Friday, January 6, 2012

Gentrification on Capitol Hill (III)

GWU American Studies professor Suleiman Osman provides a slightly different take on the 1960s and 1970s from that of Anita Rechler, who focused on how real estate agents and the renovation movement created a more segregated Capitol Hill. In his fantastic book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York and great chapter in a different book "The Decade of the Neighborhood," Osman describes the exciting utopianism of the neighborhood revival movement, as well as its serious negatives. He studies Brooklyn, but this neighborhood movement emerged across the country, including on Capitol Hill. This neighborhood movement brought together a wide range of different groups: black power fighting the black political machine, civil rights and church groups, anti-poverty workers focused on decentralized community control (community action), white ethnic leaders angry about crime and independent of the Democratic machine, and especially "brownstoners," white college-educated house renovators. These groups came together around "neighborhood" and decentralized, community control to fight central city power: the old political machine (ward bosses) and the new machine that supported modernist urban renewal ("the New Deal pro-growth coalition of real estate agents, planners, business leaders, politicians, civic groups, and directors of nonprofit institutions"). On Capitol Hill, these groups fought the highway projects and formed the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. They reinterpreted "slums" as "neighborhoods" and created block associations, community-controlled schools, etc. Marion Barry emerged out of this movement as a representative of this attack on the political machine and a celebration of community and local empowerment.

Unfortunately, the different parts of this neighborhood movement came into contradiction and had a variety of consequences. The members of the neighborhood movement were no longer dissenters, but rather became powerful elites by the 1980s. Some of the white ethnic groups sought law-and-order political leaders who called for a "return" to communities before African Americans had arrived. Neighborhoodism also hurt the poor and the neighborhoods they celebrated:
But in their populist battle against bureaucracy, neighborhood activists attacked municipal programs, public housing, integration initiatives, and affordable chain stores that poorer residents depended on. And by rejecting all forms of government planning and by lionizing voluntarism and private space, the "decade of the neighborhood" unleashed the unfettered real estate market that 1980s activists complained about.
This was not the cooptation of the movement, but the movement itself had conservative elements and conservative consequences. Did this happen in Ward 6?


  1. It might have been Carroll D. Wright who observed many years ago that Washington's economy was three-part: government, real estate, and everything else that kept the first two going. (Paraphrased. I can't find the paper at the moment.) Real estate brokers and especially speculators have long controlled pricing and development here. The original landowners held out for top price, and well-positioned property flipped from one investor to another. The familiar stretches of row houses were built by speculators, and some of them replaced dwellings on open commons and other frame housing, displacing poorer residents. That said, there were more housing options for low income residents then because there were more rental options. Owners partially financed their houses by sharing with paying lodgers or boarders. Two bedroom houses often had two lodgers, sometimes a boarding family with a young child or two. Renters shared the rent with several other renters. Some of today's low income residents might be accommodated here again if the couples or small families living in three bedroom renovated houses shared a bedroom or two or maybe the finished basement "playroom." What are the chances?

    Capitol Hill was always integrated. Manuscript census pages show enclaves of black or white residents, but turn the corner or cross the street and you'll find blocks with blacks and whites living side by side. Earlier posts have suggested that the current largely white population here resulted from conditions that accompanied gentrification in the 1970's. However, Washington has, and had then, one of the wealthiest black populations in the country. New to Capitol Hill in 1972, we were surprised and puzzled when property for sale here was almost invariably bought up by whites. We knew African Americans who had financial resources greater than ours, and news articles indicated that our friends were not unique. The community was historically racially integrated and welcoming with the amenities we love today. Why did blacks of means really choose the suburbs or other parts of the city over Capitol Hill?


  2. Thanks, Sandy, for your comments. Opening up basements or extra rooms to renters is a great way to create affordable housing. (I've been wanting to do this myself and haven't...yet). If we look at gentrification as primarily an economic displacement, then we can also see that working class whites and blacks were displaced by professional whites. Yes, as you ask, "Why did blacks of means really choose the suburbs or other parts of the city over Capitol Hill?" And did they leave in the 1960s or later in the 1980s?

  3. Actually, my question wasn't why professional blacks might have moved out of Capitol Hill-- I'm not certain there were very many here in the first place. The mystery about racial change-over in Capitol Hill is why many middle class and upper middle class African Americans who could well afford to buy these houses during the gentrifying '70's and '80's, or today, didn't move IN as whites of the same or lower economic status did.

    Sorry, I didn't mean to go so far off topic here.



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