People who live in gentrifying neighborhoods enjoy many new things that accompany increased investment and influxes of new people: better police protection, more places to shop and eat, and cleaner streets. The changes may be gradual or they may appear in such a short period of time that it seems like overnight.
Something as simple as the appearance of a mailbox on a corner can reinforce longtime residents’ impressions that change is occurring.
And now that I’ve been over here and we’re getting whites moving in the neighborhood, we’ve got a mailbox on the corner. We don’t have to go up to the post office ….
The mailbox is new. And pickup on time: eleven o’clock very day. Eleven o’clock every day. So you see, you get different service and you get general services and so forth and so on. — Washington, D.C., Ward 7 resident, July 2015.
Branch Ave., 2007. Credit: Google maps.
Branch Ave., 2015. Note new sidewalks.
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein
To the casual viewer, the 1,064-square-foot brick ranch house at 235 West Pharr Road in Decatur, Ga., was just another midcentury home. Set just inside the Decatur city limits in the Oakhurst neighborhood, the house recently was demolished.
235 W. Pharr Road in 2013.
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 (leftmost house), Washington, D.C.
Last week I attempted to email a Decatur, Ga., real estate professional. His uninvited and unwanted letters and flyers are delivered to homes throughout the gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood and I wanted to ask him some questions about the “as-is” house buying business.
Letter sent to elderly Oakhurst resident. The letter and envelope were printed on a laser printer to simulate personalization.
One of the so-called “yellow cards” left on our Atlanta home in 2012.
After I sent my email to him, I received an automated response triggered by his email provider’s spam setting:
What an irony. He blankets neighborhoods with gentrification spam, much of which ends up in old-fashioned spam filters: trash cans. At least he has the opportunity to screen unwanted materials even before they reach his eyes. You can’t say the same for the elderly homeowners who receive his literature.
Postscript: As for my effort to ask the individual questions about his business, I completed the form to get beyond the spam filter and I completed a “contact-us” form on his company’s website. I received no responses.
This morning the Washington Post published a story about a D.C. homeowner’s very individual approach to opposing change in his neighborhood. Milfred Ellis posted three anti-gentrification signs in his Brightwood home’s front yard.
Anti-gentrification signs in Washington yard. Photo by author.
Post reporter Perry Stein is doing a solid job covering gentrification and other changes in Washington’s neighborhoods. I think her definition of gentrification is too broad, though: “gentrification is, by definition, wealthier residents displacing longtime poorer residents in neighborhoods.” There’s a compelling case for displacement and demographic change in Mr. Ellis’ neighborhood but there doesn’t appear to be a solid case for the disinvestment that’s essential to any rigorous definition of “gentrification.”
The signs in the Ellis yard are a great illustration of individual/neighborhood resistance to change that is being driven by the same forces that also underlie gentrification: real estate speculation. I think signs posted on utility poles near his home, though, tell the rest of the story:
“We Buy Houses” sign above a bike route sign, Brightwood neighborhood, Washington, D.C.
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein
Over the past four years I have collected thousands of articles, photos, and documents to write a book on gentrification in Decatur, Ga. The journey has yielded lots of WTF moments, some of which will be in the book; others that won’t. This post describes one episode that likely won’t reach print.
In the spring of 2012, Decatur High School social studies teacher Chris Billingsley took a group of students in the school’s “Close-Up Club” to Washington, D.C. Billingsley described the trip in a note to a local blog. According to the teacher, he and the kids had a “Capital [sic] Hill Day”:
The students took a tour of the Supreme Court, the Capital [sic.], met with staff from John Lewis and Saxby Chambliss offices, and had a seminar at the Heritage Foundation.
The Heritage Foundation’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.
We’ve spent more than a decade (split into two parts) living in the Washington metropolitan area. Like many residents, we frequently get queries from friends, relatives, and colleagues about places to visit on trips to Washington. And, of course, we also read local newspapers and magazines that report on the region’s most popular (and educational) tourist destinations. The Heritage Foundation — a conservative Capitol Hill think tank and influence peddling operation — has never been on any of those lists.
Residents of Decatur, Ga., who question whether their elected and appointed leaders have a genuine commitment to preserving affordable housing in the Atlanta suburb can find the answer to their query among the crop of 2015 Decatur Design Award winners.
Decatur Design Award plaque, downtown Decatur.
Last month, a home at 156 Feld Ave. was one of six recipients of a Decatur Design Award. The awards, doled out by the Decatur Historic Preservation Commission, recognize projects “that promote excellence in preservation, design, sustainability, and advocacy.”
Over the years, the Decatur HPC has given awards to teardown projects in the “sustainability” category. Under Decatur code, the Feld Ave. project is considered a “substantial alteration” to an existing building — an “addition” — and that’s the category in which it was recognized. In other jurisdictions, the Feld Ave. project likely would be considered a “teardown.”
Invitations were sent out to a private viewing of a home for sale in Decatur, Georgia’s gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood. Is this a new trend in gentrifying neighborhoods, middle-class millionaires marketing McCraftsman McMansions as though they are located in historically upscale neighborhoods like nearby Druid Hills or the gated communities of the suburban nouveau riche?
Like many of its neighbors, the Greenwood Avenue lot had a modest one-story vernacular home on it:
365 Greenwood Ave. in 2009. Credit: City of Decatur Historic Resources Survey.
And then a developer came along and scraped it away. According to DeKalb County tax records, in 2010 the developer paid $135,000 for the teardown and then sold the new home the following year for $550,000.
After four years, the property is again on the market:
In part, it’s a case for historical knowledge: the world of Jim Crow seems increasingly distant and incomprehensibly foreign to blacks and whites born in the wake of the civil rights movement. In part, it’s also an issue of relevance and public policy: the segregated history of the United States is inextricably intertwined with the state of modern race relations, one of the most significant unresolved items on the nation’s political agenda. Few would go as far as the man in St. Louis who suggested that every American community should preserve at least one site associated with segregation in order to remind us that there are two racial universes in the United States and that we are not a single unified nation. Whatever the merits or practicality of the proposal, his larger points will resonate for many, both white and black: the country remains divided by race, and historic preservation has a potential to inspire reform. — Robert Weyeneth, The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past (2005).
Between 2013 and 2015, the City of Decatur, Georgia erased the final reminders of its “problematic past.” In what could have been an opportunity to teach about the city’s history — preserving the city’s historic African American schools — Decatur leaders and residents instead chose to build a monument to enduring white supremacy: the Beacon Municipal Center, which the City officially dedicated last month. Continue reading