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.
My wife and I made the 30-minute drive from Silver Spring to Baltimore so that I could shoot some photos of the area where riots — or civil unrest, depending on whom you ask — broke out earlier this year. The area coincides with one of Baltimore’s earliest urban homesteading phases.
We saw evidence from the unrest, as well as clear signs of the sources of income inequality and the exploitation of poverty that led to the outbreak of violence and property damage last spring.
From west Baltimore we drove downtown to the Otterbein neighborhood, one of Baltimore’s later urban homesteading sites. There, in the shadow of downtown high rises, new stadiums, and the convention center we found meticulously rehabilitated brick rowhouses and many landscape features that celebrate the urban homesteading program. These included a pocket park — Homesteader Park — and nearby Homesteader Alley.
We also met a man in lounging in the bed of his pickup truck in W. Hill Street who had lived in his former $1 home for six years. He gestured east along the street pointing out the addresses where original $1 home buyers still lived. Rowhouses and condominiums in Otterbein, once on the verge of blight, were now selling for between $300 thousand and one million dollars.
Next stop on the urban homesteading tour: Philadelphia.
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein