The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. should help preserve the Adams Morgan plaza

A memorial for Miguel Gonzales on April 30 just outside the fence that surrounds a plaza in Adams Morgan. Gonzales, who was unhoused, died in late March. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Vikram Surya Chiruvolu and Kristin Adair are co-facilitators of the neighborhood group Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development.

Before history is forgotten, it is often erased. On March 21, the bank Truist fenced off the historic open space at the heart of Adams Morgan, formerly known as SunTrust Plaza, at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. On March 28, lifelong neighborhood resident Miguel Gonzales died at that fence in a cold snap. He had lived in and around that plaza at an encampment where unhoused community members took refuge during the pandemic. His body was found about 40 feet from where, a few weeks prior, he was sleeping in a tent.

More than 50 community members gathered to honor Gonzales on April 30, creating a spontaneous memorial where he died. A few days later, the memorial left for him by friends and neighbors of photos, notes and mementos was removed.

To understand, we must un-erase some history.

In 1917, the city’s grandest theater, the Knickerbocker, was built on the plaza site, but in 1922, heavy snow caved its roof onto a full house, killing 98 people. Attempting to erase the tragedy, the theater’s owner ignored calls for a memorial, and instead rebuilt and renamed it the Ambassador Theater.

In 1954, with D.C. still segregated, the all-White John Quincy Adams School and all-Black Thomas P. Morgan School integrated, forging our neighborhood’s name.

By the late 1960s, the Ambassador Theater had become a multicultural hub, hosting acts such as Jimi Hendrix. At that time, Adams Morgan was one-third each Black, Latino and White, and its real estate was becoming desirable, but redlining still stopped minority residents from getting financing to own or improve homes. In 1969, a developer razed the Ambassador, leaving the site an open lot, which hosted a beloved farmers market. Residents successfully blocked plans for a gas station, and, in 1976, Perpetual Savings Bank bought the site.

The community raised concerns, and long negotiations ensued. An initial victory came when Perpetual’s president promised in a letter to 3,000 Adams Morgan residents to build the branch with open space for public use, but, given Perpetual’s history of racist redlining, community leaders were not satisfied. They painstakingly exposed its patterns of discrimination, eventually also securing a commitment to fair lending and bilingual banking services in the new branch charter.

Adams Morgan’s innovative approach — using financial racial equity research to compel a bank to meet community-specific needs — became the basis for the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which addressed redlining nationally. It became law eight weeks after the Perpetual branch got its federal charter. The new branch was built with an open-air amphitheater style as a nod to the Knickerbocker and with a Latino affairs police substation, opening in early 1979. That September, the first Adams Morgan Day festival with the plaza as center stage attracted thousands.

Despite these successes, in the 1980s, Reagan administration policies destroyed many local banks, including Perpetual, setting off more historical erasure: In 1991, Perpetual’s assets were sold to Crestar, notorious for its redlining. In 1998, Crestar was acquired by SunTrust, which between 2012 and 2014 paid $1.3 billion to settle three federal cases for discriminatory and abusive home loan practices against Black and Latino borrowers.

In 2016, SunTrust announced plans to build luxury condos over the plaza, ignoring community objections. Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development filed suit to stop it, and SunTrust has gone to extraordinary legal lengths to avoid letting a jury decide.

In 2019, SunTrust merged with BB&T, and the new megabank renamed itself Truist, while pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the reelection campaigns of Trump supporters. Politically, it has chosen White power over Black lives.

The Community Reinvestment Act helped Miguel Gonzales’s mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, access credit to buy her own Adams Morgan condo, where she lived with her son for almost 50 years. Undocumented and without Social Security benefits, at age 80, she was lured into a predatory reverse mortgage. After she died in 2016, Gonzales lost the condo and began living on the plaza. Though the case over the public’s right to the plaza still sits before the D.C. Court of Appeals, Truist pushed the city over the past year to support its quest to erase our history and fence the site, precipitating Gonzales’s death.

City officials should now condemn Truist for its practices. As Adams Morgan did in 1977, we must require banks to meet community needs to do business in our city. If Truist continues to disregard our needs, we should call on federal regulators to revoke its banking charter. Rather than erasing Black and Latino lives and historic racial progress for luxury condos, the city should work with Truist to purchase the site, using eminent domain if necessary, so we can honor those who have died — both under the rubble of the Knickerbocker and under the weight of recent corporate violence. D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) supports this effort, saying on Thursday, “Community is a place of shared spaces, and the plaza is a popular, vital, communal hub. I’m looking forward to fostering a resolution that preserves the plaza in some form.”

To reinvigorate the heart of our community, the site could become an improved and actively programmed outdoor amphitheater with a Knickerbocker memorial, a library and resource center so victims of economic violence can get their needs met, as Gonzales deserved. To create our future, rather than erase our unique history, we must uplift it.