Urban Renewal: So what were you thinking?

I’ve been meaning to getting around to talking about a lovely record group at the National Archives. If you go to their OPAC called ARC and throw in the phrase “National Capitol Planning Commission” you will find a slew of series that pertain to the history and development of the District of Columbia. Records Relating to Urban Renewal (ARC ID# 784266) do contain a lot of info about Shaw and other areas that got ‘renewed’ in the middle of the 20th Century. Another series I want to focus on in this post are the Transcripts of Proceedings and Minutes of Meetings, 01/1924 – 12/02/1999 (ARC ID# 1571319).
At the 1962 September Open Session Meeting of the Commission (9/13/1962), when speaking about the Northeast No. 1 Urban Renewal Project, Brig. General F.J. Clarke made the statement:

Urban Renewal, as presently thought of, may be separated into 2 principal categories: First, being those actions which are concerned with preventing future slums, namely improved planning, improved codes, etc.; and, 2nd, the elimination of existing slum or blighted areas.
In this category of eliminating existing slums, the primary purpose of urban renewal is the elimination of slum or blighted areas by various means: acquisition and demolition of structures; the rehabilitation of existing structures; installation of public facilities, and other measures.
Secondarily in purpose but not in importance is the prevention of the recurrence of slum and blighted conditions again in the redeveloped or renewed area.

There’s more, but I don’t feel like transcribing it right now. It points a bit to the thinking of the ‘why’. It’s getting to the what, that makes things interesting.

People over things

This comes out of some email correspondence I had this week about an inquiry about a Shaw house’s history. Sometimes you can find the date of when something was built, sometimes not. The date on my lovely domicile is based on tax records, one year it’s taxed as land, next year land and an improvement, no permit, and zilch about a builder. However, my interest in structures, my own particularly, is based on maintenance and bases for complaints when it comes to maintenance and the inadequacies of the building.
I have a greater interest in flesh and blood than bricks and mortar. People do things, they go to work, they have families, they have relationships, they have a story, and the place where they live is absolutely uninteresting without them.
And the people I’m most interested in are the ones who lived around here. This is to differentiate from the landlords who most likely, didn’t. I’m picking up from some of you a thinking that the focus should be on the property owner. Maybe in other parts of the country, maybe the place where you came from, people built and bought homes to live in. Maybe they made their little plot, a family home, where at least one generation would remember it fondly as the place they grew up and a place to return. Not the case here. The owners were landlords, their family homes were elsewhere. In the case of the woman who once owned my house, it was just another investment, something that could be bought and sold and rented out for income.
From the 1880 to 1930 census stuff I’ve seen, there were a lot of renters in the neighborhood. And I’ve noticed these people moved around. I was trying to find out who was the earliest family to live at a certain TC house on the 1500 blk of 1st Street. I found the family living there a few years after the date the house was built, and when I went back through the city directory (arranged by name) to see if the house existed a previous year (and it would be confirmed by that family being there in those previous years), that family lived further up 1st in Eckington.
The fun question then becomes, why move around? Why stay in a place for only a few years only to move 1/4 mile somewhere else? Why can’t you stay in one spot? The building just sits there, and doesn’t generate a lot of questions for me. The building is the backdrop, the scenery, the stage, but the play is nothing without the performers.
I’ve rambled enough, but sometime later I want to return to the idea of what it means to be an area with a very restless renter population.

Clio shines upon DC History

I got my wish that the Historical Society’s library/archive be open on Saturday and lo and behold I got the following email:

Exciting News from the Historical Society of Washington

Kiplinger Research Library Open FIVE DAYS a week !
Tuesday – Saturday
For the first time in years, beginning tomorrow January 4, the Library will be open on Friday and Saturday in addition to the regular Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday schedule. Open from 10 – 5pm. Come on down! Call 202-383-1850 with questions.

Now another resource to comb for my personal interpretation of history.

Fun with the Census: Housing data 1890-1930

Okay, I am a bad researcher. There is a Census report that I’ve probably photocopied several times but I keep losing it, and forgetting it’s exact title. So in that vein, I share with y’all a portion of a census report that I failed to copy the title page for…
In 1890 25.5% of District homes were owner occupied, 74.5% were rentals. 1900, 23.4 owned, 73.5% rented, and then there is a tenure unknown part that I’m just going to ignore. 1910, 24.4 owned, 72.3 rented. 1920, 29.6 owned, 68.3 rented. 1930, 37.6 owned, 59.9 rented.
Now in the then Census tracts of 10 & 11, 10 being N. Cap, K, 7th and S, and 11 being 7th, K, 15th and S, there are some fun demographics for 1930. Tract 10 was 17.8% native white, 6.2 foreign white, and 75.5 Negro. Tract 11, was 51.7% native white, 8.4 foreign white and 39.7 black. Track 10 had the highest percentage of African Americans in the District in 1930, compared to all the other tracks. Anacostia at the time, Tract 30, was only 24% Negro.

Stuff at the DC Archives

Okay there is a lot of history stuff from this weekend with the Washington Historical Conference and an email that went out regarding historic preservation that raised one of my eyebrows.
I was happy to stumble upon the DC Archives desk because the web presence of this part of the DC government is like nil. I had a researcher friend complain that he couldn’t find any information about hours, or contact info to save his life. It’s there, just not terribly easy to find like the Washingtonia collection or the Historical Society’s archive.
The DC Archives is at 1300 Naylor Court, NW (office 202 671 1105, fax 202 727 6076) and off the top of my head they have regular office hours. So they are right in Shaw, not too far from the Convention Center.
At the desk I got a list of the different series the archives has and here are a few highlights:

Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs:
Building/Construction/ Alternation Permits & Plans (1949-1995)

Department of Public Works:
Plans of Demolished Buildings (1900-1979)

Department of Housing and Community Development
Redevelopment Land Agency Records (1965-1976)
Shaw & H Street Building Survey Forms (1968-1972)
14th Street & Downtown Survey Forms (1968-1974)
Organizational Records, includes annual reports, history, etc (1934-1987)

Not on the list but I think it was confirmed that the records for a department that condemned buildings may be at the archives as well. I’m very interested in those.

Home Rule

For work, I’m trying to get a better understanding of Home Rule. Not the cool store on 14th, but the District of Columbia getting more control over local functions that were run/directed by the Federal government. The District of Columbia Self-Government and Reorganization Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-198, 93rd Congress, S. 1435, 12/24/1973) was the thing that gave us Home Rule. Home Rule as in getting a city elected mayor (before, they were appointed) and city council. Also in the period of Home Rule we got our beloved Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in 1975, boundaries established and the system started in 1975, ANCs got elected the following year.
Though I’m not seeing a direct 1 to 1, it seems that ANCs replaced the old civic/citizen association role. The civic/citizen associations were the neighborhood level (there were also block groups, but that’s too small) advocacy groups.

References:
“Civic groups vie with neighborhood commissions” Washington Post, Walterene Swanston: Jul 21, 1977. (p. DC-6)

Are we there yet?

In the 50s-60s the Feds and locals came up with the Shaw School Urban Renewal Area (SSURA) plan. My question, it being 2007 and all, well I was wondering, are we done yet? Has Shaw been urbanly renewed? Or is it one of those government things that will never die and 30 years from now Shaw will still be renewing? Is there a DC neighborhood that has been renewed and the authors of it have placed their hands on their hips, struck a profile, and announced that their work is now done? If so did they get what they planned for?

History, memory, and stuff

It’s been well over a decade since I’ve had to take a historiography course and several years since I’ve had to study and read about bias in public history. One book that I know I’ve read for the public history portion of a museum class was Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays by Mike Wallace. Another book, which I have not read is A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston by Stephanie E. Yuhl, and from the reviews it seems to tell of a ‘history’ story shaped by a particular social group via selective building preservation and appropriating aspects of the African-American story that did not undermine their own. Both point to how history has been used and as Wallace asserts, abused. Wallace provides an example of President Ronald Reagan’s style of storytelling that supported whatever conservative point he was trying to make. One example was the story of immigrants’ coming to America, the land of opportunity, and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. This image glossed over the discrimination, poverty and other things faced by those immigrants, Wallace points out. A jewel from Yuhl’s book:

“Similarly, Charleston’s heritage trade was an ideological construct that enabled a small group of elite whites to perpetrate their selective historical memories and peddle them to eager tourists in a highly consumable form.”

Bringing this down to the local level, Shaw has a story, which in it’s most basic form is fine. That story being, black people lived here, black notables lived within the borders we know as Shaw, Dunbar was a the top African American high school in the country, and U Street was only second to Harlem. Okay, maybe some other cities may argue that last point, whatever. One of the problems in it’s retelling, and these can be considered really minuscule problems, the Jewish/Italian/general immigrant story seem less real in the face of this popular story. Another small problem I see, is some unnecessary straw grabbing, such as claiming notables who lived in other neighborhoods, like LeDroit Park. And maybe a more important problem is selective memory and the sin of omission, that retells the popular story by picking and choosing the nicest parts, ignoring the huge social problem that made the area a target for urban renewal. The popular story doesn’t tell where the black middle class went after the golden age, it doesn’t explain why there are so many social services here and why the area became ripe for gentrification and street crime. It doesn’t tell the long sad tale of housing, vacancy, slum lords, and programs that fell a little short due to cronyism and inflation. It does tell the story of the riots, the hint that there was something amiss. Messy history with still lingering sore points isn’t exactly highly consumable for the tourist crowd.

Research can be fun

Semi-stolen from my other blog….
Well this lovely fourth of July was not as alcohol soaked as I may have let on. In fact the only drink I had was communion wine and one pina colada. But this weekend shall be fondly remembered as the research weekend.
The MLK Library’s Washintonia collection was useless to me. Mainly cause it was closed. I mean I looked at their website and they only mentioned being closed on the 4th, not the 3rd or the 5th, as their sign clearly said on the door. So not to be deterred I wandered over to the Historical Society at Mt. Vernon Sq. Well I swear their Real Estate maps from 1887 are in much better shape than and at MLK. Sadly the Historical Society’s library is not the best when it comes to reproducing what you found.
I was able to look at these great maps of the neighborhood and see how old some of these places are. My papers when I bought my crumbly pair of bricks and board said the house was built in 1900. Not so. It sits on the 1887 map. But that’s not all. In the 1940s and 1950s a guy (if I took better notes I’d have the name) went around DC taking pictures of different neighborhoods. Well I thought my neighborhood was sooooo uninteresting he wouldn’t have wasted film in my hood. Well he did and I found a picture of my street as well as the neighborhing areas. Woo hoo!