Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Repetition of Displacement at the Ellen Wilson Dwellings

This summer, I've been conducting research on the history of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings, a public housing project that used to sit at I Street between 6th and 7th Streets, SE, and that was replaced by a mixed-income development funded by one of the first HOPE VI grants. The Ellen Wilson Dwellings opened in 1941, were emptied for renovation in 1988, and destroyed in 1996. After researching this the entire summer, I feel as if a book could be written about just about the history of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings. Here are just a few things that I found.

Ellen Wilson was built in 1941 as a segregated white public housing project. African American groups protested the naming of the project for a known white segregationist and wife of Woodrow Wilson, also a white segregationist. According to the Washington Post in 1941: “Negroes have protested against the name. They claim Mrs. Wilson was responsible for segregating employees at the Bureau of Engraving & Printing.”(1) They also protested the creation of segregated public housing. Ellen Wilson basically sat on a large block between G and I Streets, SE, between 6th and 7th Streets. The north side of the block (G Street) housed only white homeowners and renters; this side was not demolished. Along the East and West sides, there were predominantly white residents. The South side was predominantly African American. Most significantly, over 300 African Americans lived in the block’s alley, called Navy Place. African American residents had lived in Navy Place for at least 75 years. To build Ellen Wilson, all the African American residents from the alleys and the South side of the block, as well as whites and African Americans from the East and West sides of the block were displaced. Not a single African American resident was allowed to move into the new Ellen Wilson.The Alley Dwelling Authority declared the block part of a “predominantly white” neighborhood and thus Ellen Wilson became a white public housing project: “Officials of the Alley Dwelling Authority, explaining why the new homes were to be occupied by white tenants, said the surrounding neighborhood is predominantly white.”(2)

By 1953, DC public housing was no longer allowed to remain segregated. It would be interesting to know if anyone from Navy Place or other parts of the block moved into Ellen Wilson at this time.

In 1996, the Ellen Wilson Dwellings were destroyed, after being abandoned for about eight years, and only 7 households from the 134 unit public housing project were allowed to move into the new development. The creation of the new development was part of a nation-wide movement against the segregation of minorities into public housing and was part of a local, deeply committed movement for social justice. These movements spoke out against the negative consequences of concentrated poverty. In the end, however, the outcome in 1941 and in 1996 were nearly the same: the displacement of low-income African Americans was complete in 1941 and nearly complete in 1996.

How did this happen? The answer so far seems to involve two main issues:
  • the Ellen Wilson public housing residents had been moved out and dispersed when discussions about plans were made for the new development, plans that were supposed to help them. What did they want? Where did they end up? 
  • Some of those involved in the planning had many more resources than others and could push things in the direction they preferred. I found a paper on which strategy by one group had been laid out. The notes said many things, including: “avoid debate,” “Involve bleeding hearts in constructive way,” and “Isolate naysayers.”(3) 
Queens College sociologist Stephen Steinberg has argued that claims about concentrated poverty are myths used politically by developers and politicians when poor people live on valuable land, like on Capitol Hill, which has been gentrifying since the 1960s. (Ellen Wilson was thus already part of a mixed-income community well before the 1980s.) Steinberg writes:
We have to be savvy about the political uses of the theory of concentrated poverty, which is invoked wherever the poor occupy valuable real estate that is coveted by developers, and which is part of the neoliberal agenda of reclaiming urban space that earlier was relinquished to the nation’s racial and class pariahs.(4)
In both 1941 and 1988/1996, low-income African American residents were displaced in the name of a form of development that claimed to help them but in fact hurt them. How can we avoid the displacement of our neighbors and protect such housing that is affordable?

P.S. The Repetition of Displacement at the Ellen Wilson Dwellings (Part II)


(1) Kluttz, Jerry. 1941. “The Federal Diary.” The Washington Post, March 27, p. 15.
(2) "ADA Grant Boosts Home Units to 2,426: $1,366,000 Project For Colored Houses In Northeast Area Gets Approval," The Washington Post, Dec 28, 1939, p. 17.
(3) GWU Special Collections, Capitol Hill Restoration Society, MS2009, Box 70, File 16,  "Ellen Wilson correspondence, 1989-1990," Pat Schauer. Handwritten meeting notes, March 20, 1989.
(4) Steinberg, Stephen. 2010. "The Myth of Concentrated Poverty," Pp. 213-227 in  The Integration Debate: Competing Futures for American Cities, edited by Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires. New York, NY: Routledge.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete

Due to spammers, I am restricting comments.