The 40-block area west of Washington Street known as Parker-Gray, in the northwest quadrant of Old Town Alexandria, has a rich cultural history dating back hundreds of years. But for its residents in 1984, its designation as a local historical district spurred concerns that the label would impose expensive restrictions on home building and repairs.
At the time, a group of residents filed a complaint with the Housing and Urban Development Department to block the historical designation. They were concerned that it would disproportionately affect lower-income African Americans who lived there.
It was one of many times since Parker-Gray attained local historic status that the values of the past clashed with those of the present.
“Parker-Gray’s identity today is different things to different people; there’s no one answer,” said Catherine Miliaras, historic preservation planner for Alexandria, of the challenge of integrating the oft-competing values.
Miliaras and Stephanie Sample, another historic preservation planner for the city, presented a paper last week on Parker-Gray’s planning and preservation efforts in the past 30 years. The two spoke before a standing-room-only crowd at the Lyceum history museum to commemorate the anniversary of Parker-Gray’s local historic designation.
HUD eventually sided with the 1984 Parker-Gray residents in its investigative report, although the federal agency lacked the legal power to enforce its conclusions. But the tension between preserving history and integrating concerns of city dwellers continued as the area and its residents responded to changes in the city’s development and demographics.
The district has a rich heritage as part of Alexandria’s African American community. After the Civil War, when its neighborhoods became a haven for former slaves, the African American population was close to 90 percent. By the 1950s, racial segregation in housing and black-owned business in other parts of the region solidified the identity of the district, known then as Uptown, as a vibrant center of African American life.
“Through policy and practice,” Sample said, “Uptown became the only part of the city where blacks could purchase property.”
The majority of African American businesses in the city — stores, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, restaurants — were centered around Uptown’s Queen and North Henry streets.
Later, the district was renamed to commemorate the Parker-Gray School, which had been named in honor of Sarah Gray and John Parker, two notable black educators during the segregation era. Parts of the Parker-Gray district had been included in the national historic designation of Alexandria’s Old Town area in 1946, but in 2010, the Uptown/Parker-Gray district received its own national historic designation, acknowledging its unique African American heritage and narrative.
Today’s city planners focus preservation efforts on capturing the architectural and cultural history of Parker-Gray.
The red-brick home of civil rights activist and attorney Samuel Tucker, who led the 1939 sit-in to desegregate an Alexandria library two blocks from his home on Queen Street, appears physically unremarkable but is preserved for historical significance.
Another brownstone, built in the Second Empire style popular from the 1860s to the 1880s (with features such as a four-sided mansard roof), is preserved for its architectural value alone.
In 2011, an ad-hoc Parker-Gray working group convened to directly address the ongoing tensions among residents, developers and preservationists. The group came up with the Parker-Gray Residential Reference Guide, which allows for “a much lighter regulatory touch,” Sample said.
The guide includes an economic hardship provision to provide flexibility for residents on making home repairs. It also incorporates Alexandria’s emphasis on green building standards established in its 2008 eco-city charter. Some of the architectural guidelines have loosened, as well, to allow some contemporary forms of architecture that mesh with the district’s classic features.
Today, Parker-Gray is a mix of historic buildings and new construction, including condos, apartments and two affordable housing developments. But the commitment to honoring its past continues. Plans are in the works for an informational kiosk on the district’s history, to be set up later this year in a location to be determined.
Miliaras and Sample pointed out the importance of maintaining the physical structures that link us to the past.
“Markers and memorials, lectures and oral histories can capture and honor cultural significance and meaning,” Miliaras said, “but our collective understanding is greatly enhanced by having a physical building, place or street for understanding the past.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.