Screwed blues, screwed journalism

Last year, Philadelphia City Paper folded after 34 years in print. I read it religiously while I attended the University of Pennsylvania. I was excited when I got a chance to write for the weekly — almost as much as I was when I got my first Philadelphia Inquirer byline four months earlier.

And, I was devastated when I read that it was going out of print.

My disappointment stemmed partly from nostalgia and partly from concerns about the future of local news reporting. As local news reporting organizations are disappearing, so too are their roles informing people and holding public officials accountable for their actions. As a historian, I also was concerned about what the closures meant for online newspaper archives and for what’s popularly known as history’s first draft. Continue reading

Proposed bike lanes in Washington pit cyclists against churches

DC-BikeLane

Existing Washington bike lanes, 2015.

My latest History News Network article examines the historical basis for the conflict that erupted when the District of Columbia Department of Transportation proposed building bike lanes through the city’s Shaw neighborhood.

Bike lanes don’t cause gentrification and they are not necessarily products of gentrification. Yet, judging by the adversarial situations that have emerged in cities across the United States over the past decade, bike lanes appear to be inextricably tied to debates over whether gentrification is beneficial or damaging to neighborhoods and people.

Read the new article here: The Battle Over Bike Lanes in Washington, DC.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

Montgomery County’s earliest ranch house?

garden-homes-letterheadThe community builders who laid out the lots and constructed the first homes in Silver Spring, Maryland’s Northwood Park subdivision were skilled real estate entrepreneurs. The people who owned Garden Homes, Inc., selected an attractive and accessible site for their subdivisions. And, they built homes finished in popular styles they knew would sell quickly.

One home built in 1939 stood out from all of the Cape Cods and English Cottage period revival homes Garden Homes built. It was a fully modernist home plucked from cutting edge California. Several years before other builders were marketing their own California cottages in suburban Maryland, Northwood Park’s builders completed what may be the earliest ranch-style house in Montgomery County. Continue reading

Finding Vera

carmaniaIn the mid-1970s I found an old diary in a house that was about to be demolished in Daytona Beach, Fla. The diary was written by a 24-year-old woman and it recounted her December 1905 trip on the maiden voyage of the ocean liner Carmania from England to New York.

In 2010, I posted a transcript from the diary and scans of various photos and other items. Last year, the woman’s great-granddaughter found the post and left a comment on the post. We began corresponding and I connected with other family members. Soon a plan emerged for us to meet and for me to return the diary to the family. Continue reading

Slaughterhouses on the Schuylkill

In the mid-1870s, the Pennsylvania Railroad consolidated its livestock operations in Philadelphia and built sprawling stockyards and a slaughterhouse on the Schuylkill River’s west bank. Now the site of Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, for nearly half a century, this area was Philadelphia’s version of Chicago’s Packingtown.

Philadelphia stockyards and abattoir illustrated in Hexamer's General Surveys of Philadelphia, Vol. 12 (1877).

Philadelphia stockyards and abattoir shortly after they were completed illustrated in Hexamer’s General Surveys of Philadelphia, Vol. 12 (1877).

Before the Pennsylvania Railroad complex opened, hogs, cattle, and sheep were held and sold at independent drove yards along rail lines leading into the city. Many of the yards were located in West Philadelphia near today’s University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University campuses.

Avenue Drove Yard

Avenue Drove Yard, near Lancaster Avenue, West Philadelphia (formerly Hestonville), c. 1867.

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Baltimore road trip: a trip down Homesteader Alley

An urban homesteading property featured in an Atlanta newspaper shortly after rehabilitation (upper left) and the same home in 2012 (lower right).

A Decatur, Ga., urban homesteading property featured in an Atlanta newspaper shortly after rehabilitation (upper left) and the same home in 2012 (lower right).

In late 2011 I was introduced to the intersection of gentrification and an innovative 1970s affordable housing program: urban homesteading. The population of 113 urban homesteading sites in Decatur, Ga., and the overlapping 123 teardowns I documented between 2011 and 2014 form a large part of the analytical core of my book on gentrification and demographic inversion in that city.

Since I my earliest first-hand exposure to the houses cities sold for $1 to qualified homeowners, I have visited former urban homesteading neighborhoods in Atlanta, Washington, and now, Baltimore. My experience in Decatur moved (for me, at least) urban homesteading and similar programs from the static pages of urban studies books and journals to a significant place in my thinking about displacement, neighborhood upgrading, and the politics of history in urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Former $1 home, Washington, D.C.

Former $1 home (leftmost house), Washington, D.C.

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Raising bridges, raising Hell

Ninth Street Bridge, Spanning Allegheny River at Ninth Street, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, PA. HAER photo by Jete Lowe.

Ninth Street Bridge, Spanning Allegheny River at Ninth Street, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, PA. HAER photo by Jet Lowe.

In 1897, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fired the first shot in a war with Pittsburgh, Pa., bridge owners, industrialists, and the local government. Industrialists like H.C. Frick and riverboat interests told the federal agency that Pittsburgh’s bridges were too low and that they obstructed navigation.

Two years later, acting on information provided by the Corps of Engineers, Congress passed a law authorizing the Secretary of War “to notify the owners of bridges and other structures” that their structures were obstructing navigation. The new law also gave the federal government the power to force bridge owners to make corrections at their own expense. Continue reading

Public archaeology, public history, and race

A lot has changed in public history and archaeology since 1992. And, a lot hasn’t. In 1992, there were very few African American archaeologists. Within that class, even fewer of them were historical archaeologists specializing in African American material culture.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

The early 1990s were a critical time in cultural resource management/public history/historic preservation. Congress had just passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the world watched as archaeologists excavated the graves where more than 400 Africans were buried in downtown Manhattan. The archaeology was being done in advance of federal building construction and the site is now the African Burial Ground National Monument. At the time, debate swirled about what would become of the site and the people buried there.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, not only are there more African American historical archaeologists but there are more Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians specializing in the the field and turning their professional expertise inwards on their own pasts.

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Industrial displacement: an urban blacksmith faces change

SIA-2014Fridays are tour days for folks who attend the Society for Industrial Archeology’s annual conferences. This year’s conference was in Portland, Me., and I signed up for the urban tour: Portland. Stops included a high-tech chicken processing plant and a manufacturer that produces specialized generated rotor (gerotor) parts for pumps. The Portland Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum located in the historic Portland Company complex in the city’s Eastern Waterfront district was another stop. The most memorable site for me wasn’t on the itinerary, though.

After a ride along the 19th-century rail corridor, I slipped away from the other SIAers who spent an hour in the railroad museum. I set out to get some photos of an urban landscape in transition via gentrification and redevelopment. On my way back to the museum, I detoured to a side area in the Portland Company complex where I saw a sign for The Portland Forge. A couple of hundred feet down a narrow alley formed by the brick Portland Company buildings on one side and Portland’s 19th-century seawall on the other I met blacksmith Sam Smith, The Portland Forge’s proprietor and a business owner facing possible displacement by encroaching gentrification.

Portland Company complex. May 16, 2016.

Portland Company complex. May 16, 2016. The Portland Forge is located at the end of the alley where the car is parked.

Sam Smith (foreground) and an apprentice in front of his shop.

Sam Smith (left) and an apprentice in front of his shop.

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Thomas U. Walter: A day in Pittsburgh

From Thomas U. Walter’s diary, Thomas Ustick Walter Papers, The Atheneum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Thursday, May 8, 1856.

Arrived at Pittsburgh at 1 A.M. Took lodgings at the “Monongahela House” — slept until 8 A.M.

Took a carriage and rode around the city — it was a Philadelphia look but excessively smokey and dirty — some well built houses, but no appearance of comfort. Allegheny City, on the other side of the river, look somewhat cleaner, but the whole region is filled with smoke and dust from the great number of furnaces always in blast., the factories and the steamboats, all of which use bituminous coal.

 

Thomas Ustick Walter Papers. Microfilm copy, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, microfilm reel 4133.

Thomas Ustick Walter Papers. Microfilm copy, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, microfilm reel 4133.