Friday, January 27, 2012

Is Restoration Racist?

What are the historical origins of the restoration movement? Was it racist? Is it racist? I have gone back to the beginnings of the restoration movement on Capitol Hill around 1948, which is really very early compared to other areas like Brooklyn. In its 1948-49 plan, the Southeast Citizens' Association set out to promote the remodeling of older buildings to restore the prestige of the area. Working with other organizations, they held remodeling and repainting campaigns. They had early house tours. The Southeast Citizens' Association was an association of homeowners of "the Caucasian race." This Association was quite concerned about African Americans moving into certain areas. In the early 1950s, Elizabeth Kohl Draper wrote about her experiences bringing the restoration movement from Georgetown to Capitol Hill (1). Her very interesting article details who is renovating which blocks. For example:
Mrs. Frank Murray, living at 761 Tenth Street, S.E., has increased her holdings until she owns 25 pieces of property and 32 apartments. Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Wagner at 814 A Street have improved the entire block and are working with Mr. Parker in the 600 block of A Street. Mr. Harry Brogden, a Georgetown realtor, bought 130 Eleventh Street, S.E., in the famous Philadelphia Row and practically all of them are in good hands.
Many examples are very early cases of speculative/investment renovation, which is interesting because it is generally assumed that early restoration was done by individuals for their own use. But what might "good hands" mean? I would guess that all the individuals mentioned in her article were probably white and likely middle- or upper-middle class. The Southeast Citizens' Association actively supported racial housing covenants and worked to maintain white-dominant blocks, those blocks held in "good hands." Restoration was seen as a way to attract more white families to the area.

In SW DC, thousands of African Americans' homes were condemned as slums and demolished. DC was madly building public housing to house these and other households. The Southeast Citizens' Association was well-known for its opposition to public housing, since it was seen as African American housing (2). Elizabeth Kohl Draper talked about how the public housing authority in DC, the National Capital Housing Authority, wanted to buy land for public housing:
At present, the National Capital Housing Authority is trying to buy south of Virginia Avenue to make another project. If this happens, many old places that should be preserved will be torn down. If the housing project can be located elsewhere, the northern side of Virginia Avenue, Southeast will doubtless be restored by private enterprise. The entire length of New Jersey Avenue, S.E., should be restored. Some fine old houses are in the 1000 block of New Jersey Avenue, S.E., and if a group of private owners would secure and restore them, they will form an excellent unit. Many white people live in that section and should be encouraged to stay.
Was the restoration movement racist? Is the restoration movement racist?

(1) "Progress Report on the Restoration of Capitol Hill Southeast," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, DC, Vol. 1951/1952.
William R. Barnes. 1980. "A Battle for Washington: Ideology, Racism, and Self-Interest in the Controversy over Public Housing, 1943-1946," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., Vol. 50.


  1. great article.
    there are some interesting things about the restoration movement being racist. in dc, "citizens associations" were usually all white. "civic associations" were black. in my time, i've rarely ever seen black households dramatically reshape their houses in any kind of remodeling project, but i have seen many white households create pop ups or take out interior walls or dig out basements.

    certainly to this day there is a greater concern for the integrity of white neighborhoods over black neighborhoods. this plays out a lot even in the simple aspect of what people call neighborhoods, especially when they harken to older, whiter times. the urbanist movement, like the urban renewal movement, is mostly spearheaded by white people that know better than others. while the notion of being racist is certainly not as popular as it was, racism is still in the mix. sure, now we talk about things in much more specific wording, so that it comes across as educated, erudite, "sustainable" , etc.. and everyone is quick to say things like " it's classist, not racist", it is hard to deny that the end result is mostly white people using their systems of beliefs telling mostly black people what to do. again and again.

    and to be clear, i'm not complaining or implying malicious intent. everyone is just trying to do the best they know. i would just like to note that there are different priorities in different communities. racism is far far deeper than "i don't like black people" It is also engrained in the process by which many come to think of what is "best", their whole system of beliefs. this includes restoration and urbanism. it's hard to have any real conversation about racism because we don't all agree on what the term even means.

  2. Whatever you think about renovators, could we consider some historical context before leaping to connect them with racism?

    During the ‘30’s – ‘50’s there were a series of plans to relieve congestion in the northwest quadrant by moving government offices to this neighborhood, complemented by a network of freeways to reroute traffic. Residents couldn’t be absolutely certain that their houses would stand from one year to the next. Furthermore, when Elizabeth Draper gave her talk in 1952 this section of the southeast quadrant was widely identified as a blighted area of no importance. Residents were beginning to fight back with efforts to demonstrate that this was a lovely, viable residential neighborhood, a valuable community cared for by its people, not a slum. There was a parallel black Southeast Civic Association and eventually a tediously complicated relationship among many community organizations fending off the blight perception and also encroachment by the government and other parties wanting to tear the place down and redevelop.

    If you read all of Mrs. Draper’s speech you will see that she was laying out an argument aimed at those parties. That is, the neighborhood was cleaning up its act at its own expense, people involved had resources, and they were organized. “Good hands,” is not racist code. I use it myself, as in, the little old store on C Street was razed recently after the roof caved in because it was not in “good hands.” Mrs. Draper was pointing out that the owners and residents were responsible stewards, not slumlords. It’s simply a fact that without good stewardship our houses tend to fall apart. The race of the steward is of no consequence, and after reading the whole address, I didn’t see any indication at all that she thought there was.

    In her opposition to another public housing development on Virginia Avenue, Mrs. Draper was referring to the fact that the new project required demolishing about 400 old houses that were working class homes for both blacks and whites. Recall that this was 1952 and plans for integration in new housing projects were still about a year off. The nearby earlier Carrollsburg project was designated black-segregated, and so, presumably, would the new one be. Mrs. Draper would have known that the white inhabitants who were losing their houses would move away by necessity, unless relocating the site for the new project would leave existing – integrated – housing stock intact and encourage private money to improve it. That’s what she was talking about when she said, “Many white people live in that section and should be encouraged to stay.” Improving existing housing could benefit families of both races and preserve the historical social and architectural fabric of the area. That’s rosy, but it’s too bad they didn’t try this approach in southwest.

    Mrs. Draper drew attention to renovation efforts by a number of specific people. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the houses she cited were in the path of planned freeways or on/off ramps or situated in the shadow of the growing House of Representatives. Anyone who wants to read racist motives into the mix will be cheered to know that subsequently many of these homes, about 100, were condemned without public hearing and demolished by the government. The fight for the neighborhood continued for many more years, fortunately with more success when it came to the enormous East Mall project or the freeway leg up 11th Street. At least in that regard, we owe our homes to the “restoration movement.”


  3. Your post and the subsequent comments (especially the notion of "blight perception" in the mid 20th century) makes me think that it is a complex situation that the label "racist" obscures. I do think that strictly speaking any neighborhood considered under a blight was probably an African American neighborhood in the 1940s... and, no excuse, this is probably the attitude of the white government officials who wanted to take over the neighborhoods -- easy to defend (for them) and typical of an overall attitude towards DC that the Congress has had for a long time. The white response was to form a respectable historical architecture movement: doesn't it require a sort of education, a refinement, and an appreciation for history to keep old buildings? So, rather than racist, I might say elitist. I'd be curious what approach the SE Civic Association took to preserve communities to see if they were trying to appeal to a white elitist consciousness or something else.

    And of course I'm no expert on this, but I have seen historical letters from the mid-1950s in my work that talk about property ownership in the area around 11th and M SE as being "bad" because of the race of the population there (not white).


Due to spammers, I am restricting comments.