Sunday, December 4, 2011

Our Block's History Party

What looks like local history or arbitrary personal choice is often influenced or shaped by larger social or historical forces. Social change may open up or shut down opportunities. Block histories provide concrete and tangible cases of broader social and historical change, which is what makes block and local histories so exciting, especially for sociologists.

Last night, our block had a History Party, a potluck and discussion of our block's history from the 1960s to the present. Since 2009, we have put together a phone list, a listserv, and a twice-yearly progressive block party, in which 2-3 residences host part of a dinner over one evening. Last night, we experimented with a new format. About 25 people attended, including about 6 kids, who were well behaved during this adult Show and Tell. The discussion was very lively. Early on, we went around the room, introducing ourselves, stating when we moved to the Hill and the block, and, for those who had lived a long time on the Hill/block, listing the schools we attended, etc. I was the notetaker, which was an interesting task because the discussion often broke into small groups and then returned to one large conversation. Below, I discuss a few items within broader sociological and historical context, while trying to maintain the anonymity of those involved.

At the party, we found out that, while the block had been racially mixed in and before the 1930s, our block was predominately African American by the 1960s. Our neighbor and his family who had moved to the block in 1961 remembered only one white family on the block. Our neighbor had moved from South Carolina to DC after the Second World War. While this might seem like an arbitrary personal choice, our neighbor was part of the Great Migration, in which millions of African Americans moved from the South to the North from the First World War and through the 1960s. As sociologist Stewart Tolnay has discussed, the First World War and restrictive immigration policies meant that new jobs became available to African Americans in Northern cities. Rural African Americans also long felt a push to move to cities to escape sharecropping (that left them landless and poor), unemployment caused by agricultural mechanization, Jim Crow restrictions on educational and political opportunity, and racial violence. Southern African Americans often followed relatives (our neighbor followed his uncle) and were drawn to cities with institutions that supported African American communities, such as "an NAACP chapter, a mature National Urban League, African American churches, and African American newspapers" (Tolnay, p. 217), which DC certainly had since the Civil War. In this video, which I discussed in a previous post, Potomac Gardens public housing residents talk about their Great Migration experiences:

After the Second World War, newly constructed highways, newly available mortgages, and new suburban developments, which sociologists like William Julius Wilson have shown to be racially exclusionary, drew many white families to the suburbs leaving houses available to African Americans arriving from the South. At the same time, DC also maintained racial segregation, as GWU sociologist Gregory Squires and his colleagues have found in the case of housing and as more generally discussed in a fascinating exchange on H-DC.

Long-time residents on the block also remembered the various businesses around the block. Two brothers ran the Abe Store at 9th & C St SE. At two locations at 10th & C St SE, the Brookses ran a dry cleaners, Brooks Valet, from 1952 to 1983. You can see several of our neighbors in the Post photo (first and second page of the article) of the 1983 community block party held in the Brookses honor. In the Post article, the Brookses remembered the block as predominantly African American working class residents who worked at the Navy Yard. Long-time residents remembered that the block (as well as surrounding blocks) was "family-oriented" and very social, with great block parties.

Four or five residents who moved to the block in the late 1970s and early 1980s spoke about crime during this period. The block captain in the late 1970s talked about how the block formed a Neighborhood Watch group and worked with police, which resulted in a decrease in crime by the mid-1980s. We know that during the mid- and late-1970s the nation was experiencing a severe economic crisis and large-scale unemployment. In addition, gentrification -- the displacement of lower income households by higher income, often professional households -- has been going on on Capitol Hill since the 1950s, but the late 1970s was a period of intense gentrification. Scholars often discuss Capitol Hill gentrification as a significant case study because it has been so extensive and began so early. In 1977, GWU urban studies professor Dennis E. Gale surveyed recent Hill homebuyers living in our block's census tract (67) and another highly gentrified census tract (66). In his sample, he found that 94% of these recent homebuying households were white and described our census tract as "still largely transitional in nature and population changes are occurring more rapidly there." Most of those living in our census tract moved from other parts of DC and had high incomes. According to Gale:
A large majority of our residents felt that racial conflict was not a frequent occurrence in their neighborhood. When conflict did occur though, it was generally between younger, black passers-through and white residents. Relations between black and white neighbors were perceived as good and generally free from any serious conflict. About half of our study group expressed a preference for a neighborhood composed of approximately equal proportions of blacks and whites. One-fourth preferred a predominance of whites and a minority of blacks. Most of the remainder indicated that they had no strong racial preferences but would rather their neighbors were of socio-economic backgrounds comparable to their own.(p. 3)
We can see that our block and census tract was experiencing significant social change during the late 1970s. In fact, in the late 1970s worldwide, people experienced fundamental changes to their societies, which sociologists and other scholars are studying right now. It will be interesting to continue examining our block's history to find out more about this shift taking place right in our neighborhood. Thanks to my great neighbors for a fascinating History Party!


  1. What do you think is the story about why we have lost so many of these corner stores? I often wonder about that walking around the Hill, seeing all of the places that used to have a store on the first floor. Were these stores pushed out by larger businesses that could undercut them, or were people unable to find buyers who wanted to run a store (or have someone run it for them)? Does anyone know why we see so few of these stores anymore?

  2. Stories about past history, it is very good. so we know its origin.

    Thanks my friend.


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