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?
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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."
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.
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
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?