Monday, July 18, 2011

On Change in the District: Preservation Does Not Have to Be the Enemy

I am not surprised that Washington is no longer a majority black city any longer.  I am also not surprised to read about the same issues related to whites moving in, historic preservation/gentrification, resentments and (on occasion) misunderstandings.  And though it might anger some, I think that the changes that have come to Washington have really helped improve much of the city.  Though, I agree that Ward 8, particularly, deserves much more attention, and with the current residents, than it has received over the years.

I also agree fully with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, in that Washington's black community has left an indelible cultural mark on the city, and it is a mark that deserves both preservation and revitalization.  I is a real shame that so many black folks in Washington continue to see historic preservation as an updated version of the old "negro removal" from the early and middle 20th century, because it didn't, and still doesn't, have to be that way.  There is no rule saying that preservation is available only to whites or to the wealthy.

During my 20+ years in Washington, I was often surprised by the people who did not factor in the lure of Prince George's County, MD for many upwardly mobile black Washington families as the 20th century closed.  A few of my relatives headed out there, including relatives who very easily could have remained in the city.  I'd suspect that the stereotypical American dream of the suburban home, a nice backyard and garage, once closed to many black families was just too strong to resist, when the opportunities opened. Currently, there are a number of black folks who could afford to move into market rate housing in the city, if they so chose.  There are a number of black folks who didn't realize precisely what they had, until it was too late, and there are a number who could not afford to maintain what they had (those are the stories that I find particularly sad).  For those in that last circumstance, I would suggest working with every resource in city government to help you keep what you have.

I still want to make a case for historic preservation, even for working class and poorer black communities in the city, because that was raised as a problem specifically.  If you see, or hear of, changes coming to your neighborhoods, especially regarding preservation or revitalization efforts, it is beyond important to begin to learn about what is happening around you, and voice, not only your concerns, but also your visions for your communities (the tensions and results described in the H Street Corridor are the types of things that should be happening, because many points of view are being heard).  It's all about taking proactive steps and learning how preservation and revitalization can work for you.  I can say, without hesitation, that the preservation organizations in Washington want to see working and lower income communities revitalized, particularly for current residents.  Reach out to the District's Historic Preservation Office, and the DC Preservation League; these are organization that want and need more input from working class and lower income communities in the city, especially as changes come.  They cannot be as effective, if folks wait until it is too late.

I am a firm believer in the importance of individual communities deciding what is important enough in their neighborhoods to preserve for future generations.  Historic preservation does not have to mean "gentrification" in a negative sense.  It's just a matter of taking those first steps and identifying those businesses, churches or homes of community leaders that neighborhood folks think newcomers and young people should know about.  Then it is a matter of reaching out to those organizations that can help communities take the next steps.  It won't be easy.  Very little that is good for you comes without a struggle.  But as Washington diversifies, I hope that many of the remaining black residents will take advantage of the increasing diversity around them.  I loved my last neighborhood, Logan Circle, because it had a little bit of everything and everyone.

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