Friday, August 12, 2011

Urban Renewal and Grief in Ward 6


Between 1950 and 1965, more than 202,000 families were relocated as cities demolished "blighted" areas and realized urban renewal. In 1950, DC began urban renewal in Southwest. These photos are of SW DC before and after urban renewal.

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...But where have the 23,500 poor people who inhabited Southwest gone?"

In the study, the researchers found and interviewed 98 families five years after they had left their homes in SW. This group is not particularly representative because they were a "demonstration group," a group of families that received extra help relocating, in contrast to a control group, which did not receive this help, and the rest of the over 23,000 people, who either left on their own or were forced out. But the researchers made several important findings.

What did they find? They found that the 98 families obtained housing that was physically improved, especially with indoor toilets and in well-maintained buildings, but they experienced new problems. (However, a significant proportion of their original SW housing had been in fine shape when it was torn down.) By 1965, government officials realized that the "myths" of housing reform and slum clearance "were based on rather vague and misleading correlations between the physical conditions of housing and such social factors," like poverty and crime. For those interviewed, poverty continued (a common experience among those displaced), and they then suffered "from another set of problems created by their removal from what was once their homes" because they lost not only their homes but also "a functioning social system." Some became sick with grief, like that experienced by a death in the family, which was a common reaction to such relocations. Seventy percent of those interviewed had visited SW after redevelopment, and "a significant number talked about crying and feeling sick" when they visited.

The 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.

While those forced out of their homes scattered across the city (except west of Rock Creek in nearly all-white NW), those in public housing made it to Arthur Capper (Ward 6; 900 5th Street SE, right next to the 6th St SE exit of the 395 freeway), Greenleaf Gardens (Ward 6; 203 N Street SW), and Kenilworth Courts (Ward 7; 4500 Quarles Street NE, right near the spectacular Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens). Arthur Capper senior housing continues today in a new building. (See the photos of Capper-Carrollsburg in my previous posting). In 2002, the residents of the rest of Arthur Capper and nearby Carrollsburg were forced out of their homes, the buildings were demolished, and housing and apartments for middle and upper income groups were build. Does this sound familiar?

Today, people reject urban renewal. In 1955, Ward 6 residents began the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and, in 1973, made parts of Capitol Hill an historic district. The demolition of physical structures as practiced during urban renewal is no longer acceptable to people across the political spectrum, but it does continue. Also, communities are still being demolished, and those displaced grieve for lost community. The DC government demolished both the physical structures and the social system in Capper-Carrollsburg. This has happened elsewhere in DC. The Facebook page for now-gone Eastgate Gardens Public Housing (Ward 7), sometimes called "Cinderblock City," states: "the interpersonal relationships that were developed between Eastgate residents still stand just like the cinderblocks that composed of the housing units! This page is is dedicated to those families!" The 345 Facebook members organize an annual reunion and refer to the Eastgate "family" and to Eastgate as "home." When the researchers asked the interviewees how they would improve urban renewal, the majority said that they should have been allowed to move into the new buildings in SW. I'll bet that the residents of Capper-Carrollsburg feel the same way. Is urban renewal continuing today?

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