An interstate slashing through Latino communities in the name of progress. An air-polluting city truck fleet moved from a “commercially viable” gentrifying neighborhood to a lower-income black neighborhood. In the last few weeks, DC and Denver have been busy showcasing the worst of the 20th century’s development ideas—well into the 2010s.
Denver’s new renewal
In the 1950s and ’60s, a philosophy called “urban renewal” was sweeping the nation. Crumbling inner city areas, went the thinking, simply weren’t worth saving. It was better to just knock everything down and start over.
And that’s exactly what urban planners did all across the country. Block by block, city by city, the wrecking balls moved in and cleared old structures out. What determined their path, however, had much more to do with race than it did with a plan for urban growth.
The homes, businesses, churches, and community centers the planners targeted for renewal were almost exclusively owned by people of color. Many communities organized extensively in the face of this theft, and some won decisive victories. But through the use of eminent domain, American cities seized and destroyed whole communities, with the displaced, undercompensated black and Latino families left in their wake shunted along into newly built public housing facilities.
DC has its own history of this practice, with the destruction of functioning black communities along the southwest waterfront something still being felt today.
Southwest DC in 1939, before the majority black neighborhoods were destroyed
The practice largely petered out in the 1970s and ’80s as community groups honed their resistance tactics, winning more and more victories. But Denver is looking to bring back the bad ol’ days with a new interstate expansion.
In a city that is almost 80 percent white, city planners have targeted several majority Latino neighborhoods on the edge of city limits for destruction. Fifty-six homes and 17 businesses would be razed, and the neighborhoods would be cut down the middle by a full decade of construction.
When community groups filed a complaint alleging disparate impact, the federal government admitted that was the case—but decided it wasn’t enough to force a change in plans. Residents aren’t giving up the fight, however, and you can read more about their efforts here.
DC’s pollution distribution
Unlike Denver’s throwback to another era of racist urban planning, DC’s project is part of a long line of cities putting unwanted goods in black neighborhoods. Residents of majority black Langdon Park in Ward 5 recently learned that Department of Parks and Recreation vehicles will soon be rolling into a new home in their neighborhood.
That was only discovered after neighbors noticed activity at the site and did some online searching. The search revealed a lease agreement for the site—and the fact that the city failed to fulfill its legal requirement for notifying residents. ANC officials, who didn’t receive their requisite 30-day notice, were in the dark.
And Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie learned that he also had been illegally kept out of the loop—after investigating, he found that the Council had already unwittingly approved the city’s plan through a 10-day passive approval period last year.
City officials admit their mistake, but they see no reason the project shouldn’t more forward as planned.
The site’s location is problematic because it adds an unwanted good to an already overburdened population. Ward 5 already contains a hugely disproportionate amount of the city’s industrial sites. What’s more, DC, like most American cities, has asthma rates that largely fall along racial lines—black children are far more likely to have respiratory issues than white children.
The addition of more smog-belching trucks to a majority black area of the city, an area that already has too much air pollution and the asthma rates to match, is the stuff of textbooks on environmental racism.
It comes just a few years after a similar fight in Ivy City, Langdon Park’s Ward 5 neighbor, where then-Mayor Vincent Gray announced plans for a new bus depot in another overburdened majority black neighborhood. Mayor Muriel Bowser killed that plan when she came into office, in a win for local residents.
But now she’s advancing an almost identical project. In explaining their decision to move DCPR from its current location in Shaw, the administration stated that the existing site is simply too “commercially desirable” to house vehicles. The burden, then, is intentionally being shifted from a gentrified neighborhood to one with a majority of people of color.
Jeremy Wilcox, the Langdon Park resident who was the first to find the lease agreement, told the Washington Post what it communicates to the neighborhood on no uncertain terms: “We are a dumping ground—Ward 5 is a dumping ground.”
The methods and the scale might be different, but Denver and DC keep putting unwanted goods on the shoulders of people of color. It’s a game American cities have been playing for far too long.