The City of Failed Intentions

           Washington, D.C., was founded in 1790 following the design of Pierre L’Enfant, a French architect commissioned by George Washington. According to L´Enfant biographer Scott Berg, “the entire city was built around the idea that every citizen was equally important,” but to build a city, cheap labor was required. Enslaved African Americans at that time outnumbered white population five to one. In retrospect, it´s hard to understand the paradox of a city that was planned for equality being built by enslaved African Americans.

           L´Enfant´s design marked the shape, form and limitations of the city until the present time. The Capitol Building, one of the most symbolic pieces of architecture in the city and in the country, was located on a higher point that overlooks the city of Washington on the eastern end of what became the National Mall, filled with impeccable marble neoclassical buildings and iconic monuments that commemorate the nation’s history and ideals.

           The medallion located in the crypt under the Rotunda of the Capitol determines the organization of the city. From its center radiate the four ordinal directions that organize the city into four quadrants, northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest. These quadrants are divided on the city’s north-south axis by North Capitol and South Capitol Streets and its east-west axis by East Capitol Street and the National Mall.

           Just a few blocks south from the UnitedStates Capitol and its pristine surroundings are two of the most contrasting examples of social segregation in Washington, D.C., the southwest and southeast quadrants. Historically poor and African American, these quadrants have seen their communities destroyed and displaced in the name of improvement and revitalization more than once.

Crossing South Capitol Street, Southeast

           Just a few blocks away from SouthCapitol Street, the incessant sound of drilling and banging and the dance of the cranes from the massive construction site right next to his house keep Will Randolph company as he rushes to leave home for work. Randolph   doesn´t complain. He and Leisha Randolph, his mother, got an offer to move into theCapitol Quarter townhouses, a sought-after development located in southeast, after they were displaced because the public housing project where they were living in northwest got funding from a federal grant to go under renovation.

           The CapitolQuarter Community, built in 2009, replaced the former ArthurCapper/Carrollsburg housing project, a 1950s, mostly African-American community that had fallen into disrepair and was filled with crime. The idea of demolishing the complex to make way for a new, mixed community, more suitable for the vision of the Capitol Riverfront, a revitalization project on the waterfront area, was imminent from the moment the plans to redevelop the area began. Since 1999, a $600 million investment has gone right into cleaning up the strip clubs, car lots and empty properties surrounding the housing project in the southeast quadrant. The plan to start construction of a brand-new baseball stadium that opened in 2008 wasn´t limited to the stadium, the whole area went through a process of revitalization that continues to this date. The stadium and the Capitol Riverfront project on the waterfront triggered the construction of a high number of apartments, condominiums and office buildings, bringing close to 11,000 new households to the area and turning it into the densest area in Washington, with mixed-income buildings, business centers and an entertainment district with a waterfront location.

            The promise made to the original residents of returning to a new and improved neighborhood proved true for only a few. Just 12 percent of the original residents of Arthur Capper were able to return to the place they had known as home. Formerly hosting 707 households, the new project includes 138 market-rate townhouses, 76 medium-income units, 13 ownership units and 86 subsidized rental units. Randolph and his mom live in the latter. They can afford it by paying only a percentage of his salary as rent instead of a fixed-market price. The project was originally set up to provide residents who were living there prior to the renovation better conditions than the ones they formerly had, but the new properties are targeted for higher income brackets, with market prices ranging from $600,000 to $1,000,000 and above. Of the 313 newly developed units, only 114 are occupied by former residents.

           With 707 units, it was difficult to reincorporate all of the original dwellers. The majority of them were located to other public housing projects and a few others were given the chance to move back in, but many of the returning dwellers are struggling to remain in the area. In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, Sue Popkin, then director of the DC Housing Authority said, “We are undertaking a great experiment to see if we can turn around distressed neighborhoods and keep the original residents there to benefit. But it´s a gamble. We don´t know how to take a terrible neighborhood and make it nice while keeping the same people there.”

            In “ArthurCapper, an oral history project”, conducted in 2015 by Sociologist Johanna Bockman from George Mason University, there are several testimonies of residents feeling betrayed by the fact that they never got to voice their concerns about being displaced from the place they recognized as home; taken away from their old jobs and schools. To these people the story repeats again while they see their communities disappear to serve the interests of privileged urban development and gentrification. Years of segregation and urban redevelopment have left their mark on the city’s under privileged black residents.

            On any given day, young mothers push their babies in strollers through the spotless streets and the brightly colored townhouses of their neighborhood in southwest, young white professionals jogging or buying their groceries at the5,000-square-foot Harris Teether that opened just in 2014. Here you can find everything that makes a neighborhood desirable. But Randolph and his mother don´t feel that way. From his perspective, the community that is divided between owners and renters doesn´t feel like home. “Many of my neighbors won´t speak to me unless I´m walking my dog. I believe it´s a serious issue when it takes an animal for you to communicate with people. And I´m probably one of the nicest people you will ever meet.” Randolph is a sophisticated, well-dressed, thirty-something, young professional working on HIV prevention who holds a master’s degree in organizational communication, and who is African- American.

            He clearly recognizes the value of living in the Capitol Riverfront. The area is filled with new restaurants and shops and has privileged access to a vibrant outdoor space. But he feels sad for all of those other 593 original households that didn´t get to stay to enjoy all this. “D.C. and its gentrification processes have outpriced the people who were born and who have lived here through generations, sending them to the suburbs. It´s a sad reality.”

            Throughout the years, not only the former site where Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg housing project used to be has changed, but the whole area has morphed to the point of being unrecognizable. Where there once was abandoned industrial space now there is a carefully maintained waterfront. Where there once were vacant lots and scattered construction sites, now there are condos, most of them listed above 500,000k. Where there once were warehouses, now there are high-end restaurants. Where there once were liquor stores, gas stations, strip clubs and car repair shops, now stands a baseball stadium.

            It´s easy to forget how the area once looked and felt. How disinvestment and marginalization lead to poverty and high crime rates. It´s also hard to believe that you just need to cross one street, South Capitol Street, to take a look at southwest today and imagine how southeast must have looked 10 years ago. But most importantly, it takes only one street to realize that a different approach should be taken to prevent the same patterns from repeating, to dignify and preserve the communities that have long lived there and have given character to these areas instead of cleaning them and erasing every single trace of their original inhabitants.

            Let´s now cross to the west side of South Capitol Street.

Crossing Capitol Street, Southwest

           On the corner of South Capitol and N Streets SW, you can see a group of older African American people gathered outside Cap Liquor StoreMost of them are residents of James Creek, Greenleaf and Syphax Gardens, the public housing projects that were built in the 1940s to host an AfricanAmerican, socially disadvantaged population.

           Bounded by SoutheastFreeway, South Capitol Street, the Anacostia River and Maine Avenue, this area hosts a community of approximately 900 households. Built as a combination of mid-rise apartments and townhouses surrounded by gardens, basketball courts and a recreation center, the area has intended to provide a safe and healthy environment to raise a family. But the reality today is very different.

           All around the neighborhood, and especially close to the King Greenleaf Recreation Center on N St SW, there are various small groups of youngsters chatting, laughing and sharing social media statuses on their smartphones. They are all wearing sport clothes, especially jackets and sneakers. The unmistakable smell of pot surrounds them despite there is a police car parked right in front of the “Rec Cen,” as they all call it. “They feel protected when they are on the premises of the Rec Cen, they know the police won´t do anything to them while they are here,” says Sumayyah Muhammad, a resident of Greenleaf mid-rise apartments. “I don´t let my children come down to play here.”

           The southwest quadrant is now going through the same process of transformation that southeast D.C. went through more than a decade ago. A $300 million soccer stadium is under construction, the waterfront area has already been revitalized with a mix of high-rise condos, restaurants and shops, and right in the middle of it, there are the public housing projects. When talking to Muhammad about the changes she has seen in her community, she says, “A few years ago you wouldn´t see white people walking on the street with all these different kinds of dogs you see now. It amazes us, that, you know, when we look around we see a completely new community now.”

           And it´s true. In the 2000 U.S. Census, the makeup of the area was 65 percent African American dwellers, 27 percent white, and 7.8 percent other. But it has changed a lot. The 2010 U.S. Census showed the remaining African American population went down to 54.3 percent and the white population went up 32.3 percent, leaving 13.4 for other races.

           The future of the public housing is uncertain and the hopes of the people living in them are not high. Displacement is imminent; it´s just a matter of time. There are plans to attract at least 12,000 new households to the area and the construction of new condos has already started. Cranes dominate the landscape and the DC Housing Authority has announced plans for the redevelopment of the Greenleaf complex that comprises four blocks near the Waterfront Metro Station and while nothing has been formalized, the uncertainty about the future among the residents is getting stronger.

           Washington D.C. used to be known as Chocolate City because of its high concentration of black residents, but numbers show this is no longer true. According to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, 2011 was the year in which the African-American population in the District of Columbia went below 50 percent for the first time in almost 60 years. “The white population jumped by 31 percent in the past decade, while the black population declined by 11 percent. This demographic change that has been taking place for the last 15 years has affected particularly working-class families that have had to deal with the rising price of rents as well as high property taxes. Black lower- and middle-class families have been forced to move to the suburbs while white young professionals are moving back to the city.”

           Buzzard Point, the farthest part of the southwest quadrant, also known for many years as the forgotten peninsula, once filled with vacant lots, crumbling warehouses and stripper clubs, is undergoing one of the most ambitious redevelopment transformations that area has experienced since the urban renewal movement that took place in the 1950s. In October 2017, the Buzzard Point Waterfront development opened, revealing the same formula as Capitol Riverfront: high-rise apartment buildings, restaurants, shops and more.

           Even though construction sites still dominate the landscape, the Wharf already provides access to restaurants, condo buildings, boutiques and even a concert venue. The only recognizable thing is the fish market on Main Avenue that has been standing there since the 1800s.

           Just a couple of weeks after its grand opening in October 20017, Muhammad went back to take a look at the changes, but she didn’t really know what to feel. “I´m in awe. I don´t know what to say. I wish I could be here and enjoy of all this, but I don´t even know if I´m going to be able to remain living in southwest.”Looking at her surroundings, she says, “I don´t know whom this is being catered to. All this is like looking how the city is setting a buffet table in front of you and you can’t even get a fork to join that table.”  

           Washington,D.C., is among the five most expensive cities to live in the United States. The median annual income for white families in D.C. is $120,000 while it is $40,000for black families, and the latter ones are struggling to remain living in neighborhoods currently under a process of investment and development. The dwellers of public housing projects, where the rent is based on a sliding scale determined by family income, are wondering about when they are going to get notified to move out to give space for new private development.

           From her balcony of the top floor of the Greenleaf mid-rise complex, Muhammad can count at least six different cranes working incessantly. Every other day she stands outside the balcony to check out how the weather looks for the day and to see how the landscape from her window changes.  

            The closest construction site is just a street away. Muhammad remembers how in a community meeting several months ago, residents were told that the construction on that site was going to be a church. The 10-floor structure that’s being erected now looks nothing like the promised church.

            On nice days, Muhammad walks to her job just a few blocks away from home, a beautiful urban garden hidden right behind Blind Whino, a collective arts center located in what used to be the old Friendship Baptist Church of southwest, that was left vacant after the urban renewal process of the 1950s . She is the garden manager of Dreaming Out Loud, a nonprofit that aims to rebuild urban food systems for lower income communities. “There were no food options in the neighborhood, we were a food desert. You got mostly liquor stores, but the Safeway has improved and now to have the Harris Teeter on the other side,” she said. “Anyways I don´t really trust them, their vegetable quality is still really bad sometimes. That´s why I plant and harvest my own food, and I want more people around here to do the same.”

            All of the change the neighborhood has already seen is nothing compared for   what´s still to come. The future for residents like Muhammad is blurry. Ten years from now, the challenge will be to see if the residents of the existing public housing projects were able to remain in the area to benefit from the projected improvement or not.

            It’sclearly not an easy task. The challenge is that residents like Muhammad and her children will be able to remain in an improved, healthier environment than the one they are living in right now. And that those other residents of southwest feel considered and part of the future of the city instead of having their communities cleansed one more time.


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