Friday, April 18, 2014

The Centaur State and Gentrification in Baltimore

Today I was looking through files of slides at the National Archives in College Park, in search of photos of the Potomac Gardens public housing project. I came across a file titled "Housing (Renewal)/Urban Homesteading," which was about Baltimore. The photos showed many empty 19th-century houses in the Otterbein, Barre Circle, and Stirling St. areas of Baltimore in 1980. No one was around, except one person walking by in one picture, but the houses were encircled with fencing and under renovation. Under urban homesteading programs, cities like Baltimore sold abandoned houses for $1 to those who promised to renovate them. What caught my eye were two photos: one of a "Relocation Office" run by the city of Baltimore and the other was a sign selling "Fourteen Fine Townhomes" by a subsidiary of Lovell/IMG Holding.

Why was no one living in these houses? What had happened? In 1967 or 1968, in order to expand a highway, Baltimore established a condemnation line. Within this line, a swath of Baltimore would be condemned and demolished, including Barre Circle, Sharp-Leadenhall, Fells Point, etc. In addition, several high-rise residential buildings were also planned in Otterbein and Stirling St. It seems that this process of condemnation for the highway did not begin until 1972, which led to the city owning at least 100 houses (maybe many more?). This explains the photo of the Relocation Center. Through a Relocation Center like the one I saw in the photo, the city moved people out of their houses and out of their neighborhood. 

Very quickly, in 1973 and 1974, the city declared that the highway plans and the high-rise buildings had been scrapped, in part due to public outcry. The continually indecision about the highway and building plans since the 1960s had led the overwhelming majority of residents to move away, owners not to make repairs or needed renovations, and the city not to provide services or repair infrastructure. One resident told the Baltimore Sun that this process made the area "into a ghetto." 

At about the same time, the city started its urban homesteading program, selling the condemned houses for $1. Otterbein soon became quite a tony neighborhood. Developers also arrived in the area, building luxury townhouses. This explains the Lovell/IMG Holding sign in the photo. Overseas real estate developers like Lovell/IMG (IMG Homes is a subsidiary of Investors Management Group) were investing throughout the Baltimore-Washington area. For example, the fourteen townhouses built by Lovell/IMG in Otterbein priced (according to a 1981 Baltimore Sun article) at $140,000 (about $375,000 today). The 19th-century Victorian history was celebrated, and a historic district created. (In this post and this post, I wrote a bit about the problem of seeking to return to the Victorian era.)

Why weren't the former residents invited back? The city of Baltimore sought to "attract back into the city individuals whose incomes can help balance the increasing proportion of low-income families in the city," to "increase the tax base," and to create on every homestead block "a new neighborhood" (quotations taken from Emily Lieb's excellent Columbia University dissertation on Baltimore). The point of urban homesteading was not for the former residents to return, but rather was to bring new wealthier residents to the city. These areas of the city were seen as merely abandoned and seen as profitable. Their history was Victorian, not the history of the recent past. According to CUNY Geography professor Neil Smith's rent gap theory, gentrification "is most likely to occur in areas experiencing a sufficiently large gap between actual and potential land values" (p. 464). These areas had decreased so severely in value, but many could see their potential value. In the view of the city of Baltimore and the real estate industry, this potential value required a new kind of person with a certain kind of taste and the income to realize this taste.

UC Berkeley sociology professor Loic Wacquant talks often about the "centaur state," how the state punishes the poor (through displacement, mass incarceration, and paternalist disciplining) and nurtures the middle class and the wealthy. Did/does Baltimore experience the centaur state? What was the role of companies like Lovell/IMG and the real estate industry? What happened to all the people who passed through the Relocation Office? Did they try to buy a house for $1? Were they rejected? Did this happen in DC?

P.S. For more about urban pioneers and vigilantes, see my previous post "Capitol Hill Vigilantes."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Keep Public Housing II

According to Where are They Now?, a fascinating study of those evicted from SW, "Southwest Washington was a rat-infested, refuse-covered, unsanitary slum," from which DC cleared out the housing and 23,500 residents by 1960 "in order to build a 'new town in the city' with air-conditioned apartments for middle and upper income groups as well as some 929 public housing units." I wrote previously about how some of those displaced became sick with grief, similar to that experienced by a death in the family. This was a common reaction to such relocations nationwide.

Before 1960, those who had lived in SW often resided with extended family or made extra money housing boarders. The housing market in DC, especially for African Americans, was incredibly difficult, and was made more difficult after the evictions of 1960 with thousands of residents looking for new housing. A lucky few made it into public housing or adequate private housing. The Where are They Now? researchers were most surprised by the different responses from those who had moved to public housing and from those who had moved to private housing. In line with the popular dislike of public housing in the 1960s, the researchers had expected much better experiences among those in private housing. They instead found: "the public housing resident is a much more integrated, optimistic, and informed person than the private housing dweller. The picture is consistent in every area that was studied." Why? While they complained about the institutional nature of public housing (especially the bureaucratic rules), the public housing residents had a sense of community. The researchers found:
The respondents in public housing are less anomic, more hopeful as to what the future will bring them, have a greater sense of belonging to their new neighborhoods, believe more strongly that they can organize for community improvement, have a great knowledge of community institutions, and believe to a greater extent that the Government actions to eliminate the blight of old Southwest was correct.
These social connections are a much needed by low-income residents, and public housing can enhance such connections. (see also the comment here by a former resident Arthur Capper public housing project)

When the lucky few moved into public housing, however, they were no longer allowed to house members of their extended families or boarders. In interviews, former public housing residents remembered cousins or other relatives periodically living with them. To move into public housing, families had to be transformed into more nuclear families. This was likely also the case with private apartments that often are zoned to have a certain number of residents. As a result of these restrictive policies, many people likely became homeless for various periods of time.

Now, with the tearing down of public housing and replacement of it with mixed-income, families are transformed again. The Post had an article about the stalled redevelopment of the several public housing projects, including Lincoln Heights. Finally, some Lincoln Heights residents were invited to move into a new mixed-income building. The article describes how one former resident moved into a wonderful new apartment. Another resident, however, "opted to stay where she was. She was approved for a one-bedroom but did not want to leave her two adult sons on the street." The family was being transformed again, as relatives had to be neglected and the family reduced to just one person or just a few people, who can fit within the studios and one-bedroom apartments that might be available in DC. Luckily, the woman could choose to stay in Lincoln Heights public housing and be with her sons.

Public housing must remain as an option for people. This post also suggests that affordable housing must be more than studios and one-bedrooms. All sorts of people do miraculous work taking in relatives, friends of friends, friends of relatives, and others desperately in need of housing. This system of mutual aid has become overloaded too, which might explain the recent surge in homelessness that left one mother with a two-week-old baby homeless. Public housing must remain an option for our DC neighbors.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Keep Public Housing

I was struck by this comment in the Washington City Paper (Chatter, Shelter Skelter, 3/21/14) a week or two ago:
[DC] Public officials attributed the crisis to a confluence of little affordable housing and the vapor trails of the Great Recession. Reader spmoore offered a diagnosis: "The demolition and elimination of thousands of public housing units in the last 10 to 15 years has resulted in a definite spike in family homelessness. There are simply less units to house low income families in need…Society and the city seems perfectly fine with demolishing public housing, negatively stereotyping public housing, and then act so concerned about the homeless spike."
An apartment in public housing is a whole lot better than being homeless. I happened to have dinner in Potomac Gardens on Tuesday evening. It was a great time eating, talking, and, yes, visioning with a small group of Potomac Gardens residents, local homeowners, and grassroots community organizers. This was part of Art in Praxis' experiment, "The Future of [Your] Street" "to activate neighbors in collectively shaping the kind of community they want to live in and be a part of." Potomac Gardens and Hopkins as public housing projects were an essential part of this vision.

The dinner guests discussed ideas that so closely resembled those concepts used in urban sociology, such as Logan and Molotch's Urban Fortunes. They spoke about the difficulties caused by a mindset focused on protecting or increasing housing values and/or on renovating houses as an investment, especially real estate agents and investment groups seeking to maximize their investments (exchange value), as opposed to the mindset of those focused on having a home and building a community to satisfy social and personal needs (use value)(see pp. 1-2 of Urban Fortunes). Many people have a mix of these, but renters have the most interest in use value, of course. As a result, more of the neighborhood was being mobilized for those with higher incomes and for investors than for renters, especially low-income renters, and those homeowners focused more on use value.

One Potomac Gardens resident spoke so thoughtfully about how he wanted more interactions with the neighborhood like this dinner because he felt that those who were new to the neighborhood needed to know things (such as, I think, the norms and folkways of the neighborhood) to feel more comfortable in the neighborhood. This knowledge would allow people to move beyond their imaginations (or common assumptions) and fears about public housing and about the neighborhood (like assumptions about cities based on "The Wire"). This might allow for a more inclusive discussion about The Future of Our Street/Community.

Are you interested in joining in the visioning, in which public housing is fundamental to the vision?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Delays and Karl Polanyi
I'm just getting back to posting. Several years ago, I began a translation of an article by a famous social scientist named Karl Polanyi. He wrote the article in German in 1922, just a couple years after he had moved from Budapest to Vienna. Vienna as a city greatly inspired him. There are many reasons why the article was never translated into English, one of which is that the article is very confusing and the topic is rather unusual, "Socialist Accounting." His most famous work -- The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time -- is incredibly clear and has many followers, including Nobel Laureate in economics and former Chief Economist at the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz.

Back in January, I decided finally to finish the translation, which ended up being 40+ pages long. Last week, I sent it, along with a preface explaining the article, to an academic journal. Now I'll wait 4-12 months for the academic journal to make a decision about whether to publish the translation and preface. They will send it out to scholars at other universities, who will evaluate the texts. Eventually, I will get to read their anonymous evaluations of texts, as well as the journal editors' judgement. If they (hopefully) decide to publish the text, then I will make changes based on the scholars' criticisms and comments and based on the journal editors' suggestions. This rigorous peer review is one of the great benefits of publishing in an academic journal. Our knowledge is so much improved through this process.

Sociologists use Karl Polanyi's work all the time to talk about globalization and changes in the global economy since the 1970s. For example, University of Michigan sociology professor Margaret Somers (left) and University of California - Davis sociology professor Fred Block (right) use Polanyi extensively. These worldwide changes since the 1970s have greatly reshaped Washington, DC, and many other places. So, the 1922 article speaks to both sociologists and to those who study cities like DC.

Now, I am just getting back in posting mode.

P.S. Block and Somers' new book, The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi's Critique, was officially published today! 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

May 18, 2014: DC Historical Studies Conference submission deadline

Submit online! -

Washington, D.C., November 20-23, 2014
Hosted by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.,
Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square
Submission Deadline: May 18, 2014

Making New Washingtons: Historical Consciousness in a Transforming City

You are invited to take part in the 41st Annual Conference on D.C. Historical Studies.

Proposals are now being reviewed for individual papers, organized panels, new films, walking tours, author talks on new books, and practical workshops on research or material preservation. All topics related to the history of metropolitan Washington, D.C., including nearby Maryland and Virginia, as well as the federal government, are welcome. Don’t miss this opportunity to reach the conference audience of scholars, students, and interested members of the public eager for this lively consideration of all things D.C.

The theme for the 41st Annual Conference is “Making New Washingtons: Historical Consciousness in a Transforming City.” At this time of great change and new development, historians are invited to consider the present in the context of earlier periods of ferment and dramatic change, including, but not limited to, regrouping after the burning of Washington 200 years ago, the “New Washington” era of Reconstruction following the Civil War, the Great Migration following World War I, and the waves of immigration in the second half of the 20th century. Presentations that compare D.C. to other urban centers are especially relevant and encouraged.

The conference theme is not meant to be exclusive. Submissions based on all new research on D.C. history topics are welcome. Past presentations have considered:

• art
• archaeology
• architecture
• biography
• D.C. governance
• demography
• education and schools
• ethnicity and race relations
• foodways
• geography
• housing
• labor relations
• law
• military
• music
• neighborhoods
• oral history techniques
• religion
• reviews of archival collections.

Conference panels are moderated and last one hour and 15 minutes. Typically, three speakers each take 20 minutes to present their papers, followed by 10-15 minutes of discussion with audience participation. Individuals are encouraged, though not required, to organize panels and supply moderators.

The conference opens with the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Lecture and the all-conference reception, honoring the memory of this pioneering scholar of African American history. This year’s speaker will be announced at a later date.

You are also invited to take part in the Friday lunch hour History Network, a forum where history-related organizations and vendors display materials explaining their activities and services.

For a flavor of past conferences, see the following programs from previous years; click:

The deadline for submissions is May 18, 2014. Submissions should be submitted online at:

PLEASE NOTE: Participants planning to use a PowerPoint slide show or other audio or video complement will be required either to submit their presentation two weeks in advance (preferred) OR bring their presentation on a thumb drive for loading in advance of their session. More information will be provided at a later date. Projectors and computers will be supplied.

Individual Paper
Submit a 200-word abstract of your paper, including your professional title and institutional affiliation (if applicable), contact information (email), and audio-visual/IT equipment needs.
Submit a brief description of the session with role of each panelist, professional titles and institutional affiliations (if applicable), a 200-word abstract for each paper presenter, contact information for the panel organizer/primary contact, and audio-visual/IT equipment needs.

Submit a brief description of your film including topic, running time, ages of audiences for which it is suitable, whether it is a finished piece or work in progress, and whether you would like additional time for audience feedback and discussion.

Walking Tour
Submit a description of your tour’s topic, location, length (running time and distance), start and stop points, ages of audiences, and the guide’s professional title, institutional affiliation, other relevant background as appropriate, and contact information.

Author Talk
Submit contact information and a description of your published book including publication date and indicate whether you are able to sell or are interested in selling books on site. Authors selling books are asked to supply a volunteer to handle transactions without assistance of conference staff.

Practical Workshop
Submit a description of your workshop including all IT/audio-visual requirements as well as requirements for tables or other display areas and contact information.

History Network Participation
The History Network marketplace of ideas takes place on Friday, November 21st. In addition to contact information, please indicate whether you need an entire six-foot display table, or can share with another presenter.

The 41st Annual Conference on D.C. Historical Studies is co-sponsored by the Association of Oldest Inhabitants of D.C., the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Friends of Washingtoniana Division, George Washington University, H-DC, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and the Washingtoniana Division of the D.C. Public Library.

Questions, email Matthew Gilmore at, or call (202) 746-6675

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Gentrification in DC slides

Here are the slides from my presentation on the AU Confronting Gentrification panel. At the end of the slides, you will see a list of suggested readings with many links to freely available versions of them. The video is here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

AU Discussion of Gentrification in DC

Great "Confronting Gentrification" panel at American University. Here is my discussion of gentrification in DC: 

I would like to highlight the presentation by Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC (sitting next to Potomac Gardens resident council president Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, in the gray hat):
Parisa provided a much more developed definition of gentrification than I do:
a decades-long process that begins with absentee owners and profiteers colluding with government to divest areas through racist and classist lending policies, to redline, to prevent people from having access to capital unless and until a higher-income group of people is interested in that location; and then giving our tax money and our land to those people to facilitate the enriching of the rich at the expense of everybody else. 
I defined gentrification as its result, rather than how that result comes about: "The replacement of lower-income residents and businesses with higher-income residents and businesses." It seems better to explain the process like Parisa did, rather than just state the result like I did. Parisa went on to advocate "community economic development" -- with cooperatives -- as a better model than gentrification.

I greatly appreciated hearing all the speakers and the productive discussion with activists and AU students afterwards. Here are some texts brought up during the discussion:
  •Fullilove, Mindy. 2004. Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About it. One World Books.
  •Logan, John R. and Harvey L. Molotch. 1987. Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. UC Press.
  •Marcuse, Peter. 1985. “Gentrification, abandonment and displacement: connections, causes and policy responses,” Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law 28: 195-240.
  •Sassen, Saskia. 2005. “The Global City: Introducing a New Concept,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 11(2): 27-43.
  •Shaw, Kate and Libby Porter, eds. 2009. Whose Urban Renaissance? An International Comparison of Urban Regeneration Policies. Routledge.
  •Steinberg, Stephen. 2009. “The Myth of Concentrated Poverty.” 

Do you agree with the definitions of gentrification brought up during the talks? 
Or do you have a different definition of gentrification? 

P.S. You can see the slides from my presentation here