Gentrification signs

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.

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


Columbia Heights reborn

The riots that tore through Washington, D.C., after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 left many neighborhoods physically and emotionally scarred for decades. Columbia Heights was one of the most adversely affected. Continue reading

Civil War Lost and Found: Lincoln’s First Inaugural Ballroom

Dance card. Library of Congress image.

Abraham Lincoln began his first term as the 16th president of the United States in a ceremony held on the Capitol’s east portico. About 25,000 people watched as Lincoln was sworn in Monday March 4, 1861. Lincoln left the Capitol and went to the White House, traveling in a carriage down Pennsylvania Avenue under tight security. Later that evening, the new president and his wife left the executive mansion for the traditional inaugural ball.

Many of the sites associated with Lincoln’s inauguration were permanent buildings: The Capitol; Willard’s Hotel (where the Lincolns stayed before the ceremonies); Pennsylvania Avenue; and, the White House. One piece of pop-up architecture that did not survive beyond the spring of 1861 was the ballroom where the Lincolns and their guests danced into the night of March 4, 1861. Continue reading

Daniel H. Burnham and Washington’s Union Stockyards

Earlier this month PBS aired Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City. As an architectural historian I have long admired Burnham’s work. Union Station and the Mall are incredible amenities for folks like myself living in the Washington area. My interest in Burnham, however,  goes beyond the architectural and city planning spheres. When he married Chicago Union Stockyards president John B. Sherman’s daughter Margaret, Burnham became part of the extended Allerton family, livestock entrepreneurs who profited from the shipment of most of the meat animals shipped into New York City during much of the nineteenth century.

Although Burnham never went into business with his father-in-law beyond his firm’s design of Sherman’s home and the Chicago Union Stockyards landmark gate, he did benefit from Sherman’s Chicago interests and he may have benefited from Sherman’s longtime relationship with the Pennsylvania Railroad. John B. Sherman (1825-1902) and Samuel W. Allerton Jr. (1828-1914) were cousins whose families had been in business together since the first decade of the nineteenth century. Continue reading

John Skirving: From Bricklayer to Men of Progress

Sometimes it takes a real kick in the pants to get moving on turning a conference paper into something more. Last week I received an email from a history professor in the UK who is working on a project that parallels some research I presented in draft form at the 2007 Washington Historical Studies Conference. I allowed the National Trust for Historic Preservation to summarize the paper and post a link to a PDF of the entire paper at its President Lincoln’s Cottage Website. I have suggested a collaboration to my colleague across the pond rather than a race to get into print; we’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, I’d like to recapture a little bit of my own intellectual property by reprinting a slightly revised version of the 2007 paper with illustrations. Continue reading

Video: Housing the Homeless in Washington

Earlier this spring I did a video for a client’s online annual report. The video — really a compilation of photos and interviews with a narration track — has been posted to the their YouTube channel. This was an exciting project because I got to use my ethnographer’s toolkit to tell a great story. The focus of the video is how organizations in Washington create supportive housing for the city’s homeless. Supportive housing programs provide chronically homeless people with a safe and affordable place to live along with access to services to help them get jobs, counseling, and other things necessary to re-integrate them into society. I met and photographed several formerly homeless women in one of Washington’s supportive housing apartment buildings and then I went to photograph homeless camps under Georgetown bridges. One woman who did not want to be photographed told me why the bridges were safer than homeless shelters and storefronts. Another woman proudly showed me around her apartment while explaining why she was reading Bill Gates’s book, Business @ the Speed of Thought. I would never have predicted ten years ago that I would be documenting Washington’s homeless people and the programs meant to help them.

DC Homeless

As a kid I saw news stories and a TV movie about Washington homeless advocate Mitch Snyder. I first met homeless people as a teenager in Florida where I observed them picking for food in the alleys behind beachside bars and motels. I attended Georgia State University, which at the time (1984-1986) was a commuter school in downtown Atlanta. There were many homeless people on the margins of campus but that experience inadequately prepared me for the many homeless on and around the University of Pennsylvania campus. As a student and ethnographer in training I always knew that my world was safely separate from the men, women, and children I saw on the streets.

The type of work I do rarely puts me back in close proximity to the homeless beyond the ordinary encounters in the streets of Washington and suburban Maryland. Recently I began working on a multimedia project for a client that involves interviewing supportive housing providers and assembling images for a brief video report. One of the folks I met during this project was a former homeless person who recounted life on Washington’s streets and why it was preferable to live beneath a Georgetown bridge rather than risk the threats of assault in homeless shelters or in doorways downtown. This morning I visited some of Washington’s homeless encampments in and around Georgetown and shot some stills.