Who remembers the Irish of Swampoodle? The Jews of Petworth? The working-class whites of Anacostia? The blue-collar black community of Georgetown?
For all but the most serious students of D.C. history, these once-vibrant communities are gone and forgotten, lost to the past in an ever-
changing city that celebrates the new, the famous and the powerful. Yet the fact that those groups no longer live in those neighborhoods and that we know so little about them can help us understand why current discussions of gentrification can be so heated.
Simply put, people do not want to be gone or forgotten.
From our pulpits and papers to our blogs and barbershops, Washingtonians are grappling with a city that is becoming younger, wealthier — and whiter. Fears of displacement and “swagger jacking” meet accusations of “black Columbusing” and reverse racism as demographic changes and development force District residents to confront difficult issues of race, class, power and history.
Displacement and struggles over who “owns” the city have a long history in Washington. Ours is a city both Southern and transient, where the constant churn of newcomers has amplified the importance of place and rootedness.
Tensions between natives intent on protecting their neighborhoods and newcomers seeking a new life have marked the city since its inception. Before and during the Civil War, white city leaders worked actively to prevent black migration, fearing that Washington would become a magnet for free blacks and escaping slaves. After the war, long-standing conservative whites formed the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants to cement their claim on the city as radical white Northerners and former slaves seized political power and swelled the population around them.
In early 20th-century Georgetown, these battles took on a uniquely modern form. At the end of the 19th century, Georgetown was a dingy, working class, industrial port town with a well-established black community. After World War I, young white professionals seeking inexpensive housing “discovered” the area. They pioneered a “revitalization” movement that had an almost obsessive interest in preserving the history of the neighborhood. Indeed, historical preservation itself became a driving force of demographic and community change.
The history that these revitalizers cared about, however, reflected their own class interests. Ignoring the area’s diverse past and deep-rooted, working-class community, they focused instead on its federal-era gentry and sought to recreate that elite lifestyle for themselves. At times their efforts were almost comically ahistorical, as when preservationists refurbished “alley houses” originally built for the poor into “coach houses” for young professionals.
But they were remarkably successful in transforming the neighborhood. Poor and working-class residents, white and black, were kicked out of their apartments or fled rising housing prices, and by the 1950s Georgetown had become an exclusive, white, upper-class enclave. Few residents, then or now, remembered its diverse, blue-collar past.
From Georgetown, a wave of revitalization swept eastward, engulfing Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill in the 1940s and 50s, and Logan Circle, Adams Morgan, Shaw and DuPont Circle in the 1960s and 1970s. Along the way, it generated similar levels of displacement and struggles over history.
In many of the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods today, history remains a contested subject, although with a twist. Rather than ignore working-class or black history, many modern gentrifiers embrace and commoditize it. Developers leverage U Street’s history as “Black Broadway” to sell overpriced condos or cocktails to young professionals. Investors and gentrifying hipsters highlight H Street’s early 20th century heyday as a bustling, working-class commercial strip — a history that sells well as entrepreneurs seek to revive its commercial success by catering to a clientele interested in a gritty “authentic” experience.
In both cases, poor and working-class residents, today almost uniformly black and Latino, are being pushed out of these neighborhoods — the one frightening constant in the history of gentrification in the city. Those who remain often feel alienated from their new neighbors. Many worry that their neighborhoods will wind up becoming a multicultural version of Georgetown — diverse racially, perhaps, but economically restricted to the well-off. Or they fear becoming like Chinatown — an area that pays superficial homage to its roots only as a means of commercial “branding.”
Some African Americans and Latinos are fighting physical displacement and cultural alienation by privileging their own history to make claims on the neighborhoods that they are in the process of losing. Feeling that newcomers want them gone, they are determined that their claim on these neighborhoods not be forgotten. History is one of the few weapons they have in a battle where most of the money and power is on the other side. And in a city where average white wealth is several times that of black and Latino wealth, and housing prices are some of the highest in the country, it is a weak weapon indeed.
Many Washingtonians, native and newcomer alike, do not want “Chocolate City” to go the way of Georgetown or Chinatown, let alone Swampoodle. Remembering and honoring our city’s deep and diverse past is one step in ensuring that does not happen, but it is not enough. We must also help create the conditions in which a diverse population can flourish now and in the future.
The surest way to guarantee that Washington’s threatened communities are not forgotten is to make sure they are not gone.
George Derek Musgrove is an assistant professor of history at University of Maryland Baltimore County and the author of “Rumor Repression and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America (University of Georgia Press, 2012).
Chris Myers Asch is the author of “The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer” (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). They are collaborating on a book about race and democracy in the District.