The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In upper Northwest, displacement happened long ago

People gather at Chevy Chase Circle in D.C. in June to take a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor the memory of George Floyd.
People gather at Chevy Chase Circle in D.C. in June to take a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor the memory of George Floyd. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Matthew Frumin is a community activist and member of the Washington Interfaith Network Ward 3 Congregations Affordable Housing Work Group.

The debate about the proposed changes to the D.C. Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use Map is now, appropriately, fully joined.

One frequently raised fear is that the proposals would contribute to the displacement of families of color. Regardless of one’s view of whether that would be the impact in many parts of the city, the argument is not relevant in upper Northwest, known in the planning parlance as Rock Creek West, where I live. Sadly, that displacement happened long ago.

At the turn of the 20th century, the area’s small population included a substantial number of African Americans living, for example, in Reno City (now Fort Reno) and the Chevy Chase neighborhood. By 1940, the African American population had largely been driven out.

Not only were the established communities uprooted, but the new communities were segregated by design. The original 1930s deed to my house provided:

“Fifth. No part of the land hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by or sold, demised, transferred, conveyed unto, or in trust for, leased, or rented, or given to negroes or any person or persons of negro blood or extraction, or to any Chinese, Japanese, Armenians, Persians or Syrians, except that, this paragraph shall not be held to exclude partial occupancy of the premises by domestic servants of the party hereto of the second part, his heirs or assigns.”

My family is far from alone. Many of the original deeds in our neighborhood included similar language. Advertisements for homes in the area touted the restricted nature of the community.

The demographic mix in many parts of the city has whipsawed since the 1940s. White flight took off after the Supreme Court struck down racial covenants like the one on my house in 1948 and moved to desegregate schools in 1954. From the 1950s to the 1970s, African Americans replaced Whites in many parts of the city. Since 2000, the trend has dramatically reversed, with Whites replacing African Americans in many of those same parts of the city. The one place immune from change has been Rock Creek West.

Most of us in upper Northwest gave no thought to this racial history when we moved in. It seemed like a comfortable place to raise a family — safe, convenient, good schools, nice neighbors. We did not see the forces that shaped us and our communities of choice. And yet, much as it may pain us, we are a part of the story of separation and displacement. For all the Black Lives Matter signs dotting our neighborhoods, in one of our major life decisions, we chose separation even if without conscious thought.

The question is: What do we do now as we start to see what we hadn’t before? 

One challenge in breaking the century of segregation is that even with formal impediments gone, the momentum of separation continues, and many African Americans are understandably reluctant to move to a place where few people look like them and their children. One step in overcoming that reticence is to recognize our history, including its undercurrent of exclusion, and setting out very consciously to project a spirit of welcome. On that score, the initiatives of the Chevy Chase ANC, led by Randy Speck, on racism and housingare exemplary.

Another piece of the puzzle though is that we need to grow our housing stock, including affordable housing. In recent decades, residents in Rock Creek West have often tenaciously fought development. In the past two years, we have added only 273 units, none of them affordable.

That brings us back to the proposed Comprehensive Plan changes and the Future Land Use Map.

Not every proposed project is sensible and fair to the nearby neighbors, and not every proposed change to the Comprehensive Plan and the Future Land Use Map should be embraced. But the thrust of the Office of Planning proposals — including its emphasis on Small Area Planning and adding density near transit hubs — is sensible. And, with D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh’s (D-Ward 3) thoughtful refinement for Rock Creek West, complemented by the use of innovative tools such as land trusts, limited equity co-ops, social housing, homeownership subsidies and, importantly, public investment, there is a real opportunity to better our communities, strengthen our commercial districts and begin to address historic wrongs.

As the debate proceeds in the coming weeks, at least in Rock Creek West, it should not be about displacement. That argument is hollow here. Nor should it be about fair notice. The proposals have been vetted and subject to debate for months — for years. Rather, it should be about whether too much (or too little) is proposed for specific sites, informed by a recognition that we can and should at least try to reverse the momentum of segregation that has shaped our communities over the past 100 years.

Read more:

Kirby Vining: Are the proposed changes to D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan already out of date?

Christopher Williams, Renee Bowser and Paul Johnson: D.C.’s build-build-build mind-set results in more gentrification

Letter to the editor: D.C. should reject the mayor’s Comprehensive Plan proposals

Jonathan M. Smith: Gentrification in D.C. was not fated. Policy made it happen.

Dylan Gottlieb: How gentrification caused America’s cities to burn

Pamela Newkirk: How blighted urban areas transform into trendy, gentrified communities