Nearly six years ago I met with Lyn Menne, Decatur, Georgia’s assistant city manager. We spoke over coffee at Java Monkey, a hipster joint featuring high-end coffee and evening performances, in Decatur’s upscale downtown. I had lived in Decatur for about six months and my wife and I already were considering moving from the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where we had bought a historic bungalow in July of 2011.
Had I been more woke about race, gentrification, and the role neoliberal cities play in facilitating displacement and the conversion of space for wealthier and oftentimes whiter users, I probably could have had a better response to Menne when she said, “They’re just going to die” after I laid out my concerns about the rampant teardowns in our neighborhood and the social costs of gentrification to some of Decatur’s most vulnerable citizens. To Menne, there were no viable solutions to stem the displacement that her city’s municipal policies promoted.
Instead of citing examples of inclusionary zoning and affordable housing preservation programs in other cities as well as the affordable housing recommendations given to the City of Decatur several years before we moved there, I recall sitting there stunned and at a loss for words. That exchange is forever etched in my mind as an example of how cities and humanity fail.
How things have changed since then.
My meeting with Menne occurred after I watched a builder demolish the late Shirley Huff’s home and after I began an informal research project on our area’s history as an Urban Homesteading Demonstration Project neighborhood. I had begun mapping and documenting the 113 “dollar homes” that the city sold between 1975 and 1982 and I was interviewing residents about displacement.
In early 2012 I had a very rudimentary and unsophisticated understanding of gentrification and displacement. They were concepts I had encountered in the margins of my work in historic preservation regulatory compliance and as a consultant to a Washington community development corporation funding intermediary. Like many people alive today, gentrification was something I would know if I saw it but I doubt that I could have held my own in an academic debate with a geographer or sociologist or historian who had been working in and around gentrification for years. I also doubt that I could have successfully defended an academic article or thesis on the subject.
Now, more than six years after Huff’s small home was replaced by a McMansion, I have presented conference papers on gentrification in Decatur and Washington; written articles for other historians and for urban planners; and, I am well into writing a book about gentrification in Decatur that dives deep into race and how history and historic preservation are produced there and in other American suburbs.
It has been a long and at times unpleasant journey. But you know, nothing worthwhile should be easy. I was reminded of that during yesterday’s Thanksgiving dinner. It was our fourth Thanksgiving since moving back to Silver Spring, Maryland, from Georgia. It also was our third with friends we made because of our experiences in Georgia — a relationship that began with interviews about gentrification and displacement in Washington that crystallized into a close friendship.
In addition to my newfound professional and academic development around gentrification and related issues, our new friendships are a byproduct of Decatur’s racism and its residents’ fierce protectionism of its municipal image.
With time, a lot of conversations, and reams of reading, I am now in a place where I understand what happened in Decatur and why. There were several milestones where things clicked into place about Decatur. But, it wasn’t until last month after I had just spoken at a local church about our community’s racialized history that Decatur’s pathology became crystal clear.
On my way out of the church’s education wing I stopped and spoke with a University of Maryland African American studies professor. We talked about Silver Spring’s history as a sundown suburb and we talked about Decatur’s history. After things turned to cyberstalkers and Twitter trolls, she offered this observation: Decatur’s white folks had no choice but to treat us like we were Black. To the Decatur residents, we had lost our white privilege and humanity; that changed status sanctioned all the harassment, abuse, etc. that my wife and I experienced.
I hadn’t considered this perspective before. Chalk it up to the security white privilege offers and the ignorant bliss in which white folks like us cruise through life.
I wanted to interrogate this new observation and I asked another friend made among the ruins of Decatur: an African American former resident with lots of up-close and personal experiences in the city’s racial hostility. I conveyed what the University of Maryland professor had said and my Georgia friend replied:
Her assessment hit the nail on Decatur’s head. There are more than a few jokes in the Black community that are built around losing our Black Card. You and Laura lost your White Card ….
White Cards can be given and taken away, especially when you don’t appreciate your privilege and side with The Others. What a journey you’ve been on, David! Some day you must share how you arrived at your P.O.V.
We had lost our White Cards and the white privilege protective shield. We had become The Other.
This holiday season as my family and friends share expressions of thanks, I am thankful to Decatur, Georgia, for taking away my White Card. I can’t change the color of my skin but I can change the way I think and act. For that clarity and for the wealth I have derived from my Decatur experiences, I am forever grateful. And, I am thankful that unlike Decatur, there are genuine opportunities for change in my home so that Silver Spring hopefully will never become the type of community that Decatur has.
© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein