Image: DC’s Southwest Waterfront, a working class black community, before its destruction
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” –George Santayana
Over more than a century, two separate government initiatives resulted in the forceful displacement of 45,000 black Washingtonian families. In 2017, the replacement of those families with a new whiter, wealthier population draws near completion.
At the turn of the 20th century, Georgetown was home to a thriving black community. Excluded from many other neighborhoods close to downtown by racial property covenants, black residents were able to put down roots in Georgetown thanks to the area’s alley dwellings.
The alley dwellings, which were simply in-fill houses that faced towards alleys rather than along a city street, became home to black professionals, business owners, and social groups. At its peak, the community had half a dozen churches throughout Georgetown.
Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Georgetown, early 1900s
But by the 1910s, the area was becoming more desirable to white families—and the importance of segregation was increasing at a national level. In large part driven by a desire to remove Georgetown’s black residents, federal officials declared alley dwellings a public health issue and created a plan for their demolition with the Alley Dwelling Act of 1914.
Certainly the alley dwellings, which often lacked indoor plumbing, were less than ideal for their residents. But neither were they all the unsalvageable monstrosities they were made out to be—with modifications, some still exist today, and they’re worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The campaign to displace black Georgetown continued for decades. By 1950, black residents made up only one-tenth of Georgetown’s population, down from 50 percent or more at its peak. As part of a final push for displacement, the Old Georgetown Act of 1950 was passed. This law included a provision requiring that all Georgetown homes be updated to meet new requirements for historic accuracy, with all plans needing to be approved by a federal oversight board.
Georgetown’s remaining black residents, as the bill’s authors likely realized, were largely unable to meet the expensive new standards. The veracity with which these standards were enforced, however, varied greatly. Stories from that time period tell of black families’ homes being seized for non-compliance, given a new coat of paint, and declared fully restored and ready for resale to white families.
The Southwest Waterfront
By the time Senator John F. Kennedy was buying a Georgetown home in 1957, the theft was complete—Georgetown was almost all white and very wealthy. But across town, another half-century of theft was just getting underway.
“Urban renewal” was all the rage in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. This renewal worked, in theory, by allowing local governments to determine areas where slum housing was prevalent. The local housing department was then empowered to seize these areas through eminent domain and redevelop them as a public good.
As problematic as that may sound, it was actually worse. Time and time again, in city after city, labeling an area a “slum” had much less to do with the condition of the area’s housing, and a great deal to do with the race of that housing’s occupants.
In DC, this process was run directly by the federal government. As we’ve written about before, federal officials declared that the working-class black neighborhood along the Southwest waterfront was, in fact, a slum.
The neighborhood was seized, bulldozed, and then somewhat inexplicably left mostly vacant for decades.
Just this year, the intention of that clearance has been brought to fruition. The first phase of the Wharf, DC’s new mega-development, recently opened along the Southwest waterfront. Despite receiving almost $300 million of public subsidy, it will hold just 180-odd units of affordable housing—with micro-units accounting for a third of that total. The rest of the development’s 650 units, plus hundreds more hotel rooms, will almost certainly cater to a wealthier, whiter clientele.
In this way, the twin processes complete themselves. Georgetown’s black population is long-gone, with government intervention having succeeded in moving their homes to white ownership. The Southwest waterfront neighborhood is resigned to the history books, and a mostly white, wealthy set of newcomers is now enjoying that area’s publicly subsidized amenities.
Through alley clearance and urban renewal, the federal government displaced an estimated 45,000 black Washingtonian families. To deal with the crisis they had wrought, they mandated the creation of a huge public housing network, located almost exclusively east of the Anacostia river. DC still deals with the resulting segregation and concentration of poverty to this day.
The District can and must do better. We can require that deals with public money build more affordable housing. We can support and subsidized projects that would create affordable units in high-income areas. We can increase funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund and the Home Purchase Assistance Program.
And most immediately, we can demand that plans for Phase Two at the Wharf be changed to include more and larger affordable homes. In light of our history, it would be only the smallest of first steps towards repentance.