Friday, April 5, 2019

The Ridiculous and Absurd in 1920s DC

It was a great treat to watch a talk by UCLA History Professor Robin Kelley, in which he explains his term "racial capitalism." Among many fascinating things, Kelley said, "The purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people"; guns and tanks are used to control the behavior of People of Color. The benefits of whiteness -- jobs, wealth, education, etc -- are unevenly distributed. So, even for those who will benefit minimally from whiteness, they will behave in ways that restrict themselves as human beings and even in ways that greatly hurt themselves. While this seems natural or normal to white people, Kelley goes on to say, it sure doesn't seem natural or normal to People of Color. This seems ridiculous and absurd.

This reminded me of a fascinating survey I read on Tuesday at the Library of Congress. In 1929, former Howard Sociology Professor William Henry Jones finished a study titled The Housing of Negroes in Washington, DC for the Interracial Committee of the Washington Federation of Churches. Jones wondered why white people did not want to live near African Americans. So, like any sociologist would, he asked them why. 

Jones systematically asked 200 white families why they did not want to live near African Americans. He found:
The basis of many of the objections to living with Negroes lies so deeply embedded in the realms of social psychology and human nature that few of the persons who were consulted could formulate any clear and lucid statements of their attitudes and feelings regarding Negroes coming into their neighborhoods. (p. 74)
Basically, to Jones, their reasons seemed ridiculous and absurd. As African Americans moved into their neighborhood, these people would immediately sell their houses at any price, leave behind neighbors and cherished community, and shun their fellow human beings.

As a great sociologist, Jones figured out the social forces pressuring these people to act this way: 
  1. "the fear of public opinion and the attitudes of the other members of white society" will affect their standing (pp. 74-75). 
  2. due to cultural differences (p. 76).
  3. "rather general belief among white people that Negroes are highly gregarious, with inclinations to have too many around their homes -- with a special tendency to congregate on the front porches. This tendency was generally referred to as looking "bad for the community." 
  4. "power of tradition" -- "not proper for Negroes and white people to live on a basis of equality in the same communities."
  5. "the genuine fear of some whites that social intimacies, encouraged by residential association, may lead ultimately to a further breakdown of racial integrity and to intermarriage." (p. 77)
So, here we have racism performing its primary role: controlling the behavior of white people. To everyone else, this situation seems ridiculous and absurd. 

And some white people chose to remain, including "Foreigners" -- like Italians and Russians -- who "seek refuge among other peoples who are also victims of the white man's prejudice" (p. 78). 

This behavior of white people had and has real consequences, often violence and traumatic consequences, on the lives of People of Color.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Opportunity hoarding on H St NE

In preparation for my urban class today, I was looking at Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis and saw this quotation that rang true to me here in DC:
Sociologist Charles Tilly describes "opportunity hoarding" as one of the major contributors to historical inequalities -- and the story of American metropolitan areas, like Detroit, is a history of the ways that whites, through the combined advantages of race and residence, were able to hoard political and economic resources -- jobs, public services, education, and other goods -- to their own advantage at the expense of the urban poor. (p. xxxvi)
This made me think of the amazing photos of H St NE by Joseph Young and his commentary about disinvestment, today's forms of white segregation (and opportunity hoarding), displacement, and anti-gentrification protests. His photo essay is worth going through slowly and reading carefully. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Gentrification on Capitol Hill Revisited

The wonderful archivists at GWU Special Collections have posted online Anita Rechler's fascinating MA thesis: (Click this link, scroll to the bottom, under Actions click Select an Action and choose Download).

Below is my discussion of the thesis when I read it in Special Collections in 2011. Remember Anita Rechler is talking about changes on Capitol Hill over 44 years ago.

In her fascinating 1974 M.A. thesis on the Capitol Hill renovation movement, Anita Rechler finds that, while DC and Ward 6 population declined from 1960 to 1970, the number of households actually increased. This shift resulted from:
  • the renovation movement, which began even by the late 1940s and attracted white, young professionals often with no children.
  • the movement of white families with children to the suburbs (since 1920) and to predominantly white areas elsewhere in DC, which increased after the 1954 court ruling desegregating schools. The change was quite abrupt. As I found in my own research, in 1954 when integration began, the Stanton Elementary School in Ward 8 had a 100% white student population; by 1960 it had 75% African American and 25% white students.
Using Census data and real estate transactions in the Lusk Real Estate Directory, Rechler examines the changes across the Hill between 1960 and 1970. In this map of 1970, the purple-blue are areas with many renovations (Restoration area), while the light blue are transitional areas with fewer, though numerous renovations (Transition area) and the yellow areas have few renovations (Unrestored area).

View Ward 6 Renovation Map (1970) in a larger map

She states that by 1958 over 100 houses each year were being renovated. Of course, renovating and improving buildings is a good thing. Yet, this trend had several problematic consequences. Areas became more segregated by race and class between 1960 and 1970. The renovation movement allowed certain groups -- white professionals and real estate developers -- to benefit from or take advantage of racist attitudes and racial/class inequalities to hoard opportunities. (Sociologists Charles Tilly and Douglas Massey discuss opportunity hoarding more generally.) In the Restoration and Transition areas, black homeownership and renting decreased, while white ownership increased. In the Transition areas, black and white renting declined, while ownership increased. In the Unrestored area, white ownership and renting decreased. In addition, the Restoration areas had households with higher incomes than the other areas. The renovation movement led to increased racial segregation, income inequality, and wealth inequality (due to shifts in homeownership).

On Capitol Hill, Friendship House, Group Ministries, and other groups voiced great concern about the economic impact of the renovation movement on the low- and moderate-income families. Many of these families could not afford renovations (or were renters). In 1972, the DC government proposed that south of North Carolina Ave and east of 1st St SE be made a Federally-Assisted Code Enforcement Area (FACE), which would have provided cash grants and low-interest loans for home improvements, thus allowing low- and moderate-incomes families to take part in the renovation movement. This proposal was never adopted.

Rechler also interviewed real estate agents, community leaders, and residents. She shows that renovation was not a spontaneous activity. Rather, from the late 1940s, real estate agents were deeply involved in renovation and reshaping neighborhoods. Real estate agents had long been renovating houses themselves as investments. By the time Rechler conducted her research, larger developers started working on Capitol Hill. St. Clair Investments, a large suburban development corporation, began buying and restoring in 1973.

Especially with the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities around the 1930s to the 1960s, discussed in an earlier post, real estate agents stoked the fears among white families that their neighborhoods were being taken over by African Americans. Real estate agents even hired African American women to walk around the neighborhood with baby carriages and did other tactics to motivate white families to sell their houses at a low price. The real estate agents would then sell the house at an inflated price to African American families, whom agents knew could not obtain regular mortgages. So, the agents would provide high-interest loans directly to them. The African American families often could not afford these inflated loans and pay for the maintenance of these still unrenovated houses. This is called blockbusting, which led to decay.

On Capitol Hill, according to Rechler, there was an additional trend of reverse blockbusting: "Real estate agents, brokers, and speculators use sales tactics and pressure practices to displace the poor and black from their homes in order to attract the white middle class." She was told that a real estate investor might call the DC government to report a house for possible housing code violations. Low-income owners could not obtain loans to make the needed renovations and thus faced the possibility that their house might be condemned. The speculator, however, would provide cash and thus pressure the owner to sell quickly. Speculators also quickly flipped houses to each other, driving up prices. According to Rechler, the restoration movement
is encouraged by a hyperactive real estate market which vigorously solicits property to sell, real estate speculation which promises high profits for those who can afford the investment, and financial arrangements which favor the investor over the average homebuyer. In Capitol Hill restoration operates in a market where speculation is virtually uncontrolled and public access to information is greatly curtailed.
The traditional real estate market for those seeking shelter and the speculative real estate market for those seeking profits have converged more and more lately. As we rely on our houses as part of our retirement or some form of insurance, we require that our houses increase in value. Yet, as they increase in value, it means that cities become too expensive for those with low- and moderate-incomes, even those who maintained and developed community in neighborhoods, which now draws people to move to these neighborhoods.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Social Haunting in Ward 6

In this blog, I have noted how gentrification often acts like settler colonialism. Gentrification is often portrayed as motivated by "pioneers" taking territory block by block. Those being displaced are often disparaged. (For example, see "Urine and Early Gentrification" and "Eyesores, Urine Smells, and Gentrification" and "Washington DC as a Global City"). Real estate developers, area boosters, and elites encourage an amnesia about the violence done to communities and individuals by gentrification and settler colonialism by claiming that the displacement was "inevitable" or the former residents were "disorderly" or "criminal." But amnesia does not make the forgotten history go away. This social violence remains in the area as a kind of social haunting, as "a sense, a feeling, a way of thinking, an atmosphere that pervades within a community, influencing its future in myriad, perhaps unnoticed, ways." Have you experienced social haunting on Capitol Hill?

Sociologists like Avery Gordon have argued that we should pay attention to these ghostly feelings. They may be reminders of past social violence and may provide us insight into repressed pasts. They can also open up a variety of potential futures. These ghostly feelings may also explain why certain things happen around Capitol Hill. Here is just one quick example.

 At 301 and then 324 Virginia Avenue, SE, Southeast House worked in the segregated community of Capitol Hill from around 1930 to 1962. Southeast House provided day care, classes for adults and children, after-school recreation, and many other things. The settlement house was run by African American women associated with Pan-Africanism. Ida Gibbs Hunt, a member of the organization that established the house, was one of the main organizers with W.E.B. DuBois of the early Pan-African Congresses in Paris. Howard University art professor Lois Mailou Jones taught art there. She was one of the early innovators to use African masks in modern art.

In 1962, the city leaders decided to place the new SE Freeway right on top of the Southeast House and a section of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings public housing buildings three blocks away. Forced out of the community, the Southeast House relocated to Anacostia.

The city could destroy the buildings, displace the residents, but they could not eradicate the spirit of Pan-Africanism. By the end of the 1960s, a mural appeared on one of the Ellen Wilson buildings that remained after the freeway project destroyed the others:

Capitol Hill's historic preservation movement identified with the Victorian houses of the 1890s (and styles of other nearby time periods), which was the time of expanding colonialism worldwide and Jim Crow in the United States. In contrast, this mural represented another temporality, the temporality of Pan-African globalization and anti-colonialism.

In 1996, the city leaders destroyed the Ellen Wilson Dwellings and this mural. A couple of years ago, a block north of the old Southeast House, a historic African American church -- Mount Joy Baptist Church -- was sold and turned into the Churchill condominiums. In his early career, Winston Churchill was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonial Office, a position that he had requested. According to a 2015 Washington Post op-ed, "
As a junior member of parliament, Churchill had cheered on Britain's plan for more conquests, insisting that its 'Aryan stock is bound to triumph.'" Racism and colonialism continue to haunt Capitol Hill, but the spirit of Winston Churchill must still contend with the much more international and local spirits of Pan-Africanism.

Have you experienced social hauntings in Ward 6?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

When "change" is really just more of the same

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on the Takoma Junction development, which I discussed in a previous post. In the article, a city spokesmen said, "I think it's about change. Change is hard." So, those who are against the developer's vision of the redevelopment are against change? What is this change? A local resident said, "To me, these are the things you do to adopt progressive values to changing times." At the same time, the city seeks to "[maintain] the unique character of the community." The Post was presenting the developers as part of the inevitable future and the opponents as stuck in the past. But what if the demands of changing times force Takoma Park to lose one of the things that is in fact the way of the future?

Yes, the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op (TPSS) is the future.

Andy Shallal (image from Twitter)
The proposed redevelopment is really just more of the same. As Andy Shallal, owner of the wildly successful Busboys and Poets restaurants, said at the WPFW town hall on the Takoma Park redevelopment (around 51:48):
After a while [as a result of the gentrification of businesses], you start losing the essence of a community, you start losing the vibe, you start losing its soul. And it becomes just like every other place anywhere, anywhere in the United States. I'm amazed at how many of these new developments that are coming in, they look almost identical. Like everywhere you go, they look identical. Somebody comes up with an idea of having mixed-use with an open atrium at the center and a bunch of string lights across the center. And everyone is like, "this is so novel!" People get really excited. And they all come. It's like this worked here. Let's do ten of these. That's what happens. 
When I happened to visit Bentonville, Arkansas (the headquarters of Walmart, not the reason I was visiting there), I thought, "This looks a lot like DC." The new buildings seemed to have the same architects as new DC developments. Cities, investors, and developers seek tried-and-true solutions, which leads to a homogenization, a standardization of cities that you see around the world. These solutions that developers tell us are the way of the future are in fact just more of the same, done over and over again.

The Takoma Junction redevelopment as currently imagined would endanger the TPSS Co-op, a thriving business. Among other things, the redevelopment would be on the parking lot used for deliveries and customer parking. With the redevelopment, the delivery trucks would have to park in the road out front. Thus the redevelopment would de-develop or underdevelop Takoma Park. How about expanding on the TPSS and embracing this model for the future?

Here are just a few thoughts about TPSS as the future:
  • As a co-op, the profits from TPSS are distributed to the members and the workers, thus enriching the local economy. 
  • TPSS sells products from local businesses, thus expanding the community economy.
  • TPSS could provide the basis for a cooperative economy, which has been successful in places like Spain
  • TPSS is also incredibly pleasant, a space that exemplifies democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity, which is also a space of the future.
But there are many other kinds of development envisioned by the Takoma Park residents, development projects that go beyond retail, such as Community Vision for Takoma Park and another group seeking to "set a brave and bold example."  Their ideas are not fear of change, but a call for real change in response to just more of the same.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Report on WPFW Town Hall on Gentrification

WPFW hosted a remarkable town hall, which brought together such interesting people and wonderful hosts. The concrete focus of the town hall was about a development planned for Takoma Junction, but the discussion expanded from this focus to include gentrification, displacement, and development more broadly. You can watch the town hall here.
WPFW Town Hall, High School Student Emily Kombe speaking.
Here is my report on some of the main issues that came up:

1) Definition of Gentrification.
There was a great interest in having some clear definitions. Here a composite definition:
Gentrification is the influx of capital (business and housing investments) and new middle-/upper-income residents (the 'gentry') into disinvested urban neighborhoods. 
According to this definition, gentrification depends on previous disinvestment in order for investors to make money and depends on disinvestment in other parts of the city in order to concentrate investment funds. Gentrification is part of a broader restructuring of cities for a new middle/upper income class, transforming low-status neighborhoods into upper-middle-class playgrounds, thus it is a kind of class conflict. Gentrification involves both physical and cultural/symbolic displacement, so that people may be made to feel displaced even if they still in the neighborhood. Finally, as many social scientists have discovered through interviews with those displaced, displacement is devastating and terrifying (See Atkinson's "Losing One's Place: Narratives of Neighborhood Change, Market Injustice and Symbolic Displacement")

2) Commercial Gentrification.
Gentrification can also happen to businesses. At the town hall, the owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants, Andy Shallal, reported that his K St branch had recently been gentrified out because the rent had been raised 30% (the branch is moving across the street to a lower-rent building). The owner of Bikram Yoga in Takoma Park and elsewhere, Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, also said that she had been gentrified out because another business bought her building. Shallal complained that all the new restaurants and developments "look identical" and are making DC look like everywhere else. Jane Jacobs called these new developments "the great blight of dullness." These developments, like the proposed Takoma Junction, signal to investors and potential new residents that Takoma Park is ready for more investments, but they do not necessarily provide much for low-income residents. Such gentrification can also crowd out businesses catering to working-class residents.

3) Does economic development necessarily cause gentrification and displacement? 
No, not necessarily. In the late 1970s, DC Mayor Marion Barry sought to transform DC into a cooperative city. He brought in Cornbread Givens, who had a vision of a city-wide cooperative system of producer cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, credit unions, housing cooperatives, and community cooperatives that would use the profits from the other cooperatives to provide services (health clinics, schools, etc). Here is a discussion of his vision (see from p. 71). This cooperative system would keep profits in the District and collectively owned by District residents. I highly recommend UDC professor Amanda Huron's new book, Carving out the Commons, which also captures this alternative economic development alive in DC today. Takoma Park is in a wonderful position for this kind of economic development because it has the amazing TPSS Co-op.

One of the town hall participants, Sue Katz Miller, had earlier talked on WPFW and called for another kind of transformational economic development that might bring people together without having to buy things. Sociologists have found that the plans for mixed-income development do not result in the social mixing assumed by them. Places such as retail businesses, cafes, and restaurants are not conducive to such mixing, but schools and rec centers are better for such mixing.

4) Put renters first! 
Georgetown University sociology professor Brian McCabe has shown in his book No Place like Home that homeowners often physically and symbolically keep renters out of their neighborhoods and out of public discussions. Renters are often seen as not committed to the community. McCabe finds that civic and political engagement is driven much more by residential stability -- living more than 5 years in a community -- than by whether or not one owns a home. Takoma Park is majority renters, so renters should drive the discussion, since homeowners have had their say.

Well, there was so much more talked about by such inspiring people (including the amazing Emily Kombe, high school student in Takoma Park, and the TPSS workers)!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

WPFW Town Hall on Gentrification

I'll be talking about theories of gentrification as part of WPFW's Economic Development, Equity, and Social Justice Town Hall in Takoma Park tonight 6-8pm. There will be many amazing community organizers and local activists discussing their work.

Here is the tentative schedule for the town hall:

Schedule of Speakers 

Michele Bollinger + Dara Orenstein

Johanna Bockman + Sabiyha Prince

Johanna Bockman, Sabiya Prince, + Parisa Norouzi

Parisa Norouzi, Michele B., Mokie R., + Tiffany S.

Andy Shallal


Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, Sue Katz Miller, Emily Kombe, and Jarrett Smith

Community Comments

Panelist Responses

Community Comments

Panelist Responses

Katea Stitt + Dave Zirin