The War Against Displacement: A Tale of Six Neighborhoods

Few local issues engage and enrage the Left these days more than the ongoing displacement of longtime residents from their communities in the process of remaking them into enclaves for the affluent and profit-making opportunities for the corporate class.  Metro-DC DSA has been active in fighting ongoing plans to remove low-income, minority residents from their homes in well-established neighborhoods -- such as the campaign to stop displacement and preserve affordable housing in Congress Heights.

Today’s galloping gentrification is only the latest chapter in a decades-long saga in which the powers that be have sought to remake Washington, DC at the expense of the people who have made it a living, breathing city.  A cross-section of that story is told in “A Right to the City,” a current exhibit at the Anacostia Community Museum comparing and contrasting the stories of real and threatened displacement and the how members of the community responded in six DC neighborhoods:  Southwest, Brookland, Shaw, Adams Morgan, Chinatown and Anacostia.

It is appropriate that the Anacostia Community Museum is hosting this long-term exhibit, scheduled to run until April 20, 2020.  The DC communities east of the Anacostia river are experiencing the early stages of displacement that have spread over their fellow neighborhoods to the west like gold-plated kudzu.  The museum, the only one in the Smithsonian constellation with a mission to focus on its home city, is one of DC’s less-visited gems, and its location a mile from the nearest Metro station (Anacostia) doesn’t invite visitors.  (Its name is also misleading; it is actually located in the Fort Stanton neighborhood.  The museum unfortunately helps to perpetuate the belief that the name “Anacostia” applies to all of the District east of the river, while it actually is only one of numerous neighborhoods there).

“A Right to the City” starts its story with the mother of all DC displacements – the wholesale destruction of nearly an entire quadrant of the city in the 1950s and 1960s.  Southwest was a vibrant and close-knit neighborhood, but it bore three sins that put it in the crosshairs of postwar urban engineers:  It was black, low-income and lay at the feet of the US Capitol.  The exhibit features an enlarged photo of a grinning President Eisenhower, along with a bevy of fellow white men, examining a map of the new Southwest showing existing homes, along with their residents, replaced by boxy federal office buildings and high-rise apartment towers.

Of the six neighborhoods featured in the exhibit, Southwest is the one depicted as putting up the least resistance.  In part, the residents might have been taken unawares at being the first major local target of postwar urban renewal.  Also, as Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove wrote in their book Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital, “most area residents were renters, who had less incentive and power to fight such projects.”

Other neighborhoods took heed at the bitter experience of Southwest and organized themselves when the federal urban-renewal bureaucrats showed up at their frontiers.  And it was indeed federal, not local, schemes that neighbors had to fight, for during the early wave of urban renewal the District had no elected government, not even the one with limited powers it has today.  Local residents had to face the federal octopus without a single elected official accountable to them.

Nevertheless, many DC citizens chose to stand and fight.  One of the earliest battles against displacement was not a result of gentrification, but of the highway lobby’s desire to crisscross District neighborhoods with highways so that suburbanites could more easily get to their downtown jobs.  DC neighborhoods such as Brookland were only so much roadkill to be trampled in the process.  The long-shot and largely successful fight that blocked most of the planned highways has been often told and is illustrated in the exhibit by a display of signs protesting the roads – such as one reading “a White Man’s Road through a Black Man’s Home,” the motto of the resistance.  The exhibit highlights the key role of activist Sammie Abbott, who helped mobilize neighborhoods in the District and beyond and later served as mayor of Takoma Park.  It was not freeways but capitalism that brought change to Brookland, with the new Monroe Street Market a driving force behind gentrification in the neighborhood.

The residents of the Shaw and Adams Morgan neighborhoods also decided to try and navigate their own futures in the face of a federal government and business establishment that would plot it for them.  Adams Morgan, as we know it, emerged in the 1950s following the end of school segregation, taking its name from the formerly all-white Adams Elementary School and all-black Morgan Elementary as a symbolic embrace of unity across racial lines.  The exhibit narrates how in the 1960s and 1970s, Adams Morgan built its vision of a multiracial neighborhood by taking control of Morgan Elementary – now the Marie Reed Learning Center – from the federally appointed board overseeing DC schools, making it one of the earliest community-controlled schools in the United States.  Other community-based organizations engaged young people in sports, community gardening and the arts, and advocated for the neighborhood’s growing Latino population.  These exercises in grassroots governance, according to an information card in the exhibit, represented “an effective system of neighborhood self-government in a city without elected leadership.”

Likewise, activists in the predominately African American neighborhood of Shaw employed collective action to preempt the likelihood of their community going the way of Southwest.  Walter Fauntroy, minister of New Bethel Baptist Church and a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., founded the Model Inner City Community Organization (MICCO) to, as the exhibit puts it, enable Shaw’s “residents and small-business owners . . . to be able to fully participate in – and lead – the process of the community’s renewal.”  King himself led a parade in Shaw in 1967, followed by a speech at Cardozo High School in which he praised MICCO’s vision of, in King’s words, “urban renewal with the people, by the people, for the people.”  But King’s assassination in 1968 led to rioting in DC that devastated parts of Shaw, cutting short MICCO’s ambitions and leading not to renewal but decades of neglect.  (Fauntroy went on to become DC’s first non-voting delegate to Congress).

Change came to Chinatown by a different path.  DC’s Chinese community had already experienced displacement, with the old Chinatown along Pennsylvania Ave. near the Capitol having been uprooted in 1930 for the construction of new federal buildings.  The community then resettled around the intersection of 7th and H streets NW.  As the exhibit notes, DC’s Chinese community grew slowly and remained tiny compared to Chinatowns in other cities, such as San Francisco and New York.   Nevertheless, the Chinese residents of the neighborhood retained their cultural identify through the annual Chinese New Year parade and other institutions, as well as the plentiful Chinese restaurants.  The opening of the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro Station in 1976, however, proved to be old Chinatown’s undoing, spurring a wave of development that included the mammoth MCI Center (now Capitol One Arena) that turned 7th and H from a Chinese crossroads to Washington’s closest answer to Times Square.  Many of the old Chinese restaurants and shops vanished, to be replaced by chains such as Fuddruckers and Hooters.  With only a vestigial Chinese community remaining, the party crowds can pass under the soaring Chinese gateway and eye with curiosity the street signs in Chinese without actually encountering any actual Chinese people.

Are Anacostia and its surrounding communities, including the one where the Anacostia Community Museum sits, next?  While even someone living in the District for decades might think of the portion of the city east of the Anacostia River as historically African American, in fact its population was mostly white well into the 20th century, and mixed after that (albeit in segregated communities).  “A Right to the City” documents the transition of the area that was triggered when African American residents protested the 1950 opening of John Philip Sousa Junior High, slated to serve only white students when schools for black children east of the river were “run-down, overcrowded and underfunded.”  Residents sued the government, and the resulting Supreme Court decision in Bolling v. Sharpe – issued in 1954 on the same day as its better-known sister case, Brown v. Board of Education – struck down school segregation in the District.  However, in a pattern seen around the country, a mandate for desegregation only led to re-segregation, as whites fled for the suburbs and African Americans replaced them – some from recently demolished Southwest.

The image of East of the River as a collection of impoverished, remote communities impervious to gentrification is already changing, the exhibit notes.  “Today,” a descriptive card says, “Anacostia and East of the River communities are absorbing the impacts of skyrocketing home prices and land values across the city.” It cites the demolishing of the low-income Barry Farms Dwellings in favor of mixed-income housing, new developments along Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. and the plans for redevelopment of the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital property, which “promise greater economic opportunity and connection to the rest of the city, but also heighten fears of unequal access and displacement.”  A walk between the museum and the Anacostia Metro station doesn’t give one the impression of a neighborhood on the cusp of upheaval, but looks can be deceiving.

“A Right to the City” very effective weaves its story from the experience of the six neighborhoods it examines through text, videos and photos.  It is lighter on artifacts – some Asian artworks to represent Chinatown, yearbooks and trophies from schools in the neighborhoods are among the tangible objects on display.   The most powerful parts of the exhibit are the recorded interviews with people who lived through the changes as they describe the impacts on their own lives.

The exhibit raises a question without providing an answer:  Is it possible to upgrade services and amenities for non-affluent communities without driving away the residents they were designed to serve?  Everyone wants better transportation, parks, safer streets, more retail choices.  Unfortunately, these things make neighborhoods more attractive to affluent outsiders who move in and bid up housing costs.  In several of the neighborhoods featured, the opening of new Metrorail stations was the spur for development and gentrification.  Can public policy ensure that the choices are not runaway gentrification on the one hand vs. blight and deprivation on the other?

As “The Right to the City” makes clear, displacement and misguided renewal are hardly new phenomena.  But there is a critical difference between the urban upheavals from the 1950s into the1970s and the aggressive gentrification taking place today.  The mega-plans of that earlier era took place in a context of white flight from the city, with DC becoming increasingly poor and minority.  Then, the federal government, which was effectively a colonial occupier of a city without its own government, regarded neighborhoods such as Shaw and Brookland as slums to be swept away for the benefit of the government or corporate sectors.  The advent of home rule in 1974 amplified the voices of local activists, even as many neighborhoods continued to struggle with abandonment and decline and the federal government still held the upper hand.

Today, however, the District of Columbia has been swept up in the urban renaissance of the 2000s, and once-downtrodden neighborhoods such at H St. NE and Columbia Heights have become hot, with affluent new residents discovering the benefits of living in the city – its culture, its nightlife, its convenience.  In Southwest itself, the spearhead of urban renewal, the sterile enclave that displaced the old African American neighborhood is itself being partially displaced by The Wharf, that ultra-chic waterfront development of high-end restaurants, entertainment and housing.  In a capitalist market, this heightened demand for limited supply has driven up the cost of living throughout the city, and many residents who rode out the not-so-good times – many of them black and Latino – are being priced out of their long-time neighborhoods.  Planning is no longer enough to save neighborhoods being loved to death – it will take a local government willing to declare that our neighborhoods are too important to be turned over to capitalists to turn a profit.

Can a local government with limited powers, and one whose elected officials rely on developer dollars to fund their campaigns, summon the political courage to fight for DC’s neighborhoods?  Surely not, unless the people force them to. 

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