Is Montgomery County Planning tainted by racism?

Montgomery County, Maryland, goes to great lengths to promote its communities as diverse and progressive. Yet, actions by such institutions as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission undermine those assertions with racialized land use policies and historic preservation plans that omit, marginalize, and alienate the county’s communities of color. Patterns apparent over the past 20 years suggest that the agency, which was founded by a white supremacist real estate developer and Democratic Party boss, structurally hasn’t moved very far from its 1920s origins as a machine for building suburbs where power and authority remain concentrated among the white middle and upper classes.

Framing Structural and Institutional Racism

In September 2016, a historic preservation planner with the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Office approached a group of residents from the  Lyttonsville community in the lobby of the Montgomery County Council Building in Rockville. The planner and the residents of the historically African American community were there to attend a hearing for the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan.

The planner began speaking enthusiastically about her research in a neighboring community that had been developed by Jewish developer Sam Eig: Rock Creek Forest. She told the Lyttonsville residents that in her research on Eig and the subdivision she found that Eig did not attach racial restrictive covenants to the properties.

The following morning I emailed the planner and asked her about what she had told the Lyttonsville residents. She replied:

What I was telling [Lyttonsville resident] was that Sam Eig developed Rock Creek Forest, without restrictive covenants. He also donated land there for two churches and the Jewish Community Center (?and maybe for the Red Cross). MCHS has  information on Sam Eig.

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Montgomery Modern madness

Montgomery County historic preservation planners have begun exploring, analyzing and recording local mid-century modern buildings and communities, part of an effort we call Montgomery Modern. — Montgomery County Planning Department website

A few years ago the Montgomery County Planning Department’s historic preservation staff began an initiative it calls “Montgomery Modern.” The initiative has included a massive public relations campaign to raise public awareness for, and appreciation of, Montgomery County’s mid-twentieth century architecture. Montgomery Modern has included bus tours and bike tours of residential subdivisions and architecturally significant office buildings, churches, and public buildings. And it’s yielded a book written by one of the agency’s historic preservation planners.

In its zeal to highlight other’s peoples’ buildings, the agency appears to have overlooked its own headquarters: the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission’s Montgomery Regional Office (MRO) at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

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Revive the old ones

I came across this 1937 planning newsletter article titled “Revive the Old Ones” while working on a project in the Library of Congress. Its message is as applicable in 2014 as it was in 1937.

Planning_Nov1937

Credit: American Society of Planning Officials News Letter, Nov. 1937. Library of Congress, http://lccn.loc.gov/sf81006025.

Walt Whitman on teardowns and historic preservation (Updated)

Walt Whitman, c. 1854. Credit: Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-08542

Walt Whitman, c. 1854. Credit: Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-08542

Thanks to a Facebook post on Ann Peters’ new book, House Hold: A Memoir of Place, Elizabeth Jacox (one of the proprietors of TAG Historical Research) turned me onto a remarkable essay by Walt Whitman. “Tear Down and Build Over Again” was published in the November 1845 issue of The American Review.

The Whitman essay is an incredibly early exploration of place attachment and urban redevelopment in New York City. The work is new to me so I can’t definitively say if what the poet was describing qualifies as gentrification. I need to learn more about the neighborhood(s) and the rebuilding Whitman described. On first glance, it certainly does appear to meet many definitions of gentrification. Whitman’s essay has neighborhood upgrading (through reinvestment in a neighborhood that appears to have suffered from disinvestment), displacement, and all of the hallmarks of new build gentrification. Whitman wrote,

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Greyfields: a historic preservation gray area

Too frequently historic preservationists have failed to appreciate the entire urban landscape … Parking, as part of urban history, should not be rejected out of hand by any history aficionado — John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture

The National Council on Public History has published a new article on History@Work titled Blacktop History: The case for preserving parking lots. It examines the suburban parking lot as an unloveable yet important historic resource type.

Free Public Parking Big Factor In Silver Spring Success Story. The Washington Post, Nov. 27, 1949.

Free Public Parking Big Factor In Silver Spring Success Story. The Washington Post, Nov. 27, 1949.

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Separate and unequal: Preserving Jim Crow

Equalization schools were the South’s futile attempt to cling to Jim Crow segregation. They were built throughout Georgia, South Carolina, and other Deep South states as a last ditch effort to forestall court-ordered public school integration. According to Georgia architectural historian Steven Moffson, his state had the greatest number of schools built to preserve the separate but equal doctrine that ultimately was dismantled under the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

Decatur’s Beacon Elementary and Trinity High schools were among the hundreds of equalization schools built in Georgia after World War II. They were constructed in 1955 and 1956 on the site where the city had maintained its African American school, the Herring Street School, since the early twentieth century. In early 2013, three years after receiving a $10,000 historic preservation grant that should have led to the property’s protection, the City of Decatur began demolishing parts of the two schools to build a new police headquarters and civic plaza. Continue reading

A letter to the new Secretary of the Interior

Tom King and several other preservation colleagues drafted a letter to Sally Jewell, the new Secretary of the Interior. The letter asks Secretary Jewell to revamp the federal historic preservation process:

We urge you to conduct a full review of the national historic preservation program with the aim of bringing it back to the intent of its founders, as that intent relates to the imperatives of the twenty-first century. We would be pleased to do whatever we can to assist in such an enterprise.

Tom asked me to sign the letter along with other practicing heritage preservation professionals and a batch of students poised to begin their careers in a regulatory system that has gone astray from its founding principles. The letter is embedded below. Continue reading

Roadside architecture: Blue Mountain, Maryland

There’s more to rural Frederick County, Maryland, than Camp David. Nearby, there were other twentieth century resorts that housed people of lesser means than U.S. presidents.

Blue Mountain HouseThe Blue Mountain House (F-6-095) is a 1½-story frame house located south of Blue Mountain Road in rural Frederick County, Maryland. The house is a side-gabled rectangular building constructed on a concrete block foundation. There is a front entry porch in the north façade. The porch roof is supported by four battered wood posts on brick piers. The north façade has three bays with symmetrical fenestration (central door). There is a rear one-story shed roof addition (enclosed porch) and an external gable end (west) concrete block chimney. The building has 1/1 double-hung sash windows and is clad by vinyl siding; the roof is clad by composition shingles. Continue reading

Preservation’s three “R”s

Montgomery County, Maryland’s historic preservation office supervisor Scott Whipple authored a great post on an exchange he had with a school girl at a planning open house last weekend. Scott had asked the girl why historic preservation was important:

She told me that historic preservation is important because it was better to reuse buildings than to throw them in the trash.

Yes! This girl got it. OK, it took a slight prompt from her mom. But she got it. She was thinking differently. It is better to reuse buildings than to throw them in the trash.

Read the complete post at the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Straight Line blog.

There’s a mansion on the hill … (updated)

Developers paid better than the corn / But this was not the place where they were born — John Gorka, “Houses in the Fields” (Jacks Crows, 1991)

After the fall of 2011, each time I passed through the intersection of Ansley Street and Greenwood Avenue in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood, Neil Young’s song title immediately popped into my head, along with the lyrics from two tunes on John Gorka’s 1991 album, Jack’s Crows. On the hill overlooking the intersection is Liz and Rob Broadfoot’s 2,800-square-foot home. Its historically inspired projecting bays and exaggerated Craftsman details look out over Oakhurst’s smaller homes conveying an air of conspicuous consumption and privilege.

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