Gentrification stories: two Decatur women

Two recent articles document the human side of teardowns in Decatur, Georgia’s Oakhurst neighborhood. The articles are about two very different women who experienced gentrification and displacement in Decatur.

The first article, Fragile History in a Gentrifying Neighborhood (National Council on Public History’s History@Work) is about playwright Valetta Anderson, her 2008 play Hallelujah Street Blues, and the politics of public memory.

oakhurst-deodorantThe second article, Doing Public History: This Is What Success Can Look Like (History News Network), is about a graduate student who found a creative way to resist the alienation she felt among a growing number of McMansion-dwelling families.


© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

The Race Card

Last week NPR’s The Race Card Project featured my submission on gentrification in Decatur, Georgia. The post was a surprise since I submitted the entry a year or so ago …

race-card copy

Click the image to go to the full Race Card Project entry.




When civil rights history becomes a civil rights issue

History News Network has published my article, When a City Turns White, What Happens to its Black History?

Anti-historic district sign from 2007. Photo by author, August 2011. Sign still in place, Sept. 2012.

Anti-historic district sign in Decatur’s gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood. Photo by author, August 2011. The sign remained in place through 2013.

The HNN article is the first of several on history and historic preservation in Decatur that will be published over the next year. My book on structural racism, gentrification and housing history in Decatur will cover all of these issues.

The HNN article doesn’t explicitly  state it, but I believe the problems laid out in the article are not a history problem; they are a civil rights problem. Gentrification and demographic inversion are rapidly diminishing Decatur’s African American population. Decisions by Decatur’s elected and appointed officials offer irrefutable evidence that their city’s community and economic policies embrace gentrification and demographic inversion as municipal growth strategies.

The erasure of black history and culture from the contemporary landscape and the historical record is as much of a civil rights issue as the city’s police racial profiling. As I have told folks in presentations and conversations about Decatur, erasing Decatur’s African Americans and their history is little more than an invisible form of ethnic cleansing that is related to the mass incarceration of African Americans and the substantial prison economy that has developed to profit from it. It is, in effect, another example what author Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.”

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

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

A reply to Mouzon

Earlier this week, new urbanist starchitect and writer Steve Mouzon and I swapped words on gentrification — 140 characters at a time. Mouzon extols the lean virtues of Twitter’s platform. I find it useless for meaningful dialogue.

Continue reading

Black History Month 2015: African American heritage in the city of homes, schools, and churches

The historical, cultural and aesthetic heritage of the city is among the city’s most valued and important assets, and the preservation of this heritage is essential to the promotion of the health, prosperity and general welfare of the people. — “Historical Preservation,”  Decatur Municipal Code, § 58-1.

Much as Jim Crow racism served as the glue for defending a brutal and overt system of racial oppression in the pre–civil rights era, color-blind racism serves today as the ideological armor for a covert and institutionalized system in the post– civil rights era. — Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (4th ed., 2013).


The Decatur Focus, Jan.-Feb. 2004.  Original posted on the City of Decatur website.

The Decatur Focus, Jan.-Feb. 2004. Original posted on the City of Decatur website.

Color-blind racism is a tough nut to crack. Americans in recent months have confronted some uneasy truths about how race influences the way we see the world around us. It is easier to see and perhaps explain when it’s police racial profiling or some other symptom of structural racism that has immediate and almost always deadly consequences. Racism is less visible and harder to understand when it involves a city’s approach to preserving and communicating its history. And yet, a community’s public history conveys key messages about its values and identity.

Over the past 25 years, Decatur, Ga., has slowly and almost imperceptibly worked its way into a situation that appears to reflect racial bias and duplicity in the ways history is conveyed and preserved. In the 1980s, city history documents were as diverse as Decatur’s population: the city’s black history was commingled with its white history. It was integrated. A generation later, official history and historic preservation documents present Decatur’s history in segregated narratives: one set of documents and sources for white history and another for African American history.

No matter how many image consultants Decatur hires or self-nominated accolades it wins, the city cannot break from its long history of ethnic exclusion. Each February Decatur’s soul is exposed as various municipal organizations observe Black History Month. They hold public programs and and publish articles celebrating how well Decatur observes African American history.

But how well does Decatur do when it comes to preserving African American history?

City officials have all but erased African Americans from Decatur’s official histories and from the landscape. Whether it’s the all-white Decatur history page on Decatur’s official website, the all-white historic resources survey for which the city paid $35,000 in 2009, or the all-white histories published in the city’s strategic plans, there is compelling evidence that Decatur doesn’t much care for black history. And, there is ample proof that Decatur’s citizens have failed to hold their elected and appointed officials accountable for slowly and surely editing the city’s black residents from the historical record. 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.

Continue reading

The Decatur teardown & the Washington pop-up

Gentrification: a global process locally interpreted.

The Decatur, Georgia, teardown & McMansion:






The Washington, D.C., pop-up:

pop-up-1 pop-up-02

Both create jarring visual discontinuities and both remove affordable housing options from local markets. At least in Washington, there’s a civil debate about pop-ups and local news outlets are covering it from all perspectives. Now that’s refreshing.

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

Martin’s bread and circus

The hammers have stopped swinging in Decatur, Ga., and the city’s white middle class hegemons have returned to their McMansions. Another municipal Martin Luther King Service Project has concluded and the back-slapping congratulations have begun. “The 13th annual MLK Service Project is the most ambitious yet,” blogger Dan Whisenhunt wrote. The annual spectacle attracted hundreds of volunteers who made repairs to 31 low-income homes in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood. Continue reading

I am not Charlie ….

I am not Charlie Hebdo but I have experienced the sharp retaliatory violence that comes from speaking truth to power.

In late 2011 I began writing about teardowns and gentrification in Decatur, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. After writing just two articles on the subject a person who lives in the neighborhood about which I was writing confronted the local historical society’s executive director and demanded that I be banned from the institution’s archive. Why? Because he didn’t like what I was writing. Continue reading