In 2007 and 2008, I did more than 60 oral history interviews and documentary research for Washington’s Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) office. This week, LISC celebrated its 30th anniversary in Washington and it released a book derived from the interviews, written by community development expert Tony Proscio. Continue reading
Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington
In 2007 I stumbled into a Washington, D.C., historic preservation kerfuffle. A local preservation advocate desperately wanted the District of Columbia government to designate a large brick home in Chevy Chase as a historic landmark. Although never designated, the brick home at 3637 Patterson Street NW came to have three stories attached to it before it was demolished. This article documents the man who built the house; the building’s place in space and history; and, the historic preservation battle fought to prevent its demolition. Continue reading
Situated at nearly 400 feet above sea level, Tenleytown has the District’s highest elevation and some of the region’s most significant and contested radio architecture and engineering structures. Continue reading
One hundred and sixty-three years ago this Thursday, gas lights replaced oil lamps in the U.S. Capitol. On the evening of Thursday, November 18, 1847, gas made in a plant beneath the Capitol flowed through newly installed pipes and into light fixtures throughout the building. “We witnessed last evening one of the most splendid and beautiful spectacles we ever beheld,” reported one Washington newspaper the next day. “It was the first time that the gas-lights of Mr. James Crutchett were exhibited.”
James Crutchett (1816-1889) was a self-styled engineer who briefly gained fame in 1847 for installing a gas-fueled lantern atop the Capitol dome in a failed bid to secure a contract to light the nation’s capital city. Crutchett spent the final 45 years of his life in Washington and his entrepreneurial exploits have largely been overlooked by Washington historians. His Capitol lantern scheme became a sidebar to architectural histories of the Capitol and his four decades as a gas man are little more than a footnote in the narratives on the history of Washington’s gas infrastructure. Continue reading
The late 1830s and early 1840s were a period during which the United States government embarked on a public building campaign on a scale unseen in the District of Columbia since its founding some five decades earlier. While much of the nation was mired in a depression sparked by the Panic of 1837, entrepreneurs doing business with the federal government in the capital city appeared to flourish. William H. Degges (1812-1883) was a second-generation Washington builder and he was well positioned to profit from the boom. Continue reading
Earlier this month PBS aired Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City. As an architectural historian I have long admired Burnham’s work. Union Station and the Mall are incredible amenities for folks like myself living in the Washington area. My interest in Burnham, however, goes beyond the architectural and city planning spheres. When he married Chicago Union Stockyards president John B. Sherman’s daughter Margaret, Burnham became part of the extended Allerton family, livestock entrepreneurs who profited from the shipment of most of the meat animals shipped into New York City during much of the nineteenth century.
Although Burnham never went into business with his father-in-law beyond his firm’s design of Sherman’s home and the Chicago Union Stockyards landmark gate, he did benefit from Sherman’s Chicago interests and he may have benefited from Sherman’s longtime relationship with the Pennsylvania Railroad. John B. Sherman (1825-1902) and Samuel W. Allerton Jr. (1828-1914) were cousins whose families had been in business together since the first decade of the nineteenth century. Continue reading
Earlier this spring I did a video for a client’s online annual report. The video — really a compilation of photos and interviews with a narration track — has been posted to the their YouTube channel. This was an exciting project because I got to use my ethnographer’s toolkit to tell a great story. The focus of the video is how organizations in Washington create supportive housing for the city’s homeless. Supportive housing programs provide chronically homeless people with a safe and affordable place to live along with access to services to help them get jobs, counseling, and other things necessary to re-integrate them into society. I met and photographed several formerly homeless women in one of Washington’s supportive housing apartment buildings and then I went to photograph homeless camps under Georgetown bridges. One woman who did not want to be photographed told me why the bridges were safer than homeless shelters and storefronts. Another woman proudly showed me around her apartment while explaining why she was reading Bill Gates’s book, Business @ the Speed of Thought. I would never have predicted ten years ago that I would be documenting Washington’s homeless people and the programs meant to help them.
As a kid I saw news stories and a TV movie about Washington homeless advocate Mitch Snyder. I first met homeless people as a teenager in Florida where I observed them picking for food in the alleys behind beachside bars and motels. I attended Georgia State University, which at the time (1984-1986) was a commuter school in downtown Atlanta. There were many homeless people on the margins of campus but that experience inadequately prepared me for the many homeless on and around the University of Pennsylvania campus. As a student and ethnographer in training I always knew that my world was safely separate from the men, women, and children I saw on the streets.
The type of work I do rarely puts me back in close proximity to the homeless beyond the ordinary encounters in the streets of Washington and suburban Maryland. Recently I began working on a multimedia project for a client that involves interviewing supportive housing providers and assembling images for a brief video report. One of the folks I met during this project was a former homeless person who recounted life on Washington’s streets and why it was preferable to live beneath a Georgetown bridge rather than risk the threats of assault in homeless shelters or in doorways downtown. This morning I visited some of Washington’s homeless encampments in and around Georgetown and shot some stills.