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
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
Montgomery County, Maryland, goes to great lengths to promote its communities as diverse and progressive. Yet, actions by such institutions as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission undermine those assertions with racialized land use policies and historic preservation plans that omit, marginalize, and alienate the county’s communities of color. Patterns apparent over the past 20 years suggest that the agency, which was founded by a white supremacist real estate developer and Democratic Party boss, structurally hasn’t moved very far from its 1920s origins as a machine for building suburbs where power and authority remain concentrated among the white middle and upper classes.
Framing Structural and Institutional Racism
In September 2016, a historic preservation planner with the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Office approached a group of residents from the Lyttonsville community in the lobby of the Montgomery County Council Building in Rockville. The planner and the residents of the historically African American community were there to attend a hearing for the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan.
The planner began speaking enthusiastically about her research in a neighboring community that had been developed by Jewish developer Sam Eig: Rock Creek Forest. She told the Lyttonsville residents that in her research on Eig and the subdivision she found that Eig did not attach racial restrictive covenants to the properties.
The following morning I emailed the planner and asked her about what she had told the Lyttonsville residents. She replied:
What I was telling [Lyttonsville resident] was that Sam Eig developed Rock Creek Forest, without restrictive covenants. He also donated land there for two churches and the Jewish Community Center (?and maybe for the Red Cross). MCHS has information on Sam Eig.
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
History News Network has published my article, When a City Turns White, What Happens to its Black History?
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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