Monday, January 25, 2016

What makes a city?

During the snowstorm, I sat down to read Luc Sante's The Other Paris (2015) and couldn't put it down. What an amazing book. Sante starts off by saying that "we have forgotten what a city was" because business and government elites have sanitized the city:
The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats -- as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions -- have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds. (pp. 7-8)
Of course, in DC, we have more than our fair share of such newly redeveloped, sanitized places.

Sante then dives into a fascinating world of the other Paris. This isn't the world of the Eiffel Tower, the grand boulevards, or the upper-class residential areas. The other Paris is a world inhabited by shady bars, tiny streets, the "Zone" at the edge of the city, drunks, revolutionaries, and workers of infinite variety, such as prostitutes, criminals, singers, and pliers of strange occupations like zesteuses. This other Paris flourished before 1940 or, at the latest, before 1970. He takes the reader deep into these worlds of the past as a kind of flaneur, strolling through and exploring the city. The images in the book are particularly amazing.

Sante talks about how flaneurs explore the ghostly or dreamlike presences of "composted layers of a thousand eras, and any given moment includes some proportionate blend of all those eras" (p. 31). This made me immediately think of Edward P. Jones' dreamlike collection of short stories Lost in the City about the African American neighborhoods in DC destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s. Jones' characters roam through the city, observing African American social worlds and their boundaries with white worlds. For Sante, dreams and folklore are often the only ways to access these worlds, especially in a city in which so many parts of have been erased.

Sante despairs about the clean up of Paris. Money, power, and desire for security have destroyed the other Paris. Thus, his book is a reminder about "what life was like in cities when they were vivid and savage and uncontrollable as they were for many centuries" (p. 17). I was particularly struck by the value of neglect and decay for cities. In the 1960s, 1970s, and maybe early 1980s, downtown DC had been redlined  (redlining is "arbitrarily denying or limiting financial services to specific neighborhoods, generally because its residents are people of color or are poor"). In this area neglected by banks and investment, people could try out a lot of new ideas very cheaply and the people in the area were relatively open to such experiments. The place flourished with punk shows, cooperatives, etc. And this was a place where low-income people of all sorts could live and have a place in the city. Sante reminds us that, in our current situation, the cleaning up of cities eradicates these worlds.

He rightly condemns the urban renewal of the 1960s and 1970s, which destroyed and redeveloped large areas of cities around the world. Today's redevelopment of cities continues this destruction, as we see along the Waterfront. Yet, some of the products of urban renewal, such as public housing, the War on Poverty funding, and the general neglect of cities allowed for the non-sanitized lifeblood of the city to be rejuvenated.

One could say that things are always changing in cities, but the sanitizing of cities in the 19th century and today has destroyed what makes cities great: "The small has been consumed by the big, the poor have been evicted by the rich, the drifters are behind glass in museums. Everything that was once directly lived has moved away into representation" (p. 271). Sante concludes:
The history of Paris teaches us that beauty is a by-product of danger, that liberty is at best a consequence of neglect, that wisdom is entwined with decay. Any Paris of the future that is neither a frozen artifact nor an inhabited holding company will perforce involve fear, dirt, sloth, ruin, and accident. It will entail the continual experience of uncertainty, because the only certainty is death. (p. 271)
Maybe we should go in search of what makes DC a great city in the dirt, decay, and neglect?

P.S.  And we could look at the deadzones?

Saturday, October 24, 2015

My "Gentrification in DC" talk on Monday

I plan to talk about gentrification myths, the scholarly literature on gentrification, and my current research project. This event is free and open to the public. 

Monday, October 26, 2015
"Gentrification in DC" 
Johanna Bockman, Associate Professor of Sociology, George Mason University, and DCSS President
All Souls Church, 1500 Harvard Street, NW (@16th Street)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

DC Historical Studies Conference Nov. 12-15 at Carnegie Library

The Annual Conference on D.C. Historical Studies is such a great conference. It brings together a whole range of professional and amateur historians of all ages full of fascination with all that is DC history. We will start with a lecture on Thursday, November 12th at 6pm by the amazing Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, talking about “Reconstruction and the Fragility of  Democracy” at the National Archives (700 Constitution Avenue, NW). You must register (at no cost) for this talk and reception. There is limited seating, so register as soon as you can. You will be glad that you attended this talk.

When you register for the Foner talk, you can also register for the conference for only $30 ($20 for students/seniors). The rest of the conference will take place at the Carnegie Library (801 K Street, NW). There are so many great panels on Friday, November 13th and Saturday, November 14th, as well as evening documentary films (Dan Silverman,, will moderate one doc discussion on “The Pride and Promise of Petworth”) on those days and walking tours on Sunday, November 15th. The conference has panels from all historical time periods. See the entire conference program here.

I am personally attending these events:
  • Friday, November 13th:
    •  9:30am: Elizabeth Clark-Lewis' lecture on the historian Letitia Woods Brown. 
    • 11:45am: Making Home Here: Formation of Latino Communities in and around the Nation’s Capital. I am particularly interested in the research that Enrique Pumar (Catholic U Sociology) will be presenting. 
    • 12:30pm: The History Network.
    • 2:30pm: Agents of Change in Post-World War II D.C. Got the word that James Blondell's talk “Police, Community and the War on Poverty in the District of Columbia" will be especially interesting. 
    • 3:45pm: Gentrification Gone Wild: Race, Class and Politics in Washington, D.C. 
  •  Saturday, November 14th:
    • 9:30am: The State of D.C. Historical Studies.
    • 1:30pm: Housing Policies and Gentrification: Urban Homesteading to HOPE VI. I'm presenting on my current research here, though The DC Sound panel looks really good. 
    • 3:15pm: D.C.’s Home Rule Decade: Context, Policy and Politics in the Campaign for Local Autonomy.
Check out the program for the huge range of fascinating events: 
Drop by for a couple of panels, a documentary, and/or a lecture. You will be glad you did! 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Positives of Public Housing

In Sunday's Post, LSE sociology professor David Madden explored five myths about public housing. Here are the five myths and how they relate to DC:

1. Public housing residents want to escape it. Madden points out that nearly all the public housing authorities in the nation have waiting lists, so people actively seek to live in public housing. In April 2013, more than 70,000 people were on DC's waiting list. As Madden writes, "if you work full time for minimum wage in America, the number of states where you can afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment on the private market is exactly zero." So, public housing provides essential housing for many people, including those working full-time minimum wage jobs.

This is also the case in DC. In a previous post, I checked Craigslist about the available rentals for low-wage workers. If you are a full-time fast-food cook in Ward 6, you could afford to spend $491/month on rent, 30% of your monthly income. (I admit that I don't understand the tax situation with an income like that, so I am just going with the income given). What can you get for $491/month? I looked through Craigslist and found no apartments in that range, so I turned to renting rooms. Here is what I found in the first 100 listed:
    $435 / 150ft² - You Can't Beat This Deal - (Congress Heights)
    $425 Master bedroom w/private bath - (Stafford - Rte. 610)
    $495 room in nice single family home for rent - (Bowie/Glenn Dale/Washington, DC)
            If you have one or two kids, it would likely be impossible for you to rent one of these rooms. Also, several of these rooms would be very far from your job as a fast-food cook in Ward 6. Public housing provides housing that low-income workers can afford. 

            2. Public housing is crumbling. Madden writes, "Most public housing is in decent shape: More than 85 percent of units meet or exceed federal standards, and more than 40 percent of developments are considered to be in excellent order. Public housing is usually in better condition than comparable private housing in similar neighborhoods." As I discussed previously, some cities like DC had a deliberate policy of abandoning certain public housing projects in the 1980s and early 1990s to save money in an era of reduced city budgets. As Madden argues, the deterioration of some public housing projects is the "result of policy choices, which are obscured by stigmatizing language that blames tenants."

            3. Public housing assists the wrong people. You can read his comments on this.

            4. High-rise public housing is unlivable. Many people around the world live in high-rise buildings. When people think of public housing, they generally think of high-rise buildings, such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis or Cabrini-Green in Chicago. However, as Madden writes, "a relatively small number of public housing developments are high-rise buildings. Even in 1994, when the number of units was at its peak, only 27 percent of public housing buildings were high rises, and that number has decreased since." From my research, I found that the DC public housing authority always sought to build low-rise buildings. Due to government pressures to reduce costs and the lack of available land (some neighborhoods refused to allow public housing to be built, especially west of the Rock Creek Park), the DC public housing authority did build some high-rise projects, where they sought to house the elderly and disabled, rather than families. 

            5. Public housing is a top-down imposition by government bureaucrats. Madden argues that public housing is the result "of struggles between activists and the powerful institutions that have sought to shape it for their own ends." I would also point out that public housing has always been an integral element of the housing industry. The DC public housing authority hired private firms to demolish existing buildings, private architects to design public housing, private construction firms to build it, and private companies to make repairs and landscape sites.  Private architects, developers, and construction companies could seamlessly move from the construction of private buildings and public housing in the expanding urban renewal areas across the country. Public housing construction was financed with bonds bought from Wall Street firms. Public housing was not privately owned, but it always functioned within networks of private businesses.

            Madden wants us to think about the contribution of public housing to urban life. Madden states that public housing "is a crucial resource for working families, the elderly, the disabled and others whom the market does not -- and will not -- serve. And it protects economic and social diversity in many places, especially in expensive, fast-gentrifying cities such as New York, San Francisco and Washington." How does public housing contribute to DC urban life in other ways? 

            Thursday, August 20, 2015

            The Repetition of Displacement at the Ellen Wilson Dwellings (II)

            In response to my previous post, someone who lived in the Ellen Wilson Dwellings in the mid-1960s as a small child reminded me of a third displacement. In 1965, five of the Ellen Wilson buildings were razed (see map below from the DC Archives) to build the SE Freeway. This razing destroyed 79 apartments. If 3 people lived in each apartment, then over 230 people were displaced. If more lived in each apartment, then more were displaced.

            I know of one family that was moved to Arthur Capper public housing, but I don't know where the others went.

            Of course, the freeway's path went a certain way and not other ways as a result of the influence of certain people. Those living in these five buildings did not have the power to stop the freeway from destroying their homes, while others on the Hill had this power. Did those with power on the Hill work with Ellen Wilson residents to stop the freeway from destroying this section of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings? (I know that there was much organizing to stop other parts of freeway.) If not, why not?

            So far, we have three displacements of low-income African Americans basically on one block:

            1) the 1939-1941 displacement, including the 300+ low-income African Americans living in the Navy Place alley, to construct the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, a white public housing project.

            2) the 1965 displacement of low-income African Americans, and maybe some whites, from 79 apartments in 5 buildings. Possibly totaling 230 people.

            3) the 1988 displacement of low-income African Americans in 134 apartments to renovate the buildings, which were destroyed and replaced with a mixed-income development. There were households living in 129 of the apartments. Seven households from Ellen Wilson were allowed to move into this new development.  If we use the earlier calculation of 3 per apartment, then ((129 - 7) x 3)) about 366 people were displaced.

            How do we stop such repetitive displacement not only on this block but also elsewhere in Ward 6?

            Wednesday, August 19, 2015

            The Repetition of Displacement at the Ellen Wilson Dwellings

            This summer, I've been conducting research on the history of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, a public housing project that used to sit at I Street between 6th and 7th Streets, SE, and that was replaced by a mixed-income development funded by one of the first HOPE VI grants. The Ellen Wilson Dwellings opened in 1941, were emptied for renovation in 1988, and destroyed in 1996. After researching this the entire summer, I feel as if a book could be written about just about the history of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings. Here are just a few things that I found.

            Ellen Wilson was built in 1941 as a segregated white public housing project. African American groups protested the naming of the project for a known white segregationist and wife of Woodrow Wilson, also a white segregationist. According to the Washington Post in 1941: “Negroes have protested against the name. They claim Mrs. Wilson was responsible for segregating employees at the Bureau of Engraving & Printing.”(1) They also protested the creation of segregated public housing. Ellen Wilson basically sat on a large block between G and I Streets, SE, between 6th and 7th Streets. The north side of the block (G Street) housed only white homeowners and renters; this side was not demolished. Along the East and West sides, there were predominantly white residents. The South side was predominantly African American. Most significantly, over 300 African Americans lived in the block’s alley, called Navy Place. African American residents had lived in Navy Place for at least 75 years. To build Ellen Wilson, all the African American residents from the alleys and the South side of the block, as well as whites and African Americans from the East and West sides of the block were displaced. Not a single African American resident was allowed to move into the new Ellen Wilson.The Alley Dwelling Authority declared the block part of a “predominantly white” neighborhood and thus Ellen Wilson became a white public housing project: “Officials of the Alley Dwelling Authority, explaining why the new homes were to be occupied by white tenants, said the surrounding neighborhood is predominantly white.”(2)

            By 1953, DC public housing was no longer allowed to remain segregated. It would be interesting to know if anyone from Navy Place or other parts of the block moved into Ellen Wilson at this time.

            In 1996, the Ellen Wilson Dwellings were destroyed, after being abandoned for about eight years, and only 7 households from the 134 unit public housing project were allowed to move into the new development. The creation of the new development was part of a nation-wide movement against the segregation of minorities into public housing and was part of a local, deeply committed movement for social justice. These movements spoke out against the negative consequences of concentrated poverty. In the end, however, the outcome in 1941 and in 1996 were nearly the same: the displacement of low-income African Americans was complete in 1941 and nearly complete in 1996.

            How did this happen? The answer so far seems to involve two main issues:
            • the Ellen Wilson public housing residents had been moved out and dispersed when discussions about plans were made for the new development, plans that were supposed to help them. What did they want? Where did they end up? 
            • Some of those involved in the planning had many more resources than others and could push things in the direction they preferred. I found a paper on which strategy by one group had been laid out. The notes said many things, including: “avoid debate,” “Involve bleeding hearts in constructive way,” and “Isolate naysayers.”(3) 
            Queens College sociologist Stephen Steinberg has argued that claims about concentrated poverty are myths used politically by developers and politicians when poor people live on valuable land, like on Capitol Hill, which has been gentrifying since the 1960s. (Ellen Wilson was thus already part of a mixed-income community well before the 1980s.) Steinberg writes:
            We have to be savvy about the political uses of the theory of concentrated poverty, which is invoked wherever the poor occupy valuable real estate that is coveted by developers, and which is part of the neoliberal agenda of reclaiming urban space that earlier was relinquished to the nation’s racial and class pariahs.(4)
            In both 1941 and 1988/1996, low-income African American residents were displaced in the name of a form of development that claimed to help them but in fact hurt them. How can we avoid the displacement of our neighbors and protect such housing that is affordable?

            P.S. The Repetition of Displacement at the Ellen Wilson Dwellings (Part II)

            (1) Kluttz, Jerry. 1941. “The Federal Diary.” The Washington Post, March 27, p. 15.
            (2) "ADA Grant Boosts Home Units to 2,426: $1,366,000 Project For Colored Houses In Northeast Area Gets Approval," The Washington Post, Dec 28, 1939, p. 17.
            (3) GWU Special Collections, Capitol Hill Restoration Society, MS2009, Box 70, File 16,  "Ellen Wilson correspondence, 1989-1990," Pat Schauer. Handwritten meeting notes, March 20, 1989.
            (4) Steinberg, Stephen. 2010. "The Myth of Concentrated Poverty," Pp. 213-227 in  The Integration Debate: Competing Futures for American Cities, edited by Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires. New York, NY: Routledge.

            Friday, July 3, 2015

            Protesting Demolition and the "Re-location Game" in Ward 6

            In the 1980s, public housing residents across the country protested and even took public housing authorities to court for abandoning public housing projects and letting them fall apart, which many considered a kind of de facto demolition. According to the residents, these authorities played a major role in 'creating' the deteriorating projects of the 1980s and 1990s. Then the media would blame the residents for the condition of the projects.

            Many residents sought to take control of the projects either as managers or as owners, so as to prevent de facto demolition and displacement. In DC, residents at Kenilworth-Parkside became the managers of the project and then owners, avoiding demolition. In the 1990s, with the new HOPE VI policy, public housing authorities could legally demolish the projects. In 2001, after witnessing the displacement caused by HOPE VI in the District, residents of the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg project south of the Southeast freeway around 5th and K St, SE. appealed to HUD for the right to take control of the project and the HOPE VI grant of $35 million that would demolish the project. They cited the "gross mismanagement" of the District public housing authority and backed their request with a petition signed by 218 residents, while continuing to collect signatures.

            Leonardo Wood, a resident of Carrollsburg said, "We know all about this re-location game...This is my second time around...You would think that the title of this program — HOPE VI — would mean that they are going to give the people hope....But as far as we can see, this program is just about redeveloping the buildings, not the people who live here."

            The developers won the HOPE VI grant and Capper/Carrollsburg was demolished.

            P.S. Anu Yadav will be performing her solo show 'Capers about the 2001 protests against the demolition of Capper/Carrollburg on Tuesday, July 7th, at the Anacostia Playhouse at 7pm.  She debuted ‘Capers at the same festival, the DC Hip Hop Festival, 10 years ago. Her performance was captured in the film Chocolate City. The play was based on the stories of DC public housing residents who protested the demolition of their neighborhood.  She's invited the DC mayor’s office, community organizing groups, HUD and former residents, to a discussion moderated by Jess Solomon of Art in Praxis. And it's free!