Thursday, December 29, 2011

Gentrification on Capitol Hill (II)

Thanks to Greater Greater Washington for linking to my previous post! Most of the trends I discuss here did not take place so much during the 1940s. During the 1940s, whites were moving to the suburbs. By the late 1940s, the newspapers were already talking about Capitol Hill's renovation movement. However, Anita Rechler is talking about the dramatic shifts in the neighborhood during the 1960s. I knew that there was gentrification going on during the 1960s because Friendship House and other organizations were very concerned about it, but I had focused on the late 1970s when our block (in the Transition area of the map) changed dramatically. Now, I see how much changed during the 1960s.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Gentrification on Capitol Hill

In her fascinating 1974 M.A. thesis on the Capitol Hill renovation movement, Anita Rechler finds that, while DC and Ward 6 population declined from 1960 to 1970, the number of households actually increased. This shift resulted from:
  • the renovation movement, which began even by the late 1940s and attracted white, young professionals often with no children.
  • the movement of white families with children to the suburbs (since 1920) and to predominantly white areas elsewhere in DC, which increased after the 1954 court ruling desegregating schools. The change was quite abrupt. As I found in my own research, in 1954 when integration began, the Stanton Elementary School in Ward 8 had a 100% white student population; by 1960 it had 75% African American and 25% white students.
Using Census data and real estate transactions in the Lusk Real Estate Directory, Rechler examines the changes across the Hill between 1960 and 1970. In this map of 1970, the purple-blue are areas with many renovations (Restoration area), while the light blue are transitional areas with fewer, though numerous renovations (Transition area) and the yellow areas have few renovations (Unrestored area).

View Ward 6 Renovation Map (1970) in a larger map

She states that by 1958 over 100 houses each year were being renovated. Of course, renovating and improving buildings is a good thing. Yet, this trend had several problematic consequences. Areas became more segregated by race and class between 1960 and 1970. The renovation movement allowed certain groups -- white professionals and real estate developers -- to benefit from or take advantage of racist attitudes and racial/class inequalities to hoard opportunities. (Sociologists Charles Tilly and Douglas Massey discuss opportunity hoarding more generally.) In the Restoration and Transition areas, black homeownership and renting decreased, while white ownership increased. In the Transition areas, black and white renting declined, while ownership increased. In the Unrestored area, white ownership and renting decreased. In addition, the Restoration areas had households with higher incomes than the other areas. The renovation movement led to increased racial segregation, income inequality, and wealth inequality (due to shifts in homeownership).

On Capitol Hill, Friendship House, Group Ministries, and other groups voiced great concern about the economic impact of the renovation movement on the low- and moderate-income families. Many of these families could not afford renovations (or were renters). In 1972, the DC government proposed that south of North Carolina Ave and east of 1st St SE be made a Federally-Assisted Code Enforcement Area (FACE), which would have provided cash grants and low-interest loans for home improvements, thus allowing low- and moderate-incomes families to take part in the renovation movement. This proposal was never adopted.

Rechler also interviewed real estate agents, community leaders, and residents. She shows that renovation was not a spontaneous activity. Rather, from the late 1940s, real estate agents were deeply involved in renovation and reshaping neighborhoods. Real estate agents had long been renovating houses themselves as investments. By the time Rechler conducted her research, larger developers started working on Capitol Hill. St. Clair Investments, a large suburban development corporation, began buying and restoring in 1973.

Especially with the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities around the 1930s to the 1960s, discussed in an earlier post, real estate agents stoked the fears among white families that their neighborhoods were being taken over by African Americans. Real estate agents even hired African American women to walk around the neighborhood with baby carriages and did other tactics to motivate white families to sell their houses at a low price. The real estate agents would then sell the house at an inflated price to African American families, whom agents knew could not obtain regular mortgages. So, the agents would provide high-interest loans directly to them. The African American families often could not afford these inflated loans and pay for the maintenance of these still unrenovated houses. This is called blockbusting, which led to decay.

On Capitol Hill, according to Rechler, there was an additional trend of reverse blockbusting: "Real estate agents, brokers, and speculators use sales tactics and pressure practices to displace the poor and black from their homes in order to attract the white middle class." She was told that a real estate investor might call the DC government to report a house for possible housing code violations. Low-income owners could not obtain loans to make the needed renovations and thus faced the possibility that their house might be condemned. The speculator, however, would provide cash and thus pressure the owner to sell quickly. Speculators also quickly flipped houses to each other, driving up prices. According to Rechler, the restoration movement
is encouraged by a hyperactive real estate market which vigorously solicits property to sell, real estate speculation which promises high profits for those who can afford the investment, and financial arrangements which favor the investor over the average homebuyer. In Capitol Hill restoration operates in a market where speculation is virtually uncontrolled and public access to information is greatly curtailed.
The traditional real estate market for those seeking shelter and the speculative real estate market for those seeking profits have converged more and more lately. As we rely on our houses as part of our retirement or some form of insurance, we require that our houses increase in value. Yet, as they increase in value, it means that cities become too expensive for those with low- and moderate-incomes, even those who maintained and developed community in neighborhoods, which now draws people to move to these neighborhoods.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


The end of the semester is always so busy. We're in the midst of grading and doing a wide range of administrative activities to keep our departments and universities running. I just finished grading one set of papers and will receive a pile of exams tomorrow. In the past two weeks, I made it into the DC archives on two days to do some speedy research. I'm looking at finance and public housing in DC. Wow, did I find some great stuff! More on that soon. Now, I am reading up on real estate investing!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Our Block's History Party

What looks like local history or arbitrary personal choice is often influenced or shaped by larger social or historical forces. Social change may open up or shut down opportunities. Block histories provide concrete and tangible cases of broader social and historical change, which is what makes block and local histories so exciting, especially for sociologists.

Last night, our block had a History Party, a potluck and discussion of our block's history from the 1960s to the present. Since 2009, we have put together a phone list, a listserv, and a twice-yearly progressive block party, in which 2-3 residences host part of a dinner over one evening. Last night, we experimented with a new format. About 25 people attended, including about 6 kids, who were well behaved during this adult Show and Tell. The discussion was very lively. Early on, we went around the room, introducing ourselves, stating when we moved to the Hill and the block, and, for those who had lived a long time on the Hill/block, listing the schools we attended, etc. I was the notetaker, which was an interesting task because the discussion often broke into small groups and then returned to one large conversation. Below, I discuss a few items within broader sociological and historical context, while trying to maintain the anonymity of those involved.

At the party, we found out that, while the block had been racially mixed in and before the 1930s, our block was predominately African American by the 1960s. Our neighbor and his family who had moved to the block in 1961 remembered only one white family on the block. Our neighbor had moved from South Carolina to DC after the Second World War. While this might seem like an arbitrary personal choice, our neighbor was part of the Great Migration, in which millions of African Americans moved from the South to the North from the First World War and through the 1960s. As sociologist Stewart Tolnay has discussed, the First World War and restrictive immigration policies meant that new jobs became available to African Americans in Northern cities. Rural African Americans also long felt a push to move to cities to escape sharecropping (that left them landless and poor), unemployment caused by agricultural mechanization, Jim Crow restrictions on educational and political opportunity, and racial violence. Southern African Americans often followed relatives (our neighbor followed his uncle) and were drawn to cities with institutions that supported African American communities, such as "an NAACP chapter, a mature National Urban League, African American churches, and African American newspapers" (Tolnay, p. 217), which DC certainly had since the Civil War. In this video, which I discussed in a previous post, Potomac Gardens public housing residents talk about their Great Migration experiences:

After the Second World War, newly constructed highways, newly available mortgages, and new suburban developments, which sociologists like William Julius Wilson have shown to be racially exclusionary, drew many white families to the suburbs leaving houses available to African Americans arriving from the South. At the same time, DC also maintained racial segregation, as GWU sociologist Gregory Squires and his colleagues have found in the case of housing and as more generally discussed in a fascinating exchange on H-DC.

Long-time residents on the block also remembered the various businesses around the block. Two brothers ran the Abe Store at 9th & C St SE. At two locations at 10th & C St SE, the Brookses ran a dry cleaners, Brooks Valet, from 1952 to 1983. You can see several of our neighbors in the Post photo (first and second page of the article) of the 1983 community block party held in the Brookses honor. In the Post article, the Brookses remembered the block as predominantly African American working class residents who worked at the Navy Yard. Long-time residents remembered that the block (as well as surrounding blocks) was "family-oriented" and very social, with great block parties.

Four or five residents who moved to the block in the late 1970s and early 1980s spoke about crime during this period. The block captain in the late 1970s talked about how the block formed a Neighborhood Watch group and worked with police, which resulted in a decrease in crime by the mid-1980s. We know that during the mid- and late-1970s the nation was experiencing a severe economic crisis and large-scale unemployment. In addition, gentrification -- the displacement of lower income households by higher income, often professional households -- has been going on on Capitol Hill since the 1950s, but the late 1970s was a period of intense gentrification. Scholars often discuss Capitol Hill gentrification as a significant case study because it has been so extensive and began so early. In 1977, GWU urban studies professor Dennis E. Gale surveyed recent Hill homebuyers living in our block's census tract (67) and another highly gentrified census tract (66). In his sample, he found that 94% of these recent homebuying households were white and described our census tract as "still largely transitional in nature and population changes are occurring more rapidly there." Most of those living in our census tract moved from other parts of DC and had high incomes. According to Gale:
A large majority of our residents felt that racial conflict was not a frequent occurrence in their neighborhood. When conflict did occur though, it was generally between younger, black passers-through and white residents. Relations between black and white neighbors were perceived as good and generally free from any serious conflict. About half of our study group expressed a preference for a neighborhood composed of approximately equal proportions of blacks and whites. One-fourth preferred a predominance of whites and a minority of blacks. Most of the remainder indicated that they had no strong racial preferences but would rather their neighbors were of socio-economic backgrounds comparable to their own.(p. 3)
We can see that our block and census tract was experiencing significant social change during the late 1970s. In fact, in the late 1970s worldwide, people experienced fundamental changes to their societies, which sociologists and other scholars are studying right now. It will be interesting to continue examining our block's history to find out more about this shift taking place right in our neighborhood. Thanks to my great neighbors for a fascinating History Party!