after teardown and new 3,564-square-foot home construction.

Formerly high-grade neighborhoods are subject to extraordinarily rapid obsolescence, since there are few takers for the aging and oversized dwellings vacated by the departing elite. Their prohibitive purchase price and maintenance expense rule out their availability to successively lower income groups and their continued use as single-family homes …. (Hughes and Bleakly 1975: 49).

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The gentrification post

People who live in gentrifying neighborhoods enjoy many new things that accompany increased investment and influxes of new people: better police protection, more places to shop and eat, and cleaner streets. The changes may be gradual or they may appear in such a short period of time that it seems like overnight.

Something as simple as the appearance of a mailbox on a corner can reinforce longtime residents’ impressions that change is occurring.

And now that I’ve been over here and we’re getting whites moving in the neighborhood, we’ve got a mailbox on the corner. We don’t have to go up to the post office ….

The mailbox is new. And pickup on time: eleven o’clock very day. Eleven o’clock every day. So you see, you get different service and you get general services and so forth and so on. — Washington, D.C., Ward 7 resident, July 2015.

Branch Ave., 2007. Credit: Google maps.

Branch Ave., 2007. Credit: Google maps.

Branch Ave., 2015. Note new sidewalks.

Branch Ave., 2015. Note new sidewalks.

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

The Wilson house (Updated)

To the casual viewer, the 1,064-square-foot brick ranch house at 235 West Pharr Road in Decatur, Ga., was just another midcentury home. Set just inside the Decatur city limits in the Oakhurst neighborhood, the house recently was demolished.

235 W. Pharr Road in 2013.

235 W. Pharr Road in 2013.

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Baltimore road trip: a trip down Homesteader Alley

An urban homesteading property featured in an Atlanta newspaper shortly after rehabilitation (upper left) and the same home in 2012 (lower right).

A Decatur, Ga., urban homesteading property featured in an Atlanta newspaper shortly after rehabilitation (upper left) and the same home in 2012 (lower right).

In late 2011 I was introduced to the intersection of gentrification and an innovative 1970s affordable housing program: urban homesteading. The population of 113 urban homesteading sites in Decatur, Ga., and the overlapping 123 teardowns I documented between 2011 and 2014 form a large part of the analytical core of my book on gentrification and demographic inversion in that city.

Since I my earliest first-hand exposure to the houses cities sold for $1 to qualified homeowners, I have visited former urban homesteading neighborhoods in Atlanta, Washington, and now, Baltimore. My experience in Decatur moved (for me, at least) urban homesteading and similar programs from the static pages of urban studies books and journals to a significant place in my thinking about displacement, neighborhood upgrading, and the politics of history in urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Former $1 home, Washington, D.C.

Former $1 home (leftmost house), Washington, D.C.

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A gentrification irony

Last week I attempted to email a Decatur, Ga., real estate professional. His uninvited and unwanted letters and flyers are delivered to homes throughout the gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood and I wanted to ask him some questions about the “as-is” house buying business.

Letter sent to elderly Oakhurst resident. The letter and envelope were printed on a laser printer to simulate personalization.



One of the so-called "yellow stickers" let on our Atlanta home in 2012.

One of the so-called “yellow cards” left on our Atlanta home in 2012.

After I sent my email to him, I received an automated response triggered by his email provider’s spam setting:

Re_ Oakhurst housing_Redacted

What an irony. He blankets neighborhoods with gentrification spam, much of which ends up in old-fashioned spam filters: trash cans. At least he has the opportunity to screen unwanted materials even before they reach his eyes. You can’t say the same for the elderly homeowners who receive his literature.

Postscript: As for my effort to ask the individual questions about his business, I completed the form to get beyond the spam filter and I completed a “contact-us” form on his company’s website. I received no responses.