Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Problem of Celebrating Gentrification

Those who view gentrification positively usually misidentify the actors who drive gentrification. They also often assume two sets of actors: 1) certain older residents who are seen as destroying the city (an underlying revanchist attitude) and 2) individual homeowners or business owners who "pioneer" an area and are saving the city. Yet, they do not perceive the agency of developers, investors, and city governments in gentrification. Here is my memory of a recent conversation with a colleague (C) visiting from out of town:

C: I lived in DC before gentrification, in 1992-1993.

Me: Well, gentrification began in the 1930s in Georgetown and in the late 1940s on Capitol Hill. A lot of Capitol Hill was gentrified by the late 1970s. It's been going on for some time.

C: But there were no-go areas; we were told that there were areas we should not go to.

Me: Gentrification works by investing in certain areas and disinvesting in other areas. Developers buy up low-cost buildings in areas they think might be profitable to develop and sit on them for years. They may let the buildings fall into disrepair or may maintain them at minimal cost, which often lowers the values of surrounding buildings making them cheaper to buy. This might create "no-go areas." [According to Neil Smith's rent gap theory, gentrification "is most likely to occur in areas experiencing a sufficiently large gap between actual and potential land values" (p. 464) because disinvested areas are where developers can make the most money. When developers have finished their investments in one area, then they can move capital into the most profitable disinvested area, like Ivy City and New York Avenue NE area, see 2003 Washington Post article "Where to Build Next?; As Downtown Fills In, Only Way for Construction Is Out." And the District government helps them in these processes too (see Susanna Schaller in Capital Dilemma).]

C: Do developers do this?

Me: Yes.

C: [I can't remember exactly the next step in the conversation, but it was something about white flight to the suburbs and how DC fell into disrepair.]

Me: White flight was about white homeowners [and renters?] leaving cities but this did not mean that they necessarily sold their houses. Rather, many white homeowners rented out their houses and did not necessarily maintain them very well. [I learned this a few days ago at Nathan Connolly's great talk on his book A World More Concrete at Georgetown University. These homeowners could thus do their own rent gap, doing minimal investment on their properties and waiting out for the return of capital to the area.]

This short discussion revealed to me how those who view gentrification positively often do not see the agency of developers and investors, as well as of city governments, in changing cities through investment and disinvestment. Also, interestingly, gentrification is perceived as just starting very recently, rather than as a long-term process. This long-term process should be understood as both a process of investing in certain places and disinvesting in other places, thus investment and disinvestment are connected processes. As Sabiyha Prince (2014) writes, "Gentrification is contingent upon disinvestment and dearth in urban environments...gentrification is the end result of a deliberate cycle that begins with neighborhood devalorization" (p. 46). Where is this neighborhood devalorization happening now in DC?

Monday, October 31, 2016

Murals, Mondrian, and Gentrification

Ellen Wilson Dwellings building, August 1988.
During the summer of 1988, a local homeowner commissioned a 30-foot mural, copying a modernist artwork of Piet Mondrian on the side of a public housing building in the Ellen Wilson Dwellings on Capitol Hill. Above is the painted building, and below is the building, as seen from the 6th Street, SE, freeway underpass, before it was painted:   
Ellen Wilson Dwelling, early summer 1988. 
This mural faced a freeway and was joined by two smaller Mondrian murals in the freeway underpass across the street. By 1992, he had commissioned 13 Mondrian murals in the underpass, in addition to the 30-foot mural.
SE Freeway Underpass. 
You can still see the murals in the underpass, but the 30-foot mural was demolished along with the Ellen Wilson Dwellings in 1996.

In November 1988, just months after the first three murals were completed, the DC Housing Authority moved all the residents out of the public housing project for a long-planned renovation of the buildings. Soon after, however, the project lay vacant and later was demolished, leaving the former residents permanently displaced.

I have spent the summer researching a series of questions: What role did the murals play in the permanent displacement of the public housing residents? What kind of work did the Mondrian murals perform on Capitol Hill at the end of the 1980s? The story has been surprising, to say the least.

Here is just one small finding: The late 1980s was a time of worldwide return to gentrification and displacement (see this previous post). From my research over the past year, I have come to understand that this block lay on a long contested racial line (see this previous post). One can see the murals as an early form of "tactical urbanism," as Amanda Kolson Hurley discussed in the Post a few days ago:
Tactical urbanism — which also goes by “DIY urbanism” or “creative placemaking” — uses small, often short-term fixes (like an artistically painted intersection) to promote wider and more permanent changes to a city (like reclaiming streets for walkers and cyclists).
We can thus see the Mondrian murals in some way reclaiming land and promoting wider and more permanent changes to the city. As Hurley discusses, only certain members of the community are considered legitimate initiators of or participants in DIY urbanism, which Eric Shaw, DC director of planning, notes in the article: “if five black males took over a parking spot and had a barbecue and listened to music . . . would they last 10 minutes?” City planners often perceive similar activities by lower-income groups and especially by non-whites as illegitimate and thus not given the label "DIY urbanism," but, as Hurley notes:
"There’s been tactical urbanism in lower-income communities,” argues Veronica O. Davis, a civil engineer and urban-planning consultant in the District. “It’s called graffiti.” The problem, she says, is the gap between the largely white and middle-class planning profession and the general public. “What’s the difference between a mural, which is paint on the wall, and graffiti, which is paint on the wall?
The local, Capitol Hill media, in fact, understood the Mondrian murals as giant graffiti put up by a "brave" homeowner, as part of battle over the Ellen Wilson Dwellings space. During the late 1980s return to gentrification, these murals were in competition with other graffiti with their own claims over the area, which those in the media and local homeowners deemed illegitimate.

But why murals of Mondrian's art? What were these specific art pieces communicating? More in a future post.

Images are from the Smithsonian Institution Archive, Warren M. Robbins papers: 1) SIA Acc. 11-001, Box 76, Folder Warren M. Robbins - Mondrian murals, August 1988, 2) SIA Acc. 11-001, Box 36, Folder Mondrian mural,  Images, 1988. 3) SIA 11-001, Box 36, Folder Mondrian mural,  Images, 1988 [image must have been taken later]. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

I highly recommend this!

I went to the first show, which was truly great. It is a very innovative format and had great Q&A too. 

On My Mind/In My Heart: The Voices of Women in Public Housing 
Monday, June 20th
6:00 - 8:00 PM (Doors at 5:30)
Anacostia Arts Center
1231 Good Hope Rd, SE

Six public housing residents tell their stories along with music and discussion led by the amazing Schyla Pondexter-Moore. The public housing residents telling their stories are:
·                     Linda Brown, Greenleaf Gardens 
·                     Robin Fields, Arthur Capper 
·                     Abena Disroe, Hopkins 
·                     India Fuller, Greenleaf Gardens 
·                     Rhonda Hamilton, Syphax Gardens 
·                     Paulette Mathews, Barry Farms 

Don't miss this special encore performance!

The first show was standing room only - and some people didn't make it in the door! 

The powerful personal stories of six women who live in DC public housing communities are brought to the stage thanks to the talented script writing of Caleen Jennings and staging of Director Goldie Patrick.

This special performance is being held in conjunction with the Washington Area Women's Foundation and will be followed by a discussion with the audience on our collective hopes and dreams for the next generation of women and girls.

Space is limited. Please RSVP to Lauren Stillwell Patterson at

Visit the Empower DC website:

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Capital Dilemma Book Talk Tomorrow

Tomorrow evening at All Souls Church, Georgetown University history professor Maurice Jackson, GWU history lecturer Bell Clement, and I will be talking about our chapters in Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington, D.C. edited by American University sociology professor Derek Hyra and anthropologist Sabiyha Prince

The amazing Sam Menefee-Libey has been running a monthly series on "Economic Inequality in DC" at All Souls Church. The group does common readings and engages with DC scholars about DC history, sociology, and so on. 

Tomorrow, the event starts at 7pm at All Souls Church, 1500 Harvard Street NW @ 16th (Columbia Heights Metro Station). Join us for a great discussion. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Alternative Lifestyle City and the Great Blight of Dullness

A while back, I was talking with someone who has been running an illegal food co-op for decades. In his discussion about the co-op, he said in passing that DC in 1967 was an "alternative lifestyle city." I asked him why he thought that. He said that downtown was filled with cooperatives, like a co-op bookstore, co-op plant stores, and even co-op headshops. This 1981 article describes DC's Magic Lantern Cinema and other DC co-ops in this area: "Five years ago, Washington DC's worker-run cooperative community was still strong — a network of food coops, "anti-profit" bookstores, record stores, print shops, plant stores, etc." You can see a list of the extensive number of co-operatives in DC here.

The co-operator said that the mindset of downtown was alternative. Around the Second World War, the area had been redlined (redlining is "arbitrarily denying or limiting financial services to specific neighborhoods, generally because its residents are people of color or are poor") because it was understood to be an African American area. Banks would not provide loans to residents or to businesses in the area. He said that "alternative," "working-class" whites then moved to this area, which had cheap rent. In this area neglected by banks and investment, people could try out a lot of new ideas very cheaply and the people in the area were relatively open to such experiments and such people.

As many people have discussed, downtown DC had a vibrant punk scene, such as at the Landsburgh in the center of today's Penn Quarter discussed by the fabulous Vassar sociology professor Leonard Nevarez. In the DC punk scene book Hard Art: DC 1979, the authors write, "In the land of the rejected, the field is flattened, open to much opportunity. Here flourish the weeds and nonstandard quality alike" (p. 63). But punk music and cooperatives were by no means the only part of this "alternative lifestyle city." (For another fascinating discussion, see Michelle Chatman's "At Eshu's Crossroad: Pan-African Identity in a Changing City"). Where did the "alternative lifestyle city" go?

In our perverse world, when investors abandon an area, rents may go down and diversities might increase, as well as opportunities for creativity and social life. And conversely, when investors become interested in an area and "revitalize" it, they often seek to erase what is there and create a blank slate. As discussed by Jane Jacobs, developers who seek to lure the wealthy into the cities often eradicate a whole range of diversities (age, income, race, etc.) and create, what she called, a "Great Blight of Dullness":
CityCenterDC. Photo by: Payton Chung, public, labelled for reuse.

Monday, January 25, 2016

What makes a city?

During the snowstorm, I sat down to read Luc Sante's The Other Paris (2015) and couldn't put it down. What an amazing book. Sante starts off by saying that "we have forgotten what a city was" because business and government elites have sanitized the city:
The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats -- as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions -- have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds. (pp. 7-8)
Of course, in DC, we have more than our fair share of such newly redeveloped, sanitized places.

Sante then dives into a fascinating world of the other Paris. This isn't the world of the Eiffel Tower, the grand boulevards, or the upper-class residential areas. The other Paris is a world inhabited by shady bars, tiny streets, the "Zone" at the edge of the city, drunks, revolutionaries, and workers of infinite variety, such as prostitutes, criminals, singers, and pliers of strange occupations like zesteuses. This other Paris flourished before 1940 or, at the latest, before 1970. He takes the reader deep into these worlds of the past as a kind of flaneur, strolling through and exploring the city. The images in the book are particularly amazing.

Sante talks about how flaneurs explore the ghostly or dreamlike presences of "composted layers of a thousand eras, and any given moment includes some proportionate blend of all those eras" (p. 31). This made me immediately think of Edward P. Jones' dreamlike collection of short stories Lost in the City about the African American neighborhoods in DC destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s. Jones' characters roam through the city, observing African American social worlds and their boundaries with white worlds. For Sante, dreams and folklore are often the only ways to access these worlds, especially in a city in which so many parts of have been erased.

Sante despairs about the clean up of Paris. Money, power, and desire for security have destroyed the other Paris. Thus, his book is a reminder about "what life was like in cities when they were vivid and savage and uncontrollable as they were for many centuries" (p. 17). I was particularly struck by the value of neglect and decay for cities. In the 1960s, 1970s, and maybe early 1980s, downtown DC had been redlined  (redlining is "arbitrarily denying or limiting financial services to specific neighborhoods, generally because its residents are people of color or are poor"). In this area neglected by banks and investment, people could try out a lot of new ideas very cheaply and the people in the area were relatively open to such experiments. The place flourished with punk shows, cooperatives, etc. And this was a place where low-income people of all sorts could live and have a place in the city. Sante reminds us that, in our current situation, the cleaning up of cities eradicates these worlds.

He rightly condemns the urban renewal of the 1960s and 1970s, which destroyed and redeveloped large areas of cities around the world. Today's redevelopment of cities continues this destruction, as we see along the Waterfront. Yet, some of the products of urban renewal, such as public housing, the War on Poverty funding, and the general neglect of cities allowed for the non-sanitized lifeblood of the city to be rejuvenated.

One could say that things are always changing in cities, but the sanitizing of cities in the 19th century and today has destroyed what makes cities great: "The small has been consumed by the big, the poor have been evicted by the rich, the drifters are behind glass in museums. Everything that was once directly lived has moved away into representation" (p. 271). Sante concludes:
The history of Paris teaches us that beauty is a by-product of danger, that liberty is at best a consequence of neglect, that wisdom is entwined with decay. Any Paris of the future that is neither a frozen artifact nor an inhabited holding company will perforce involve fear, dirt, sloth, ruin, and accident. It will entail the continual experience of uncertainty, because the only certainty is death. (p. 271)
Maybe we should go in search of what makes DC a great city in the dirt, decay, and neglect?

P.S.  And we could look at the deadzones?