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

 

Historic preservation shines a light on a dark past

In October 2016, the National Council on Public History published an e-book titled Preserving Places: Reflections on the National Historic Preservation Act at Fifty From The Public Historian. The volume is a collection of invited essays that discuss various aspects of public history published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act.

My essay, “Historic Preservation Shines a Light on a Dark Past,” appears on pp. 18-19.

Historic Preservation Shines a Light on a Dark Past by David Rotenstein on Scribd

The “Decatur Plan” revisited

Did Decatur, Ga., have a plan to turn its city all white as some urban legends and local rumors suggest? In a conspiracy theory sense, it’s not likely. But, the city certainly created an atmosphere through 35 years of official policies and resident actions that instilled in many African American residents a belief that there was a “Plan” to remove them.

[1] I told my mom recently that I don’t even want to live here any more because I can’t go to work in the morning without looking around, wondering which way I should go to avoid being stopped because I’m driving her car. I can’t come home at night without wondering if I should go down DeKalb Avenue or come down [Interstate] 20 and go through Kirkwood. I don’t know which way to even make it home and I can’t be comfortable. — Decatur resident, Decatur City Commission, 21 April 2014

[2] Decatur’s a great place. I love it. I love seeing the signs saying one of the ten greatest places in the U.S. to live. It makes me feel so good. But then I know there’s something under the carpet and y’all should know it and a lot of African American people do know it.

That we feel like we’re not wanted in Decatur.– Decatur resident, Decatur City Commission, 21 April 2014

[3] They’d be every day trying to get you to sell, to get out. I guess to get out so they can just finish so it will be all white. That’s what I think it is — Decatur resident, April 2012

The Decatur Plan wasn’t hashed out in a smoke-filled backroom in the towering former Decatur Federal bank building. Instead, it is a cluster of loosely fitting motifs or rumors built on a conspiracy theory originating in Decatur’s African American kitchens, living rooms, barber shops, and churches. Continue reading

The “value gap” in history, historic preservation

I recently read Princeton University African American Studies professor Eddie Glaude’s new book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. Glaude elegantly described what he called the “value gap”:

When I say that the value gap is rooted, in part, in our national refusal to remember, I am not invoking some politically correct notion of history that simply includes previously excluded groups. How we collectively remember is bound up with questions of justice. Or, to put the point differently, what we choose to forget often reveals the limits of justice in our collective imaginations.

As I completed my paper for this year’s Delta Symposium, Glaude’s book informed how I analyzed the creation of Decatur’s Authorized Heritage Discourse and the city’s historic preservation program. Glaude’s value gap is the most apt way to view Decatur and its relationship to African Americans, their history, and their historic resources.

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It’s not that Decatur hates African Americans in an old-school white supremacist fashion. Rather, Decaturites (city officials and many residents) simply don’t place as high a value on African Americans and their history as they do whites and the historic places with deep attachment among the city’s white residents. It shows in their policies towards affordable housing, taxation, community engagement, education, and, yes, historic preservation. Continue reading

(Re)-Imagining Decatur: Gentrification, Race, and History in a Southern Suburb

A plaque outside Decatur's city hall proclaims it is a city of "Homes, Schools, and Churches ... settled by Scotch-Irish pioneers."

A plaque outside Decatur’s city hall proclaims it is a city of “Homes, Schools, and Churches … settled by Scotch-Irish pioneers.”

I was invited to present a paper at this year’s Delta Symposium at Arkansas State University. My paper is titled, “(Re)-Imagining Decatur: Gentrification, Race, and History in a Southern Suburb.”

From the paper abstract:

Decatur, Georgia, is an Atlanta suburb of about 20,000 people. Founded in 1823, the city is the seat of DeKalb County. Its history is much like other Southern courthouse towns and it follows a familiar path: farms, stores, slavery, Civil War, World Wars, and Civil Rights.

A Confederate monument is the most prominent historic object in Decatur's courthouse square.

A Confederate monument is the most prominent historic object in Decatur’s courthouse square.

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Antioch’s story

Shortly before my wife and I moved back to the Washington, D.C., area from Atlanta I was contacted by representatives of Decatur, Georgia’s, oldest African American church congregation. They had read a blog post I published in early 2014 on the impending demolition of their historic church.

Tigner Rand, who edits the newsletter, The Anchor, wrote, “September 28th is Antioch AME’s annual homecoming.  I would like to include excerpts and photos from your blog in our September church newsletter.”

Anchor-2014

The Anchor, September 2014 issue cover.

I consented and then we began discussing the church’s history. I suggested doing an oral history project that would bring current and former congregation members into the church, along with their memories and their photos. The goal would be to record interviews and digitize photos for the church’s archives.

I prepared a technical proposal for the church. Our relocation in November 2014 made moving forward with the church impossible and I connected the church with University of West Georgia public history professor Dr. Julia Brock. Earlier this year, Rand emailed me:

I wanted to give you an update on the progress of Antioch Church History.  Julia [Brock] received a grant to help coordinate History day at the church.  We will also host a series of workshops which are two-fold: they are designed to teach participants how to research family/church history, record the history and preserve the history.

The Church will host a public forum – Black Religion – The Black Church 200 years: National, State, DeKalb County – AME history – Dr. Larry Rivers specializes in Black Religion.

What an incredible outcome. After being displaced in Decatur (and ultimately from the city itself) and seeing its beloved sanctuary demolished in 2014, Antioch now has a firm path forward to preserve its history for future generations.

Former Antioch AME Church, demolished April 17-18, 2014.

Former Antioch AME Church, demolished April 17-18, 2014.

Of all the products stemming from my work on gentrification and race in Decatur, this is one of the best memories I have from the experience. As a historian who crossed the line from observer and documentarian into activism and advocacy, I am humbled by a January 2016 note I received from Mr. Rand. “You writing the story was meant to be! You were the key that unlocked the quest for me to take this alchemist journey,” he wrote. “I’m excited and cannot wait to see what the journey will bring.”

So am I.


© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

 

Ms. Wynn’s legacy

I met the former owner of 526 McKoy Street in Decatur, Georgia, on a cool winter morning the second week of January 2012. She was one of the first interviews I did with Decatur homeowners in the city’s gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood. Earlier this year, she died at age 86.

526 McKoy Street, Decatur, Ga. May 201

526 McKoy Street, Decatur, Ga. May 2015.

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Flip house gray Decatur style

Washington architectural writer Amanda Kolson Hurley recently examined the origins of what she’s dubbed “flip house gray” for Washington City Paper. According to Hurley, house flippers prefer a neutral, boring color palette. Over the past few years gray has emerged as the dominant bland color in the nation’s capital.

Hurley’s article provided an answer to a question I had back in 2012: why was a Decatur, Ga., house flipper painting a red brick bungalow and its garage matching shades of gray?

East Lake Dr. house, 2009. Credit: Decatur Citywide Historic Resources Survey.

East Lake Dr. house, Decatur, 2009. Credit: Decatur Citywide Historic Resources Survey.

East Lake Dr. house, early 2012.

East Lake Dr. house, Decatur, early 2012.

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Staying prayed up

Over the weekend I got a Facebook message from a woman I met while living in Georgia. “Not sure if u knew my son michael. He was kill one year oct 16, last year,” Decatur resident Veronica Edwards wrote to me.

Our paths crossed in early 2014 when I interviewed her about a statement she made in October 2013 before the Decatur City Commission. Her brief and highly emotional comments imploring the city commission to enact a moratorium on the demolition of single-family homes made a lasting impression on me. She begged her city’s leaders to protect her and her elderly neighbors as gentrification pressures were making life unbearable in the neighborhood she and her family had called home for nearly 50 years:

Of course when we came to the Decatur neighborhood, it was called the “white flight.” They took off. You all took off and went away. We endured. We stayed. Now it’s time for you all to have our back.

Veronica Edwards (center) at the Tearing Down Oakhurst program, Charis Books and More, March 11. 2014.

Veronica Edwards (center) at the Tearing Down Oakhurst program, Charis Books and More, March 11. 2014.

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Home for sale, Realtors blocked

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2014 Twitter exchange, Stacy Shelton Reno and a cyberstalker using the screen name “Scott Boulevard.”

In August 2014 a Decatur, Ga., Realtor had lunch with the executive director of a local history organization. A few hours later, the Realtor was swapping tweets with local cyberstalkers about my impending move back to Maryland from Atlanta.

The Realtor learned about my relocation plans during her lunch. I had confided about the move to a handful of close friends, including the history colleague. The Realtor, mainly because of her past absurd and malicious allegations that I had been stalking her, was one of the people we did not want to know about the planned move. Her communications on Twitter underscored the concerns my wife and I had when we decided to sell our home. Continue reading