Friday, February 3, 2012

Is Restoration Racist? (II)

Thank you to the two Anonymous comments on my previous post! Racism is a complicated concept, easily thrown around, but, in the case of housing and the restoration movement, my research shows a disturbing history of racism. The "race of the steward" of Capitol Hill houses was quite important to the restoration movement, especially when it began around 1947 on the Hill but later as well. In the wonderful Special Collections Research Center at GWU, I have been reading the papers of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. Within these papers are three files dated from 1944 to 1950 on the Southeast Washington Citizens Association (SEWCA), a very early advocate for restoration and an association for "any member of the Caucasian race."(1) On the one hand, 1944-1950 was a time of intense overt racial discrimination in DC. On the other hand, times were changing and racism took new forms. As the first commenter suggested, we must go beyond seeing racism only as negative beliefs or "malicious intent" one race has towards another. Racism also is the acquisition of resources due to one's race and the protection of these resources at the expense of another race(s). One does not have to be an overt racist to gain these benefits, but, in 1944-1950, they were also overtly racist. The restoration movement is actually rather disturbing, in ways not often recognized by scholars and residents alike. Here are some disturbing aspects of this restoration movement:
  • The Southeast Washington Citizens Association was an advocate for whites and not an advocate for blacks. One could say that this is obvious because the world was overtly racist then, but restoration emerged from this world. It sought to restore what they called "Old S.E." or "Old Capitol Hill," which was possibly in contrast to the "new" black residents moving from the South and from other parts of DC. (What was the status of the historic African American neighborhoods?) In 1947 and 1950, respectively, the SEWCA passed motions supporting the continuation of racial housing covenants and school segregation.(2) They encouraged association officers to enforce racial housing:
    "Mr. Absher gave his report on the building of the apartment house on 16th Street, S.E. He was told by one of the owners that his request regarding the occupancy of white in this apartment house would be given serious consideration. He was told that, if the immediate surroundings were predominantly white, then the apartments would be rented to the whites. If the colored are more predominant, then, they would be rented to the colored."(3)
    They supported the funding of Division II, "colored" schools, "but not at the expense of the white pupils..." (4) As sociologist George Lipsitz discusses, "whites used restrictive covenants, racial zoning, redlining, steering, blockbusting, and mob violence between 1866 and 1948 to monopolize advantages for themselves and their descendants."(5)
  • In the minds of government officials and the real estate industry, private restoration/renewal and public renewal had a common goal -- to increase house or property values -- which meant (possibly unofficially) more white people and fewer black people. Private and public renewal had the same result and were in fact seen as complementary at the time. Unlike other places in the US, Capitol Hill restoration and renewal even occurred at the same time. Both forms of renewal simultaneously fixed up areas of the District AND made them more white.
  • While restoration is often viewed as a response to urban renewal that sought to destroy historic homes, the SEWCA supported both restoration and urban renewal. According to an officer in the SEWCA, Elizabeth Draper, in August 1950, Capitol Hill leaders met with the National Capitol Planning Commission to make the Hill the second area for redevelopment of slum areas after SW DC. Unlike the thousands of poor African American households in SW, those on the Hill had power based in part on their race to negotiate with urban renewal officials. These officials "took the position that the Agency would assist private capital in redoing the area, rather than come in, condemn everything, and start again."(6) Unlike in pre-renewal SW, Capitol Hill had available private capital, though primarily available to whites who were real estate agents or developers. Individual renovators often had trouble getting funds for individual projects. In its 1948-49 program, the SEWCA promoted both renovation and stated, "We shall urge the condemnation of so-called residential property that is unfit for occupancy." They also supported the destruction of the Wallach School and the rebuilding of Hine Junior High. (7)
  • White people on Capitol Hill learned from the experiences of Georgetown's restoration movement organized also by white citizens associations. For example, as an officer in the SEWCA, Elizabeth Draper brought her experiences from Georgetown:
"Having been president of the Progressive Citizens Association of Georgetown for two terms when that section began to improve in 1937 and again for three terms from 1944 until 1947, I knew the many problems in a restoration program."(8)

Georgetown's restoration movement had displaced the historic African American community there, as described in Black Georgetown Remembered. After her move to Capitol Hill, Draper joined the SEWCA, invited speakers to talk about restoration, and organized competitions and campaigns to realize it. According to Draper, very quickly, real estate agents recognized the benefits of the increased housing values. In both Georgetown and Capitol Hill (as discussed by Rechler), real estate agents and developers could use racial panics to their benefit, making both locations less integrated.
  • The restoration movement is often, though not always, seen as a white movement. Maybe this is due to its history? Maybe it is just due to observing the actual practice? In a 1976 survey conducted by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society of its members:
"many respondents elaborated on the concern over the 'upper-middle class white' make up of the Society's membership. One person seemed to capture the sentiment of many of those who answered this question by saying that ... 'It depends on one's perspective...It depends on how one is affected by restoration and the consequent increase in property values.' Many people were more explicit and pointed to the need to include more black residents into the organization so that the whole community could be represented and work together on making the 'Hill' a better place to live...Another member put it this way...CHRS is 'upper class white property owners concerned about property. It should be changed to a community group speaking on issues that are important to the future of Washington as a beautiful and economically strong multi-racial city.'...A number of people mentioned that, for some, the image of the Society is that of just being a front for the real estate interests on the Hill."(9)
  • Many houses were saved from the freeway and renewal projects, but for whom were they saved? In 1966, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society president sent his comments on the comprehensive plan for DC in 1985 to the National Capitol Planning Commission. The president noted that Capitol Hill had two growing populations: the well-to-do, who can afford restoration prices, and the moderate-/low-income black population, "which the suburbs are, and may continue to be, very reluctant to accommodate." Both groups need more housing, so he asked, "Where are the poor families going to go?"(10) He suggested that they be moved to Bolling Field. For whom were these historic homes saved?

As a result of its history, restoration created racialized spaces. Racist intentions are not necessary, when one can access resources in these racialized spaces, though racist intentions remain too. Lipsitz warns that this system that purportedly benefits whites actually damages their long-term interests, "while Black negotiations with the constraints and confinements of racialized space often produce ways of envisioning and enacting more decent, dignified, humane, and egalitarian social relations for everyone."(11)

(1) GWU Special Collections, Capitol Hill Restoration Society records, MS2009, Box 34, mainly Folder 14, Southeast Citizens Association: Constitution, Bylaws, minutes, June 27, 1944- Sept. 14, 1950.

(2) GWU, SECA records, Meeting minutes, December 9, 1947 and Sept. 14, 1950.

(3) GWU, SECA records, Meeting minutes, December 9, 1947.

(4) GWU, SECA records, Meeting minutes, February 27th, 1945.

(5) Lipsitz, George. 2011. How Racism Takes Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p. 3.

(6) Draper, Elizabeth Kohl. "Progress Report on the Restoration of Capitol Hill Southeast," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, DC, Vol. 1951/1952.

(7) GWU, SECA records, SE Washington Citizens Association Program, 1948-1949.

(8) Draper, p. 134.

(9) GWU Special Collections, Capitol Hill Restoration Society records, MS2009, Box 30, Folder 16, "Communities [sic] reactions to the CHRS’s activities - survey findings (1976)."

(10) GWU Special Collections, Capitol Hill Restoration Society records, MS2009, Box 32, Folder 9, "Planning for Area: 1965/1985, Plan and Revision as comprehension plan - 1967," Historical Files. Letter from Gregory R. New to Sydnor F. Hodges, NCPC, March 5, 1966.

(11) Lipsitz, p. 6.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! Thanks for posting.


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