If You Build It, They Will Leave

During the New Deal, Southwest DC was razed to create a “model city” for federal workers. Now the area is being redeveloped again, this time into a gentrified urban playground.

Then

Carl Mydans, 1935

Washington, D.C.

Then

Carl Mydans, 1935

Washington, D.C.

In 1930, the Annual Report of the Public Buildings Commission quoted President Calvin Coolidge’s aspirations for Washington, D.C.: “If our country wishes to compete with others, let it not be in the support of armaments but in making of a beautiful Capital City. Let it express the soul of America.”

While Coolidge spoke of a “beautiful Capital City,” many of D.C.’s poorest residents were living in alley dwellings, the majority of whom were African American. After the Civil War, freed slaves had migrated to D.C. in waves, looking for better opportunities, but a housing shortage would eventually force a majority of the burgeoning African-American population into alley dwellings—cheaply built housing structures on the properties of wealthy white individuals, which faced in toward the alley instead of the street. Blight caused from overcrowding and a lack of sanitation, as well as dominant racist attitudes, created an image of alley life as a “breeding ground for vice and disease,” as President Theodore Roosevelt described these D.C. neighborhoods in a message to Congress in 1904. The federal government oversaw D.C.’s affairs until the early 1970s when it received Home Rule, so its urban blight was an order of national interest. For decades, housing reformers, health advocates, and lawmakers argued that the city should abolish alley dwellings all together.

Alley dwelling near Union Station in Washington, D.C. showing crowded, tiny backyards. Courtesy of Library of Congress
Alley dwellings near the office buildings for the House of Representatives. Courtesy of Library of Congress

During the 1930s, documentary photographers from the Farm Security Administration—including Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Esther Bubley, and Edwin Rosskam—documented these often-squalid communities. Some of these photographs appear to be formal portraits of black men and women standing outside their homes; often they stand in their doorways with their whole families, posing for the camera. Other residents seem to have been taken by surprise by the photographer; some hide their faces. Still others are undisturbed by the intruders with their cameras, and go about their daily lives.

To clear out D.C.’s alleys, Congress established the Alley Dwelling Authority (ADA) on June 12, 1934, funded by the Works Progress Administration. The ADA was given the power to convert any inhabited alley into private, public, or commercial use, making it in effect the first local housing authority in the nation. But the ADA was faced with opposition when trying to create low-income public housing for displaced alley dwellers: white residents already living in those communities rejected the idea of living alongside black families.

Houses near the Capitol. Government workers didn’t want to live here because of the proximity to alley dwellings. Courtesy of Library of Congress
Slum area near congressional office buildings. Many of these houses have outside toilets. Courtesy of Library of Congress

White residents worked with real estate developers to push back against government development, asserting “that private builders could do a better job providing housing for low-income residents than any public authority,” writes historian Howard Gillette Jr. in his 2006 book Between Justice and Beauty. This along with a growing movement across the country to eliminate so-called urban blight influenced Congress to set up the District of Columbia Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) in 1945, which was charged with assembling land parcels for resale to private developers to address the “blighting factors or causes of blight” in the city, taking authority away from the ADA

The RLA started by addressing the quadrant of Southwest D.C. It was close to downtown office jobs and included many alley dwellings, so it was seen as having the most potential for being made over as a “model city” for federal workers. After surveying the area, the RLA’s initial plan was to revitalize most of the blighted homes, but the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency refused to finance the RLA’s rehabilitation plan, preferring to totally rebuild. The RLA went on to create a renewal plan in Southwest which would displace the tight-knit communities of African Americans and Jewish immigrants then living in the area.

An alley dwelling neighborhood near the Capitol. Courtesy of Library of Congress

During the 1940s and 50s, the renewal plan made use of eminent domain: the right of the government to take private property and provide just compensation to the owner under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. When businesses sued to keep their properties, claiming the blight did not affect them, a unanimous Supreme Court sided with the federal government in the landmark 1954 Berman v Parker case, which justified the total rebuilding of Southwest and expanded “public use” to integrate social, aesthetic and monetary benefits. Justice William Douglas wrote, “It is within the power of the legislature ... to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled.” The case expanded the public use limitation on what the government could claim, setting national precedent.

From the early 1950s through the early ‘70s, 99 percent of buildings on 560 acres of land in Southwest DC were razed, displacing 23,000 residents and 1,500 businesses—the largest development effort ever undertaken by the US government at the time of its initiation. Many Southwest residents relocated across the river to the D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia, while others were scattered throughout the city, sometimes ending up in conditions as poor as the ones they had been evicted from.

Southwest D.C. became a prototype for the national urban renewal movement through the 1960s, until strong community opposition and public criticism stopped what writer James Baldwin would later come to call “Negro removal” in an interview with Kenneth Clark in 1963, following a meeting with US Attorney Robert Kennedy and other cultural leaders in an attempt to improve race relations in the country.

Years of civil unrest around the country and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, forced President Lyndon Johnson to write a letter on April 5 to the House of Representatives urging them to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act. It was enacted on April 11, which federally enforced equal housing opportunities for all regardless of race, religion, or national origin.

Then

Carl Mydans, 1935

Washington, D.C.

Now

Gabriella Demczuk, 2018

Washington, D.C.

Now

Gabriella Demczuk, 2018

Washington, D.C.

Cranes dot the skyline of the Southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., which is experiencing a resurgence of development. The 2015 Southwest Neighborhood Plan, approved by D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser and City Council, targets roughly the same areas that were tapped for urban renewal in the mid-20th century. Focused on increasing revenue and supplying a growing demand for higher-income housing, the plan is intended to attract young professionals by creating luxury rentals. In effect, it will increase home prices and rent throughout the area, which, until now, has remained considerably more affordable than the rest of the city.

Greenleaf Gardens, a public housing complex built in 1959, took in residents displaced by the first wave of redevelopment in Southwest DC. Now it is slated for demolition, and the city has reassured the residents that no one will be displaced.
Carrollsburg, a condominium complex built during the post-war urban renewal era.
Missing bricks along the pathway at Southwest Waterfront Park, constructed during post-war urban renewal.

The plan acknowledges that this “can be unaffordable for households with moderate or lower incomes or households with multiple children.” The majority of households with children in Southwest D.C. live in subsidized housing, the largest of which is the public housing project Greenleaf Gardens. Greenleaf’s 15 acres of townhouses and mid-rise apartments are now in danger of being redeveloped into a combination of mixed-income high-rises and townhouses. While all existing units will be replaced at the same level of affordability, the District of Columbia Housing Authority states that “units receiving operating subsidy must be operated as public housing for ten years after cessation of the subsidy,” giving the new development the ability to end its public housing program after ten years.

The Leo at Waterfront Station, a new luxury apartment complex. This new housing is oriented towards young professionals and can be unaffordable for households with moderate or lower incomes.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has declared that he wants to slash his department’s budget and drastically raise rents for those living in public housing across the country. This could mean paying a significantly higher cut of their salary for housing, or hundreds more dollars a year—a huge increase for those barely getting by. Southwest D.C.’s low-income residents are fearful of being priced out of their neighborhood, a sentiment reinforced by the district’s fraught history of urban renewal and displacement.

The workers of Jessie Taylor Seafood serve customers at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, the oldest continuously operating fish market in the country.
The Randall School, built in 1906 for for African American youth, will be redeveloped into a mixed-use residential and commercial space.
Interstate 395 cuts through Southwest Washington, DC, running parallel to private town homes.

The Southwest Neighborhood Plan includes the development of District Wharf—a $2.5 billion, mile-long project that will combine luxury apartments and condos, “curated” high-end restaurants and retail, and entertainment venues, in hopes of redefining D.C. as a world-class waterfront city. Construction of the Wharf, as it’s commonly known, has already pushed out local businesses, including Jenny’s Asian, a staple within the Southwest community for over 30 years, and the Gangplank Marina houseboat community, which may have to relocate further down river. Developers have reassured locals that the Wharf will bring employment opportunities, and that a percentage of new housing will be reserved for low- to moderate- income households, maintaining the “diversity” of the neighborhood.

The Randall Recreation Center is adjacent to the new Novel Capitol View mixed use residential high rise, which took the place of a former McDonald's.

I grew up in the D.C. area and I’ve seen the city change both physically and economically. The construction cranes across the city—Washington’s newest monuments—have become emblematic of the city’s rapid economic growth during the past decade. These photographs are a visual record of both the historical redevelopment and sites of new development that continue to recreate the area and reshape its identity. Just like a living organism, a city neighborhood must shift and evolve to adapt to its time, and Southwest D.C. has fought to do so on its own terms. With each new wave of migration, it has undergone a total transformation, creating a space that is unknown and oftentimes unwelcoming to the community that is already there.

The empty lot adjacent to Amidon-Bowen Elementary School is the planned site of the new National Shakespeare Theatre, which is opposed by the neighborhood.
A rose bush adorns the front of the Carrollsburg condominium complex.
Renderings for District Wharf, a new $2.5 billion mile long waterfront development in Southwest.

The “diversity” that D.C. and its developers claim to foster is mainly a curated one, in which they pave the way for more transient, higher-income people to move in and support the district’s economy. The question moving forward is how the district will support all its residents, to ensure that each individual is lifted by the rising tide of a prospering city.

A man looks out at the Potomac River next to the Gangplank Marina on the waterfront, which will be relocated further down river.

Gabriella Demczuk is a photographer, journalist and printmaker based in Washington, DC. She studied fine arts and journalism at the George Washington University and photography at the Parsons School in Paris. She has been recognized by The White House News Photographers Association, American Photography, The Magnum Foundation, PDN 30, Politico Playbook’s Power List and the Presidential Scholar in the Arts.

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