Producing art in spaces of change

For this year’s Delta Symposium at Arkansas State University I collaborated with two University of Arkansas professors on a panel titled “Producing Art in Spaces of Change.” The panel drew from my work in Washington, D.C., and Decatur, Ga. Dr. Robin Roberts (University of Arkansas Dept. of English) and Les Wade (University of Arkansas Dept. of Theatre) spoke about their work in gentrifying New Orleans neighborhoods post-Katrina. Dr. Richard Burns (Arkansas State Dept. of English and Philosophy) moderated the panel.

Delta Symposium panel (left to right): Dr. David Rotenstein, Dr. Robin Roberts, Dr. Les Wade, and Dr. Richard Burns. Photo courtesy of Richard Burns.

Our panel was about displacement and the creative responses to it that emerge in neighborhoods where it occurs. Here is our panel’s abstract:

Displacement is a violent process that involuntarily separates people from their homes, neighbors, families, and essential social networks. This panel examines artistic production in two Southern cities with histories of displacement and substantial communities of color, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

Both cities in the twentieth century became majority African American and by the turn of the twenty-first century both had begun inverting demographically. In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and subsequent rebuilding efforts were key displacement catalysts. Washington’s historically black neighborhoods are rapidly changing through gentrification.

Two scholars explore artistic production in New Orleans. Robin Roberts drills down into the economic and social changes affecting communities with long histories of Mardi Gras participation and how residents respond to and resist change. Les Wade examines cultural changes in the Treme neighborhood, hard-hit by Katrina and memorialized in popular culture by the HBO series.

David Rotenstein unpacks an urban legend found in African American neighborhoods throughout North America and long associated with the District of Columbia, “The Plan,” and its jump from black homes, churches, and barbershops into the African American press, mainstream white media, and academic literature.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s Delta Symposium. I plan to pitch a paper on heritage tourism in Helena, Arkansas, where contemporary residents are struggling to find the right mix of history and tourism to reboot the local economy.

Cherry Street Historic District, downtown Helena, Arkansas.

Abandoned motel, downtown Helena, Arkansas.

Cherry Street Historic District, downtown Helena, Arkansas.

Fake art and the right to stay put

How many layers of resistance are embedded in this poster?

This poster is one of three affixed to a boarded-up storefront in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood. The storefront, like many other properties in this community East of the Anacostia River, is an active worksite in the Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. corridor. Anacostia once was a predominantly African American neighborhood stigmatized for its poverty and its perceived high crime. Now, Anacostia is prime real estate ripe for reinvestment, redevelopment, and gentrification.

Public space like the boarded-up storefront is a communications free-for-all where graffiti tags compete with concert flyers, community event announcements, and protest statements. With advocacy organizations and artists appropriating the language and imagery of resistance and commodifying it, discerning who is doing the resisting and why becomes fraught. Continue reading

King Biscuit Time

Last week I presented a paper at the 2017 Delta Symposium at Arkansas State University. On the way I spent a couple of days in Helena, Arkansas, revisiting some work I did 30 years.

A high point of the trip was being interviewed by Helena radio personality Sonny Payne on the King Biscuit Time show. Sonny turned the tables on me: I’m usually the one asking the questions and “holding” the microphone. My wife and I had gone to the Delta Cultural Center in-between interviews I was doing with Helena residents. After I re-introduced myself to Sonny, he asked us to sit in on the show. It was program number 17,679!

Sonny Payne. Delta Cultural Center broadcast studio, Helena, Arkansas.

Here’s a clip from the show:

Audio clip courtesy of KFFA’s King Biscuit Time.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

 

Silver Spring Black History Tour: May 6, 2017

UPDATE: The May 6 tour is sold out. New dates will be added soon.

Tickets are now available for the next Silver Spring Black History Tour. Mark your calendars: Saturday, May 6, 2017. The event is free but registration is required: https://silverspringblackhistory.eventbrite.com.

Things that arrive in the spring

The spring brought new things to Africville, things which were not pretty like flowers, nor sweet smelling like the sea air. The newest things in Africville were suit-wearing, briefcase-toting white men — Leslie Ann Carvery, Africville My Home (2016).

In communities of color, folks know that whenever this happens, bad things follow.

Two Halifax city officials, one holding a rolled plan of Africville, outside an Africville house, prior to demolition of the community. Credit: Nova Scotia Archives, Bob Brooks Nova Scotia Archives accession no. 1989-468 vol. 16 / negative sheet 5 image 25 .

 

There’s new connectivity in Silver Spring

Last September I published a post about a fence blocking access from a railroad bridge connecting the east side of Georgia Avenue with the historic B&O Railroad Station on the road’s west side. The fence had been described by novelist George Pelecanos in a 2001 book set in Silver Spring (and Northwest Washington) and it had blocked the pedestrian connection for almost 20 years.

The fence and blocked connection in September 2016.

Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large) responded to the initial post with a promise to look into the situation: “This fence is an abomination,” Riemer wrote. He pursued opening the connection by contacting the railroad station’s owner, Montgomery Preservation, Inc., and staff in the County’s Silver Spring Regional Center.

On March 9, 2017, Councilmember Riemer commented on a February Facebook update about the fence’s continued presence:

Thanks for prodding us on this. We got it fixed. According to the urban district staffer I spoke with it was the county’s responsibility and therefore the county fixed it.

Thank you Coucilmember Riemer for being persistent and for opening up this historic connection to a historic building in downtown Silver Spring.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

Understanding racial profiling

Gentrified Oakhurst neighborhood in Decatur, Ga.

For more than 30 years I have gone uninvited into many neighborhoods in more than 20 states, first as an archaeologist and later as a historian. Whether it was a wealthy white neighborhood or a poor African American neighborhood, one thing was constant: no one ever looked out a window, saw a suspicious white man, and called the police.

Last week I was photographing “sit-down” restaurants east of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. The District’s seventh and eighth wards have the highest concentrations of poverty in the nation’s capital. Neighborhoods like Deanwood, Anacostia, and Congress Heights since the 1940s have become the city’s sink for African Americans displaced by urban renewal and gentrification. Continue reading

Decatur high school student examines gentrification & racism in articles

Late last year I was contacted by a Decatur High School student reporting on what appeared to her to be racial bias in disciplinary actions at her school and the precipitous drop in racial diversity at the school. The student located me after reading some of my work on gentrification and racism in her community.

I’m a senior at Decatur High School, and I write for our school magazine, Carpe Diem,” wrote Ellie Ritter in a November 2016 email. “I’m writing an article on Decatur’s gentrification and the displacement it’s caused.”

We arranged a telephone interview and I subsequently agreed to let her publish some images from my website.

Ellie’s reporting package examining gentrification and race in her hometown was published in the December 2016 issue of Carpe Diem, Decatur High School’s award-winning magazine. Kudos to Ellie for digging deeper into these topics than the professional journalists working in Atlanta and Decatur.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

 

How to not develop a “historical walking tour”

In 2014, graduate students in the University of Maryland’s Urban Studies and Planning Program dipped their toes into the public engagement process associated with the development of a Montgomery County, Maryland, sector plan.

Lyttonsville is a historically African American hamlet in unincorporated Silver Spring. For much of the 20th century, Lyttonsville was Silver Spring’s other side of the tracks. Silver Spring was developed in the first half of the 20th century as a sundown suburb: a place where African Americans could not live (because of racial restrictive covenants) or shop, worship, and play (because of Jim Crow segregation).

Sign for one of Lee’s “restricted” subdivisions in NW Washington. Credit: DC Public Library/National Archives and Records Administration.

E. Brooke Lee (1892-1984) was a Democratic political boss in Montgomery County and he was one of Silver Spring’s earliest boosters and founders. Though he held various elected and appointed state and county offices, his primary career was in real estate development. Lee, through his North Washington Realty Company, transformed former farms into sprawling residential subdivisions. Each of Lee’s subdivisions contained racial restrictive covenants prohibiting African Americans from living there as homeowners and renters.

The only African Americans who could live in Lee’s subdivisions were domestic servants.

Typical covenants from properties Lee sold in Silver Spring. This deed was executed in 1930 for a lot in one of Lee’s Four Corners subdivisions.

There’s abundant evidence that Lee never renounced his white supremacist views, even as a septuagenarian. In the late 1960s as Montgomery County was debating and enacting civil rights laws outlawing discrimination in public accommodations and housing, Lee was railing against these laws in local newspapers describing them as “Anti-White Laws.”

The worst blow to the continued existence of the great suburban Montgomery County that her people have built since 1920 will come from the Anti-White laws — E. Brooke Lee, March, 1967.

And yet, the University of Maryland students, proposed a “Lyttonsville Historical Walking Tour” with a wayfinding sign dedicated to Lee and his contributions to the community.

Perhaps these students should literally go back to the drawing board with this one.

Lyttonsville and the Proposed Purple Line Station, Appendix B, p. 82.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

Gored by a steer

The news earlier this week that a cow had escaped from a slaughterhouse in New York City went viral. After all, it’s the 21st century. What are cattle doing in the middle of big cities?

Yet, the headlines and the obligatory humor that followed would have been familiar to urban dwellers in any North American city since the turn of the 19th century. As cities expanded and drove yards on their hinterlands were absorbed by expansion. Later on, after 1850, railroads carried large numbers of cattle, sheep, and hogs to urban abattoirs,

Inevitably, some animals escaped while being offloaded from train cars (and later trucks) or they broke free from pens in stockyards while awaiting auction or slaughter. In the 1880s, a generation after the nation’s first union stockyards opened in a farm field outside of Pittsburgh, the local East End News ran several articles recounting wayward food on the hoof:

GORED BY A STEER (Saturday, September 4, 1886)

On Wednesday a steer broke out of the East End Stock Yards and for a time had things his own way. Mrs. Andrews was on the pavement in front of her house on Station Street, but before she could get out of the way the animal had gored her seriously. On her head were several scalp wounds and her body was considerably bruised. Medical aid was summoned and it was found that none of the wounds were dangerous. The bull was recaptured and taken back to the yards.

NEWS ITEMS (August 25, 1888)

A wild steer created a panic Wednesday afternoon … Mr. O’Neal, a butcher in Lawrenceville, was taking a drove of cattle home from the stockyards when one broke away and started back.

***

Some things never change. Cities with lots of people still need to feed those people. As long as we have cities and we consume fresh meat, stories like the one out of New York will keep coming. How would Twitter have treated the East Liberty beast that gored Mrs. Anderson, I wonder?

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein