Death and displacement

Concrete grave marker in an abandoned African American cemetery, Montgomery County, Maryland.

My latest article for The Activist History Review explores more than a century of serial displacement in two Washington area neighborhoods with a common connection: Bethesda’a Moses Cemetery.

People who lived in communities destroyed by urban renewal and gentrification frequently frame their narratives about displacement as theft. Their homes, businesses, and churches, they believe are stolen by capitalism. Spaces for the dead are among those stolen and erased.

For the rest of the story, read The Moses Cemetery: Where Serial Displacement Meets History.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

How I lost my White Card

Nearly six years ago I met with Lyn Menne, Decatur, Georgia’s assistant city manager. We spoke over coffee at Java Monkey, a hipster joint featuring high-end coffee and evening performances, in Decatur’s upscale downtown. I had lived in Decatur for about six months and my wife and I already were considering moving from the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where we had bought a historic bungalow in July of 2011.

Had I been more woke about race, gentrification, and the role neoliberal cities play in facilitating displacement and the conversion of space for wealthier and oftentimes whiter users, I probably could have had a better response to Menne when she said, “They’re just going to die” after I laid out my concerns about the rampant teardowns in our neighborhood and the social costs of gentrification to some of Decatur’s most vulnerable citizens. To Menne, there were no viable solutions to stem the displacement that her city’s municipal policies promoted.

Instead of citing examples of inclusionary zoning and affordable housing preservation programs in other cities as well as the affordable housing recommendations given to the City of Decatur several years before we moved there, I recall sitting there stunned and at a loss for words. That exchange is forever etched in my mind as an example of how cities and humanity fail.

How things have changed since then.

A pile of rubble is all that remained of Shirley Huff’s home 24 hours after demolition began in October 2011.

My meeting with Menne occurred after I watched a builder demolish the late Shirley Huff’s home and after I began an informal research project on our area’s history as an Urban Homesteading Demonstration Project neighborhood. I had begun mapping and documenting the 113 “dollar homes” that the city sold between 1975 and 1982 and I was interviewing residents about displacement.

In early 2012 I had a very rudimentary and unsophisticated understanding of gentrification and displacement. They were concepts I had encountered in the margins of my work in historic preservation regulatory compliance and as a consultant to a Washington community development corporation funding intermediary. Like many people alive today, gentrification was something I would know if I saw it but I doubt that I could have held my own in an academic debate with a geographer or sociologist or historian who had been working in and around gentrification for years. I also doubt that I could have successfully defended an academic article or thesis on the subject. Continue reading

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

Fake art and the right to stay put

How many layers of resistance are embedded in this poster?

This poster is one of three affixed to a boarded-up storefront in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood. The storefront, like many other properties in this community East of the Anacostia River, is an active worksite in the Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. corridor. Anacostia once was a predominantly African American neighborhood stigmatized for its poverty and its perceived high crime. Now, Anacostia is prime real estate ripe for reinvestment, redevelopment, and gentrification.

Public space like the boarded-up storefront is a communications free-for-all where graffiti tags compete with concert flyers, community event announcements, and protest statements. With advocacy organizations and artists appropriating the language and imagery of resistance and commodifying it, discerning who is doing the resisting and why becomes fraught. Continue reading

Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood tackles gentrification using history

One of the greatest injustices in South of Market redevelopment has been the callous obliteration of its past. — Chester Hartman, Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (San Francisco: Glide Publications, 1974).

Urban planner Chester Hartman’s observation about San Francisco’s Yerba Buena neighborhood looms large as one Washington, D.C., neighborhood is trying to prevent its past from being displaced and rewritten as the forces of gentrification sweep through. Residents of Bloomingdale, an early District of Columbia suburb that was absorbed in the late 19th century by Washington, have mobilized to undertake an innovative interdisciplinary effort to seize control of the neighborhood’s future by gaining a better understanding of its past.

My latest article for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work examines Bloomingdale’s project. In the H@W piece I touched on how Bloomingdale residents and the volunteer researchers and community planners struggle to define gentrification. It’s not an easy task.

Older businesses share street fronts with newer ones like this yoga studio in Washington's Bloomingdale neighborhood.

Older businesses like the DC Mini Market share street fronts with newer ones like yoga studios and restaurants with patio seating  in Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood.

Continue reading

Regentrification in Atlanta’s former meatpacking district

When [Anne Quatrano] and her husband, Clifford, first moved Bacchanalia from its original location in Buckhead to the Westside in 1999, the neighborhood was hardly a neighborhood at all. “It was desolate,” Quatrano says. Seventeen years later, Howell Mill Road is prime real estate, hot with new apartment complexes, boutique clothing stores, and hip coffee shops — Atlanta Magazine on the relocation of first-wave gentrifiers in Atlanta’s Westside Provisions District.

Atlanta's Westside Provision District, 2014.

Atlanta’s Westside Provisions District, 2014.

Once the heart of Atlanta’s stockyards and meatpacking district, the Howell Mill Road area  west of the city’s midtown suffered from disinvestment and abandonment until the 1990s when upscale restaurants and boutiques began moving in. Many of the new businesses drew heavily on the area’s history. New businesses incorporated meat industry names into their titles. Establishments like the Abattoir restaurant, White Provisions, and Star Provisions anchored the district, which was rebranded the Westside Provisions District.

westside-02

Westside Provisions District, 2014.

Now, as Atlanta Magazine recently reported, a pair of the first-wave gentrifiers, Star Provisions and Bacchanalia (owned by the same company) are relocating. Reasons given include parking pressures (new developments have private decks) and the business owner’s inability to reach a new rent deal with the landlord.

Star Provisions and Bachhanalia, 2014.

Star Provisions and Bacchanalia, 2014.

Gentrified meatpacking districts are one of the phenomenon’s ironies. Whether it’s New York’s Meatpacking District or Washington’s changing Benning Road area or Pittsburgh’s Northside, there’s something about places where animals were converted into dollars that now are spaces where neighborhoods are being cut up, repackaged, and sold to new types of consumers.

Washington Square, New York City.

Meatpacking District, New York City.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

The “value gap” in history, historic preservation

I recently read Princeton University African American Studies professor Eddie Glaude’s new book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. Glaude elegantly described what he called the “value gap”:

When I say that the value gap is rooted, in part, in our national refusal to remember, I am not invoking some politically correct notion of history that simply includes previously excluded groups. How we collectively remember is bound up with questions of justice. Or, to put the point differently, what we choose to forget often reveals the limits of justice in our collective imaginations.

As I completed my paper for this year’s Delta Symposium, Glaude’s book informed how I analyzed the creation of Decatur’s Authorized Heritage Discourse and the city’s historic preservation program. Glaude’s value gap is the most apt way to view Decatur and its relationship to African Americans, their history, and their historic resources.

Delta-slide-cover-2016

It’s not that Decatur hates African Americans in an old-school white supremacist fashion. Rather, Decaturites (city officials and many residents) simply don’t place as high a value on African Americans and their history as they do whites and the historic places with deep attachment among the city’s white residents. It shows in their policies towards affordable housing, taxation, community engagement, education, and, yes, historic preservation. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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