Back in the 1970s, many low-income black D.C. residents began expressing fears that a nefarious scheme was afoot to push them out of the city. They called it “The Plan.” And they were all but laughed out of the city for sounding so paranoid.
But, as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
Take the case of Ivy City residents, whose legal battles with the D.C. government offer evidence that The Plan is not some figment of poor folks’ imagination. And, in many ways, it’s even more dastardly than they thought.
In temporarily halting a District plan to put a bus depot in Ivy City, D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith N. Macaluso ruled Monday that Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration had “deliberately disregarded” laws requiring that residents be informed about how they would be affected by the move. Even worse, the judge found that developers had “evaded environmental screening by mischaracterizing the project” on city documents.
The only difference between this plan and The Plan as low-income people envisioned it is that instead of being pushed out by whites returning to take over the city, they were being pushed out by black elected officials operating as if in the employ of developers.
Union Station developers wanted a depot to keep buses that bring tourists to and from the station so merchants could sell fast food and souvenirs. Investors wanted to make a profit, city officials more tax dollars — for more bike lanes and dog parks, no doubt.
And if a bunch of low-income residents would have to breathe air filled with carcinogenic diesel exhaust to make it happen, so be it. Kill two birds with one stone.
You want to get rid of poor people? Raise their hopes by promising to renovate a historic African American landmark in their community, as Gray did to the people of Ivy City — but then turn around and break their hearts by trying to turn the site into a bus depot.
Tell Ivy City residents that the former Alexander Crummell School, named for an abolitionist who devoted his life to the uplift of black people, will be turned into a community center worthy of its namesake.
Then let them find out that instead of bringing new life to the neighborhood, you’ll be hastening the death of its residents — some of whom are children and elderly who suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
According to the city’s own comprehensive “master plan,” Ivy City will be made “green” and have lots of amenities in the near future. The question has always been who will be there to enjoy it? If gentrification in other parts of the city is any guide, the answer will more likely be newcomers with money rather than the poor folks who live there now.
Except that Ivy City, along New York Avenue about a dozen blocks east of North Capitol Street, is not like most other low-income neighborhoods. With their health and safety, actually their very lives, being threatened by the proposed bus depot, the residents fought back. They organized with help from a grass-roots group called Empower DC, held protest rallies and confronted city officials at public events.
The fight was led by Andria Swanson, president of the Ivy City Neighborhood Association, along with Ivy City residents Sheba Alexander, Jeanette Carter and Vaughn Bennett, and Empower DC co-founder Parisa Norouzi, among others. D.C. lawyer Johnny Barnes represented them in court.
After Macaluso’s ruling, Ivy City residents gathered for a celebration at the community’s Bethesda Baptist Church, where strategy meetings were often held.
Among the happiest residents were the youngsters who live in Ivy City, still clinging to hope that the Crummell School grounds will one day have a recreation center and other community programs.
“We like football, but there is no place to play except in the streets,” said De’Mar Williams, 15.
Demarco Jones, 12, said: “Most of the money is being spent on bike lanes when we could use it over here for job training.”
The ruling by Macaluso had been a significant win for Ivy City, but it was also confirmation of just how low the powers-that-be would go to keep them down. And out.
“The public interest lies in compliance with the District’s environmental laws and regulations so that District residents are protected from avoidable harm,” the judge wrote. “Similarly, the public’s interest lies in making sure the applicants who evade environmental screening procedures by filing incorrect information — and failing to correct it — are not rewarded for this misconduct.”
City officials and developers were, in fact, deceiving, misleading and colluding in schemes where money mattered more than people. As it turns out, the poor folks’ talk of The Plan wasn’t so far-fetched after all.
For previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/