Monday, January 14, 2013

Who is to Blame?: Canal Park, History, and Community

Way back at the end of November, the Washington City Paper published "Frontin': The Capitol Riverfront wasn't always shiny, new, and friendly to figure skaters." The article is about the opening of Canal Park along 2nd St, SE, between I and M St, which includes a skating rink, a restaurant, public art, and park space. It is part of the larger Capitol Riverfront development. Almost immediately in the article, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is quoted as saying, "For decades, this whole part of the District of Columbia was a God-forsaken part of the city." Then, Mayor Gray states, "It was just housing after housing after housing where people were living in depressed conditions. Look at the renaissance that's taken place here." The renaissance includes not only Canal Park but also new restaurants, etc. Somehow, the article seems to blame the former residents, such as those who lived in Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg public housing, for somehow delaying or stopping this renaissance. Once they were moved, the renaissance could begin. Why?

As in many media articles and public political discussions, the article sets up a dichotomy of an either/or with nothing in between, when in fact there are always a lot in between, it might actually be a both/and, etc. The article presents the choice as being either 1) you are for the bad past of crime, public housing projects falling apart, no parks, no restaurants, and no other amenities or 2) you are for the new present and future shaped by Richard Florida's creative class. Richard Florida, a business professor at University of Toronto, has been enormously influential, advising cities how to compete in a global economy. In his writing, he argues that cities must attract the creative class, which is about 30% of the U.S. workforce, including scientists, engineers, professors, poets, novelists, artists, architects, editors, opinion-makers, as well as those working in knowledge-intensive-industries (high-tech, financial, legal, healthcare, business management). The creative class prefers:
  • Not new and generic developments, not one size fits-all. Creativity, individuality, difference, meritocracy, tolerance, lifestyle options. 
  • Authenticity/uniqueness, such as historic buildings or restaurants with a history (creatively invented or not).
  • Plug-and-play communities, in which technology and standard amenities (maybe in a quirky or historically accurate package) are easily available: “where anyone can fit in quickly.” 
  • Not trapped in the past (don't try old modernist planning ideas like stadiums or planning for traditional families).
  • Edgy cities.
  • Active recreation. 
The renaissance in Capitol Riverfront follows much of Florida's recommendations, even though they contradict each other (authenticity vs. plug-and-play), and created an area for the creative class.

While the area seeks historical authenticity, it also erases one past, the past of this "God-forsaken part of the city": "The skaters in Canal Park are simultaneously bringing back the area's distant past -- people are thought to have skated on the canal that ran through the area in the 19th century -- and helping it shake off its recent history." Since in the nineteenth century most amenities were racially segregated, a constructed white past shapes this park. The past to be demolished is the past of low-income African American residents of Ward 6. The former residents of the area made the area too "edgy" and thus had to be "shaken off." DC residents shaken off, like dust? If one sees the displacement of people this way, it is very easy to remove them.

According to the article, 114 households out of the original 707 households, 16%, from the former Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg public housing projects have moved back in. I would bet that the majority of those 114 moved into the senior building. When will the rest of the low-income units become available?: "The process was supposed to be completed at the end of 2013, but the recession froze up funding, and there's now no set date for completion."

In the article, only one former public housing resident was asked how she liked her new neighborhood: "I think it's all great." Of course, people would like new housing, new parks, and so on. In the comments printed the following week in the Washington City Paper, Angelina said that the Capitol Riverfront is "for a NEW CROWD!!!" and someone asked, "Angelina, are you saying that the OLD CROWD isn't interested in culture, outdoor recreation, and nicer things? And you speak for them? Because the article quotes a former resident that disagrees with you." Here, we have the restatement of the article's dichotomy: either you are for the good new or you are for the bad old. There are no other options.

For other options, we might look to the public housing residents themselves. They would likely have preferred redevelopment and letting them stay there to experience the benefits of the redeveloped area. In DC, for decades, public housing residents demanded repairs and renovation of their residences. For example, many families endured the winter without heat because the city did not repair the heating. What did Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton do to help this situation? Many elected officials chose not to invest in the Arthur Capper public housing project. Instead, they let it fall apart more and more, and demolished it over several years. So, while public housing residents might have loved a skating rink and a sit-down restaurant, they were displaced, and now we have a new form of urban renewal (see my previous post on this).

Jane Jacobs, another urban scholar (pictured on the left with urban-renewal-supporter Robert Moses) who has influenced so many here in DC and elsewhere, and many people in Ward 6, like the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, harshly criticized urban renewal. Jacobs called for gradual change in communities and gradual money, not what she called "cataclysmic money," invested in neighborhoods. She called for "unslumming," by integrating existing buildings and existing people with new buildings and people, not demolishing everything. A real mixed-income community. In contrast, the Capitol Riverfront was "master-planned from the beginning...built essentially from scratch." This destruction undermined the social capital of the former residents of the area. But community in itself is important for DC as a city. One of the former residents of Arthur Capper said:
[There was always something good happening at Arthur Capper, even though any community has a few problem people.] It was part of the District of Columbia…like a finger or an arm in the body of the District of Columbia…You just cannot destroy a community and expect the city to thrive and survive. You know, you might bring in a whole bunch of people and change things around here and there, but there’s a lot of people still who remember that community the way it is. Like my mother may have remembered her community back in the days when she used to live on 4th St, SW. You know what I mean, same same. The people. It’s the people and the good times.
His words suggest that another way was needed, moving away from the dichotomy suggested by the article of the bad past of low-income African Americans versus the good present of the creative class. The bad past was the creation of political leaders who chose not to invest in public housing and then blamed those living in public housing for the destroying the area.

So, why is the renaissance of Capitol Riverfront happening now? Did investors need to move out the public housing residents to obtain the investments in restaurants and buildings and to lure the creative class? Why?

1 comment:

  1. You ask "Why is the renaissance of Capital Riverfront happening now?"
    The answer is not difficult to find.
    The renaissance of Capital Riverfront isn't just "happening now."
    From 2000 - and before - planning was being discussed by local and federal officials and residents of Near SW and Near SE.

    Congressional action to permit public/private development of the 55 acres of largely federal land along the Anacostia, local insistence on mixed income housing, and the construction in the Navy Yard to allow a great increase in employment, all predated the District's decision to spend half a billion dollars on the baseball stadium.
    Dale MacIver

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