The uses and abuses of diversity in Decatur, Georgia

Earlier this year, the National League of Cities named Decatur, Georgia, a 2017 winner in its City Cultural Diversity Awards program. The membership organization then gave Decatur a platform on its website to describe the municipal program for which the award was given. The June 2017 CitiesSpeak blog article written was by Linda Harris, an employee in the city’s economic development department and one of the Atlanta suburb’s chief spokespersons. It detailed initiatives that the suburban Atlanta city began after a confluence of events spotlighting race-related tensions forced municipal leaders to confront diversity and inclusion. The CitiesSpeak article described Decatur’s “Better Together”

Decatur Square, 2016.

initiative and its objectives to increase community engagement and to introduce more diversity to spaces where civic issues, from affordable housing to police racial profiling, are discussed and decided.

Gentrification is one word missing from the Decatur article. And, perhaps more importantly, the city’s key role in creating an environment that promotes gentrification, displacement, and inequity is conspicuously absent from the CitiesSpeak essay and other city-produced and promoted narratives about the Better Together initiative. Continue reading

The hidden costs of relocating Confederate statues

Montgomery County’s Confederate statue, July 2015.

Earlier this year The Washington Post published my op-ed on Montgomery County’s decision to transfer a Confederate statue that had stood in Rockville since 1913 to a new owner in the private sector. The day after the Post article ran I began writing the follow-up article on the missed opportunities in that decision and the questionable logic of giving an artifact with strong neo-Confederate symbolism to an organization that celebrates the Confederacy.

I did additional background research on the statue and on the politics and semiotics of artifacts that celebrate white supremacy. For the follow-up article I interviewed Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker and County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett in anticipation of the statue’s eventual move, which occurred July 22, 2017).

And then Charlottesville happened August 11-12, 2017. All of a sudden the entire nation was awash in analytical and opinion articles about Confederate iconography, race, erasure, and the production of history.

By last weekend I had revised most of my initial ideas for how that follow-up article would look and I made the trip out to the Montgomery County statue’s new home at White’s Ferry on the Potomac River. I crossed the river to Virginia and took in the statue’s new setting and I took more than 100 photos.

From the moment I first conceived of the follow-up article I knew that it would focus on two things: the tensions inherent in deciding how to deal with neo-Confederate artifacts that Montgomery County leaders and their counterparts around the nation grapple with and the consequences of re-contextualizing the statue in a space that celebrates the Confederacy.

Relocated Confederate statue in its new home at White’s Ferry, August 2017.

By giving the statue to White’s Ferry, Montgomery County officials relinquished control over the artifact and any messages it conveys. The statue now occupies a prominent position overlooking the ferry ramp and it is one of the first things passengers see as they leave the ferry and enter Maryland from Virginia.

View from the Gen. Jubal A. Early at the ramp to White’s Ferry, August 2017.

It’s private property yet public space. And, instead of being hidden among trees next to the county’s old courthouse, the statue now occupies a more visible space at a historic Montgomery County gateway.

The Activist History Review has published my analysis of the statue’s move and its implications in the wake of Charleston 2015 and Charlottesville 2017: No Country for Johnny Reb or Bobby Lee.

Welcome to Montgomery County, Maryland. River Road and White’s Ferry Road near the entrance to White’s Ferry, August 2017.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

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.

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

This is America

The mind-boggling thing about Trumpworld is all the people insisting that “this is not America.” People are chanting it in the streets and pleading with the world to believe it.

But, this is America. Though he lost the popular election by nearly 3 million votes, Donald Trump did get millions of votes — enough to tip the Electoral College. The Russians hacked and partisans parsed. Important facts, but not nearly as important as we live in a nation where a Donald Trump presidency was possible let alone realized.

There’s no amount of erasers or whitewash that will eradicate 400+ years of oppression based on race and religion. This is an America that our society cycles back to every so often. This time, though, the world has left America behind and more Americans are self-aware of our inherent ethnocentrism. The difference now is it’s harder to hide behind an increasingly tattered flag that reveals a naked emperor desperate to cling to a national origin story that doesn’t square with historical facts.

Donald Trump, as horrendous and repugnant as it may seem, didn’t make American Great Again. He simply restored America to a version of its past that we haven’t found a way to confront, fess up to, and move on from.

Donald Trump isn’t Adolph Hitler. Donald Trump isn’t Richard Nixon. Donald Trump isn’t Andrew Jackson. Donald Trump is Donald Trump.

In some respects, the world has never before had a Trump and if we all survive this, I hope humanity learns from it and never repeats this monumental mistake. Trump arrived at the right time and in the right place to exploit people (and be exploited [by Russia, by white nationalists, by the Republican party desperate for a win at any cost]) to be elected President of the United States of America. It is the perfect political storm for which we don’t have a scale to measure its strength and predict its damage.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

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