Friday, August 31, 2012

The Consequences of Displacement

Between 1950 and 1960, 23,500 residents were moved out of SW DC to make way for new middle- and upper-income, as well as some public, housing. At the time, it was understood that impoverished slums were being replaced with a mixed-income community. This urban renewal has similarities with more recent displacements of the Ward 6 poor done in the name of helping them. These displacements have quite devastating affects on the majority of the residents.

In a previous post, I discussed the results of a survey of a small group of those displaced in the 1950s:
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...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.
I am in the midst of conducting oral histories with former residents of Arthur Capper public housing. One interviewee, whom I call X for now, had moved as an eight-year old with his family in 1960 from Southwest to Arthur Capper public housing. Here is part of our discussion:
JB: Why did you move?
X: I found out later on that, I think, they were renovating the area down there... So, all the low-income had to move out of that area. So, I think we had...well, of course, we had to move ourselves.
JB: Did anyone you knew move back into the area?
X: No. (Then in a whisper) We were gone. We were gone.
His family was one of the lucky ones, which obtained an apartment in public housing. He spoke very fondly of his time in Arthur Capper, especially because the residents could trust each other and shared food and other items when they were in need. He also remembered that relatives and family friends who were now homeless stayed with them in their public housing apartment for long periods of time, sleeping on the sofa or on the floor. A cousin lived so long with them that X considered him a brother. His father also helped out the many poor and homeless in the area with food.

Families who had been displaced by SW renewal had to move again in the 1990s and 2000s when Arthur Capper public housing was closed. Public housing has long provided a respite for *both* the official residents and the family/friends they have taken in, the thousands of people made homeless by renewal and by more current "revitalization." The current destruction of public housing through HOPE VI and other programs displaces the official residents and the family/friends who depend on their kindness. This displacement comes with great costs to the individuals and communities involved, including communities in Ward 6.

Several decades ago, a Chicago newspaper predicted that the affect of urban renewal displacements would have devastating affects over the long term:
Something is happening to lives and spirits that will never show up in the great housing shortage of the late '40s. Something is happening to the children which might not show up in our social records until 1970.
The HOPE VI displacements began in the 1990s (though some displacements occurred earlier), which means that we are already experiencing the affects on the lives and spirits of the children who grew up in this time

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