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.
Take a walk through the new North Four Corners Park. From the virgin soccer field and the surfaced walking path encircling it to the colorful new playground built behind the recreation building, there’s lots of proof that our neighborhood has changed dramatically since 1930s real estate speculators first planned the Northwood Park subdivision and its neighbors. Our community has become a brightly hued and multi-cultural polyglot mirror of the world around us.
A recent Washington Post article on a new way to map and visualize racial divisions in American cities and suburbs shows that racial fault lines in housing still exist. Railroads and highways continue as arbitrary walls segregating communities despite decades of Supreme Court decisions and civil rights laws. A close look at the map produced by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service shows U.S. 29 as one such dividing line with mostly white Woodmoor to the east and more heterogeneous North Four Corners subdivisions to the west.
Up until the early 1930s the area in the northwest quadrant where present-day University Boulevard and Colesville Road intersect was mostly undeveloped farmland. Four Corners itself was a rural unincorporated hamlet with a post office and some stores. The area opened up for suburban development in 1936 when the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission completed the Robert B. Morse Water Filtration Plant at Burnt Mills.
Washington developer Waldo Ward was the first to buy farmland in North Four Corners and consolidate it into a new residential subdivision. In 1936 Ward bought 28 acres and platted Northwood Park and created a new development company, Garden Homes. Ward cut his real estate teeth in Washington’s northwest and northeast quadrants developing residential properties before expanding to Montgomery County in 1935.
Lower Montgomery County developed many of the white supremacist patterns of defacto and dejure segregation found throughout the region, traditions linked to our area’s plantation slavery past that refused to die. Reminders of this unpleasant history still dot the landscape: Rockville’s Confederate memorial statue and the Chevy Chase fountain dedicated to staunch segregationist Francis Newlands.
Ward and other Washington area developers joined builders, real estate professionals, and individual property owners in attaching racially restrictive covenants to their properties prior to sale. These covenants prevented the sale, and in many cases the rental, of properties by racial and ethnic minorities. Introduced in a period before zoning laws, they were included with other covenants regulating setbacks, building specifications, and preventing residential properties being used to create nuisances. Combined, these covenants were intended to protect the developer’s and buyer’s investments by erecting barriers to things perceived to reduce property values.
Restrictive covenants were included in individual deeds when properties were sold and they also were included in plat maps filed in recorders’ offices. Another approach, common in Montgomery County, was filing a separate blanket covenant instrument covering all of the properties in a newly developed residential subdivision. Once recorded, they bound existing owners and the owners were subject to litigation if they violated the covenants by selling, renting, or using properties in ways the covenants prohibited.
Two days after Garden Homes filed its articles of incorporation in 1936, restrictive covenants were recorded in Montgomery County Land Records. The covenants limited buildings to single-family houses and a garage; limited the subdivision of lots; established seven-foot side- and rear-yard setbacks; set $3,500 as the minimum cost for houses; prohibited nuisance trades; and, restricted non-whites — “any persons of a race whose death rate is at a higher rate than that of the White or Caucasian race” — from buying or renting property in the subdivision. The Washington Post reported in 1937, “Established restrictions and personally supervised sales have resulted in a fine community.
Signatories to the covenants included all of the parties who bought into the subdivision in the preceding five months. By filing the covenants with the Recorder of Deeds, Northwood Park’s owners obviated reproducing them in individual instruments. Subsequent deeds executed among Ward and new buyers specifically referenced the November 25, 1936 covenants or contained the clause, “subject to covenants of record.”
Early pockets of pluralism that embraced the Washington area’s growing cosmopolitan diversity began appearing in the years between the world wars. Indian Spring Country Club, which developer Abraham Kay bought in 1939, was one of the first Washington area social institutions that allowed Jews among its membership ranks.
The two decades after World War II ushered in dramatic changes in homeownership with roots in the courts, Congress, and mortgage lending practices. In 1948 a landmark Supreme Court decision in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer ruled that racially restrictive covenants were legally unenforceable. Waves of urban renewal that swept through Washington and other cities in the 1950s and 1960s, postwar housing shortages, and 1964’s Civil Rights Act socially engineered cities on a monumental scale. Residential suburban development boomed and existing pre-war homes were cycled to people from more diverse ethnic backgrounds.
In North Four Corners that diversity appeared first in the mid-1950s when a group of mostly Jewish federal workers formed a housing cooperative and built 44 homes in and off Cavalier Drive. The cooperative housing model opened up homeownership to diverse groups of people unable to buy homes using traditional financing tools. Northwood Park Housing, Inc. was one of 292 developments built throughout the United States under new mortgage lending rules created in the Housing Act of 1950. Our neighborhood’s cooperative was one of three built in Maryland between 1950 and 1955.
In the decades after the housing cooperative appeared, African Americans and new immigrant groups bought the period revival homes built in the 1930s and 1950s ramblers built in postwar subdivisions. New infill homes and the subdivisions developed in the 1980s and 1990s in the former Kinsman farm attracted diverse new residents. Though many of the original homes in North Four Corners have been sold many times since the 1930s, others have remained in the same families for generations. Before it was sold in 2013, for example, the World’s Fair Home built in 1939 had just two prior owners.
The 2010 U.S. Census made headlines when demographers announced that Montgomery County had become a majority-minority county: people identifying themselves as Hispanic and African American outnumbered non-Hispanic whites. Montgomery County had become what historian Tom Hanchett calls “salad bowl suburbs”: established neighborhoods where newcomers and longtime residents live, work, worship, and play “without ethnic boundaries.”
Imagine that the University of Virginia dot map that the Washington Post published last summer pictures a large salad bowl. Inside that bowl are festively colored fresh vegetables with many textures, smells, and tastes. That delicious and healthy salad bowl is your home, your neighborhood. Enjoy.
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein