Trigger warning

White planners and preservationists see one thing when looking at this bridge. Longtime African American Lyttonsville residents see something else.

White planners and preservationists see one thing when looking at this bridge. Longtime African American Lyttonsville residents see something else.

A small Silver Spring, Maryland, neighborhood called Lyttonsville has been getting a lot of attention lately. Some local bloggers have been writing about the changes that a proposed light rail line will bring to the historically African American community. And, they have written about changes coming if the Montgomery County Council approves a new master plan for the area.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post published an article about the proposed demolition of a historic bridge linking Lyttonsville with historically white neighborhoods. The Post article was inspired by an article in this blog and it dovetails with the issues about which the bloggers were writing. Continue reading

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

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

Riffing on the Trail of Tears

I’m a troll, so say residents of Decatur, Georgia’s Oakhurst neighborhood.

Why? Because I spoke and wrote on taboo topics: gentrification and racism in their neighborhood while I lived there.

Whether folks see the redevelopment taking place in Oakhurst as destructive gentrification or beneficial neighborhood upgrading, most people on both sides agree that the neighborhood is changing, taxes are rising, and residents are being displaced. If you’re on the neighborhood conservation and social justice side of the table, it’s bad. If you’re on the other side and a property rights defender or work in the real estate/construction business, it’s good. The commentary from both sides may be found in local blogs, community listservs, and in testimony before the city commission.

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Racism is alive and well in Decatur, Ga.

Isn’t that In the Heat of the Night? Wasn’t that in one of them old movies? This is 2014. Racism is alive and well. — Joel Drew, statement to the Decatur City Commission, April 21, 2014.

The evening of April 21, 2014, a handful of Decatur residents presented testimony before the Decatur City Commission on racial profiling by the city’s police department. Local journalists ignored the appearances (e.g., the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Creative Loafing). One local blogger glossed over the specific allegations of racism in Decatur. Even the Decatur City Commission minutes from the April 21 meeting failed to capture the remarkable narratives from the evening.

This post contains verbatim transcripts made from the April 21, 2014 meeting. The source audio and video used is archived on the City of Decatur website. Each entry below begins with the city’s official synopsis of the comments entered into the meeting’s official record (meeting minutes) followed by the verbatim transcript. The entries are presented in the order in which people appeared.

For more on racial profiling in Decatur, read A Lesson in Racial Profiling and Historical Relevance (National Council on Public History, History@Work, April 10, 2014). Continue reading

The profile

Decatur, Ga., resident Don Denard was stopped by Decatur police officers for “walking while black.” After having his racial profiling complaint dismissed by a Decatur Police Department internal investigation, Denard and his friends and supporters went to city hall. The video embedded above was compiled from the February 18, 2014 session.

decaturcityhall-2014-02

 

Recommended reading:

 

Post-Apartheid South Africa v. Decatur, Ga.: race, class, and capital

Gentrification is global. Decatur, Ga., resident Ted Baumann compares and contrasts gentrification and the politics of race and class in his adopted Georgia city and in a post-Apartheid South African suburb in a new two-part National Council on Public History post. From the History@Work post, “Race, politics, and property: Two cases of gentrification”:

My experience in Decatur has been different – especially the absence of any organised resistance in the low-income community to domination by gentrifiers and real estate interests – but remains eerily similar in some ways.  Many of those who drove the exclusionary MID agenda in Muizenberg considered themselves socially and politically progressive, just as many Decatur gentrifiers do, and reacted with anger at suggestions of racism.  As in Decatur, vicious personal attacks and slander were directed at me and other “treasonous” property owners who sided with the refugee/renter population.  And as in Decatur, it was largely impossible to raise issues of equity and social justice with people who reduce all social relationships to impersonal market transactions, regardless of their effects. Continue reading

Twitter terrorism

[Ed. Note: This was originally published in September 2012.]

My wife and I went to sleep one night in 2011 and awoke in a Twilight Zone episode. Back in 2007, anti-preservation activists settled for yard signs, rude emails, and disappearing blogs. Today residents in Decatur, Georgia’s Oakhurst neighborhood who oppose historic preservation and who defend destructive gentrification in their neighborhood anonymously use Twitter and other social media sites to settle scores with folks with whom they disagree. They create and post vulgar and defamatory animated videos that offend their more sensible neighbors and demean their entire community.

Screen capture from one of the fake Twitter accounts. The hyperlink originally pointed to the site xtranormal.com where four offensive animated videos had been created and posted by the individual calling him/herself @OakhurstVillain.

As of this writing, Twitter has suspended three “fake” accounts (the status of a fourth is undetermined); complaints have been filed against others and remedial action by Twitter may be pending against them. Sure, people — myself included — use Twitter for mischief sometimes. Parody accounts and other legal uses abound. But there is a bright line between innocent, albeit boisterous, posting and harassment and defamation. The people in Decatur behind these accounts have crossed that threshold.

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