Fairway: Silver Spring’s ghost town

During World War II, the U.S. government built “temporary suburbs” throughout the United States. One of those suburbs was located just north of the District of Columbia in a part of unincorporated Silver Spring, Maryland, called Four Corners. For a brief period during the war, the development was a ghost town. At least that’s what some critics of the 238-unit public housing project called it.

Fairway Houses location. Adapted from Google Maps.

Fairway Houses location. Adapted from Google Maps.

In 1942, Washington’s slum clearance agency (the Alley Dwelling Authority; later, the National Capital Housing Authority) began scouting sites in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties for temporary defense housing sites where migrants to the metro region could live while working in government agencies and defense-related industries.

The agency selected two sites in Prince George’s county where it built one 500-unit project near College Park and another 315-unit project near Suitland. After hitting considerable opposition to a proposed 800-unit development near Kensington in Montgomery County, the ADA settled on building in Four Corners. Twenty-eight acres north of Forest Glen Road and south of University Blvd. (then known as Old Bladensburg Road) in scattered sites were condemned. The Montgomery County project was called the “Fairway Houses,” a name derived from surrounding residential subdivisions.

Map showing Alley Dwelling Authority projects.

Map showing Alley Dwelling Authority projects. Fairway is highlighted. Report of the National capital housing authority for the ten-year period 1934-1944.

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Silver Spring’s Perpetual Building may be historic …

Former Perpetual Building Association building, 8700 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md.

Former Perpetual Building Association building, 8700 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md.

… But not necessarily for the reasons preservationists suggest.

In 2007 Montgomery County, Maryland,  historic preservation advocates asked county leaders to add the former Perpetual Savings Association bank building in downtown Silver Spring to the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The designation would have ensured the 1958 building’s presence along Georgia Avenue in perpetuity. Instead, the proposed designation led to litigation and recriminations. The Perpetual case was precedential, examining the pitfalls of preserving buildings of recent vintage and the minutiae of due process in county master plan legislation.

The Perpetual Building Association was a Washington banking institution founded in 1881. It built branches throughout the District during the early 20th century and expanded to Montgomery County after World War II.  The bank became one of the leading local mortgage lenders, helping provide the capital for homebuilding in Washington’s rapidly expanding automobile suburbs.

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(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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DC’s first tiny house movement was in the 1880s

Last fall, Washington, D.C., Councilmember Vincent Orange (At-Large) proposed building 1,000 “tiny houses” for low-income residents and millennials. His bill — “The Minimum Wage, Living Wage, and Millennial Tiny Housing Amendment Act of 2015” [PDF] — quickly drew criticism as being “gimmicky” and potentially discriminatory. What many don’t know is that Orange’s initiative wasn’t the first time District leaders sought to solve big housing problems with small houses.

Boneyard Studios Tiny House Village

Tiny houses. Photo by Inhabitat via Flickr.

In Washington’s earliest years, alleys housed horses and privies. As African Americans began streaming into the city during the Civil War, most alleys were converted to residential uses and many small wood shacks went up. These quickly became overcrowded and concerns about disease and crime followed. Continue reading

Holding onto the Bible and the land

Meeting attendees study handouts illustrating bike lane alternatives.

Meeting attendees study handouts illustrating bike lane alternatives.

Yesterday the District of Columbia Department of Transportation held a public meeting to share revised alternatives for proposed protected bicycle lanes in the city’s Shaw neighborhood. The meeting followed an earlier event in October 2015 where African American church congregations found themselves in an adversarial position against bicycle lane proponents.

It was the latest chapter in more than a century of gentrification in Washington.

More than 300 people packed the auditorium in a D.C. charter school. After presentations from D.C. transportation officials, nearly 50 D.C. residents shared their comments. According to the meeting moderator, District officials had already received more than 2,000 comments about the proposed bike lanes.

KIPP DC-Will Academy auditorium shortly before the meeting began.

KIPP DC-WILL Academy auditorium shortly before the meeting began.

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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

 

Can historians help defuse gentrification conflicts?

My latest article on the conflicts that arise in gentrifying neighborhoods when bike lanes are proposed has been published in the National Council on Public History’s History@Work site.

A bike lane passes across the street from Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, M Street NW in Washington, D.C. Cyclists battled the church in 2013 over building a bike lane in M Street.

A bike lane passes across the street from Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, M Street NW, in Washington, D.C. Cyclists battled the church in 2013 over building a bike lane in M Street. The historic church is home to one of Washington’s oldest African American congregations.

Over the past several years, urbanists and cycling enthusiasts have clashed with churches and residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. Can a comprehensive understanding of a neighborhood’s and a city’s history avoid heated exchanges that end up being polemic battles about race, class, and privilege?

From the new History@Work article:

Gentrification: It’s not just for sociologists and anthropologists any more. Though historians have been making inroads documenting and interpreting gentrification and displacement, there are abundant opportunities for historians to make significant contributions in public policy and planning. One recent kerfuffle involving proposed bicycle lanes and African American churches in Washington, DC, provides a window into how a better understanding of the past could have defused a racially and class charged debate over painted lines in public spaces. – See more at: http://publichistorycommons.org/a-public-history-role-for-building-bike-lanes/

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

 

Snowzilla 2016

The forecasters did label it historic, after all.

On Wednesday January 20, 2016, weather forecasters issued a blizzard watch for the Washington, DC, area. The following day, the notice was upgraded to a blizzard warning. The National Weather Service has named the event ‘Winter Storm Jonas”; Washington Post meteorologists have named it “Snowzilla.” For me, Snowzilla it is. Seriously, does the name “Jonas” inspire fear and awe?

Anywhere from 1.5 to 2 feet of snow was predicted. Mass transit is shutting down for the weekend. There’s a run on grocery and hardware stores — even Washington City Paper reported that a local Trader Joes had sold out of all its veggie flaxseed tortilla chips. Pepco, the electric company, announced that we could be spending days in a pre-electric living history museum.

Clearly, this is the BIG ONE. Besides staging firewood and all the necessary supplies (except the flaxseed anythings) to cope with the storm, I’ll be documenting the event as it unfolds. So sit back, grab something to eat and drink, and watch the end of the world from the comfort of your browser window. Continue reading

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

Modernism in the ‘hood: The Four Corners Safeway story

Unless you’re a big fan of mid-century modern architecture, the Four Corners Safeway store in Silver Spring, Maryland, probably doesn’t seem like anything special. It’s just the neighborhood supermarket. But if you’re a 20th century architecture aficionado, the neighborhood Safeway store is a true gem.

Located about 1/2-mile north of the National Capital Beltway, the Four Corners Safeway is one of a dwindling number of distinctive supermarket buildings that the chain built in the Washington area after World War II. Architectural historians have dubbed the distinctive curved roofline and vaulted interior space “Marina Style” after the chain’s 1959 prototype store built in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood.

Four Corners Safeway opening advertisement. The Washington Evening Star, October 4, 1962.

Four Corners Safeway opening advertisement. The Washington Evening Star, October 4, 1962.

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