When her name came up, she was shown a unit on another side of town. “But I prayed and hoped that Barry Farm would come up on the list next — and it did,” says Belt, who is now the president of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association. The unit had chipping paint on the front and back doors, cabinets in need of repair, and unfinished flooring. But Belt knew her neighbors, and she liked that everyone looked out for one another. “I was like, I don’t care. I’ll take it because it will be either this or homeless,” she says.
Barry Farm Dwellings, once made up of 444 housing units, is now a ghost town of boarded-up buildings. As part of a District effort to redevelop low-income areas, it is slated to be replaced by a residential and retail complex with 1,400 units — including 380 that will replace the previous public housing units. (An additional 100 units are being developed off-site for former Barry Farm tenants.)
Residents initially advocated for a “build-first” construction model under which the redevelopment would have taken place in stages so that existing buildings were torn down only after new ones had gone up — allowing some residents to move from old to new units without having to leave Barry Farm. But that request “was never honored,” says Daniel del Pielago, the organizing director for nonprofit group Empower DC. By early 2019, the city began mandating that residents relocate.
“It doesn’t feel like home where I am now,” says Belt, who moved to Northeast last February. She has a longer commute, her daughter’s friends are scattered across the city, and the family had to give up their two dogs because her new building doesn’t allow pets. “That was really hard for my daughter,” Belt says, “because she had them since she was a baby.”
While Barry Farm residents lost the battle to stay in their homes during construction, they’ve taken up another challenge: getting the complex listed as a D.C. historic site. This would preserve some of the buildings as housing or as a museum; it could also preserve the site’s historic street grid.
Public housing projects may not strike some as worthy of landmark status in terms of architecture, but many have storied pasts. Barry Farm, in particular, has been part of many cultural shifts in Washington. African American residents — including a son of Frederick Douglass, Charles R. Douglass — bought land and built their homes at the site after the Civil War. In 1941, the government set aside 34 acres to build Barry Farm Dwellings, whose residents went on to desegregate public schools, found welfare rights groups and contribute to D.C.’s flourishing go-go scene in the late ’70s and ’80s.
The tenants association and Empower DC documented these contributions in their April 2019 petition for historic status for Barry Farm Dwellings. By then, about half the buildings had been demolished. “We knew that if something wasn’t done quickly that those buildings and that history would be lost forever,” says del Pielago.
On Oct. 31, 2019, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board announced its intent to designate part of the complex as historic and asked the housing authority and its nonprofit developer to work with tenants to choose which parts those would be. But they couldn’t reach a deal and the board has since given the task to the city’s historic preservation staff, delaying a final decision on historic status until later this year.
If Barry Farm Dwellings is recognized as a landmark, it will share that status with only one other public housing project in Washington: Langston Terrace Dwellings in Northeast, which was designated in 1987. According to National Park Service historian Paul Lusignan, public housing projects are among the most underrepresented property types on the National Register of Historic Places, which sites can qualify for once they clear state board review. Out of the more than 10,700 public housing projects that were built between 1930 and 1980, about 30 are among the 95,000 entries on the list.
Properties must meet certain criteria to be nominated, such as having a distinct design, an association with a significant person or a connection to a historical event. Buildings at the Techwood Homes public housing project in Atlanta, for instance, fit that bill partly because they were dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a show of his support for low-income housing, says Lawrence Vale, a professor at MIT and director of the Resilient Cities Housing Initiative. “So, it was listed not so much because it was a wonderful brick building, but because it was seen as exemplifying the spirit of this early effort to build public housing.”
But public-housing residents who want to preserve their homes “may not even know about the history of their various properties because, let’s face it, that kind of history hasn’t been valued and it hasn’t been conveyed to the people,” says Sabiyha Prince, founding director of research firm AnthroDocs, who interviewed eight former Barry Farm residents about their life stories for a humanities grant while working at Empower DC.
Then there’s the condition of the buildings themselves. “It has to have sufficient physical integrity to convey its historic time period,” Lusignan explains.
“It’s sort of like a terrible loophole,” says Lisa Yun Lee, executive director of the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, where, she noted, the last surviving building in the Jane Addams public housing development was denied landmark status because, as the state preservation board wrote, “the historic context has been lost.” (That surviving building will become the home of Lee’s museum.)
Lee also questions the onerous nomination process. Her museum worked with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to decipher “the archaic language” in the application, she says. Likewise, Barry Farm residents and Empower DC got help from local historian Sarah Jane Shoenfeld.
Finally, the process is not cheap. Including consultant fees for research and preparing the document, it can cost $1,000 to $10,000, says Lusignan. To make applying easier, he and other researchers at NPS and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have created materials to help people find the background they need to support their proposals. Public housing, Lusignan says, has “had an enormous impact on particularly urban culture and should be recognized.”
As for Belt, she is hopeful about Barry Farm’s future. She plans to return there once construction is done. “I look forward to going back and owning [a] property there,” she says. “I look forward to other residents having a stake in being homeowners and owning businesses ... in their community, where they live, where they came from.”
Christina Sturdivant Sani is a writer in Washington.