Friday, January 25, 2013

Reporting from the SE Public Library

Today, I am working on the Arthur Capper Public Housing Oral History Project here at the Southeast Public Library. The library is exceeding pleasant, as usual. I am surprised by how bustling it is today. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in the New Orleans Public Library downtown, which had very few visitors. The Southeast Public Library is a great place to work, especially with the free wifi and the good cheer. Thanks to the wonderful librarians for making this such an inclusive space!

During my research on website design, I happened upon an excellent website "Wide Enough for Our Ambition: D.C.'s Segregated African-American Schools (1807-1954)." The website contains photos and history of these schools in each ward. Ward 6 hosted the first private school for African-American children! The website starts:
Beginning in 1804 with the establishment of public schools exclusively for white children, free African-Americans were taxed at the same rates as whites to subsidize schools where their own children were banned.  In response, the first private school for African-American children was established on Capitol Hill in 1807...Over fifty years later, when Congress mandated that D.C. finally open public schools for African-American children in 1862—also paid for my municipal taxes—those tax dollars were distributed unevenly.  For the rest of the segregated school system's history, African-American schools would be underfunded and overcrowded in comparison to white schools. And yet these schools became a great source of local pride and a model for the rest of the nation.  Washington, D.C. established the first high school in the country for African-American students in 1870.  In the dual system's heyday, from approximately 1890 to 1930, D.C.'s Negro schools were considered the best in the United States.
Thanks to all those who make schools and libraries such wonderful institutions!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Monday, January 21, 2013

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

Today, Eliot-Hine Radio will be reporting live from the inauguration! Yes, students from Ward 6's Eliot-Hine Middle School will broadcast the Inauguration and Inaugural Parade live from John A Wilson Building overlooking Pennsylvania Ave, NW. The program will be carried live online at the following link:

Curious about the students' radio program or their take on this historic day? If you, or your kids, want to ask questions of the student DJs, tweet using the following hashtag #EliotHineRadio. The students will carry the Swearing-In and President Obama's Inaugural Address as a live broadcast, to be followed by interviews and coverage of the Inaugural Parade. Thanks for tuning in and supporting Eliot-Hine Middle School.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Walking the NW Boundary of Ward 6

In 2012, Ward 6 expanded to the northwest to include part of Shaw. Yesterday, I walked half of this new northwest boundary of Ward 6. Here is the current Ward 6 map, which is very well done. The blue line was my walking path, while the peachy line is the rest of the NW boundary that I have yet to walk:

View NW Boundary of Ward 6 in a larger map

I started out from Union Station heading NW on Massachusetts Ave, walking past the 395 freeway and the NPR building. At 7th St, before I got to the Carnegie Library, I turned right and headed north. With the Convention Center on my left, I walked up 7th Street, past the McCollough Paradise Garden Apartments on my right, affordable housing created by United House of Prayer in the 1960s. I turned on M St and into the alley (8th Court) between the McCollough Terrace Apartments and the convention center. Straight ahead of me at the end of the alley was Center City Public Charter School and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. I turned left on N St in front of these buildings and took a right on 9th St, NW.

On 9th St, I passed a non-profit, Reverend Griffin S. Smith Center/ Efforts from Ex-Convicts. Reverend Smith had finished a 10-year sentence for armed robbery and began this non-profit in 1966. Scripture Cathedral Church with its stained glass entrance appeared at O Street. Across O St on 9th is the huge construction site of the City Market development, with a residential complex and restaurant being built at 9th St at P St. Across 9th St on P St, I saw people pouring out of Shiloh Baptist Church, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary (see its history here). My walk continued along P St by the fields of Seaton Elementary School to 11th St. There I became distracted by Logan Circle and left the rest of the walk to another day.

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?