Sunday, February 16, 2014

Save the Date: Peter Bug Day May 17th

Peter Bug Day Bugfest Parade and Festival: Unity in the Community
Saturday, May 17, 2014
Peter Bug Shoe Repair Academy at E St and 13th St, SE

The Festival itself has been taking place for the past 36 years. “Unity in the Community” is this year’s theme. The concept “is to bring neighbors of all races, creeds and class together so that young people can see we don’t have to live separate from each other.”

Learn more about Peter Bug, a fellow sociologist in Ward 6, in this post and in this interview.
For more info, contact John Peterbug Matthews, 202 689 4549.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Writing History with Potomac Gardens Residents

Back in December 2012, I took a look at the Wikipedia page for Potomac Gardens public housing at 13th and Pennsylvania Ave, SE. At that time, I was surprised by what I read:
The existing [Wikipedia] page surprised me because it focused exclusively on 1) the potential replacement of the buildings either with Marine barracks or mixed-income housing and 2) crime in the area (under the only category of "Incidents"). There was no discussion of what life might be like in Potomac Gardens, as well as no mention of people important to the community, significant sites within the property, or important events or activities. There was also no discussion of how life in Potomac Gardens may have changed over time. In general, the page seemed to be written from the point of view of people unconnected with those living in Potomac Gardens. Yes, those living inside and outside Potomac Gardens have a great interest in the potential redevelopment plans, but the page does not capture much about Potomac Gardens. Without knowledge of the life within Potomac Gardens, it becomes very easy to argue that Potomac Gardens should be dismantled, since it appears to have no value or significance. 
In that post, you can see what the original Wikipedia page looked like. I made some additions to try to expand the perspective of the page. Others have since revised it further. However, I knew that those living in Potomac Gardens would be the ideal editors of the Potomac Gardens Wikipedia page.

A couple of weeks ago, I got to visit Grassroots DC's Wednesday evening computer class in Potomac Gardens. The computer class had seven adult students learning how to use computers to do email, explore the internet, and write letters, resumes, documents, etc. Earlier the class had written a letter to Councilmember Tommy Wells, asking for help with the former recreation center in Potomac Gardens. This meeting, we were going to update the Potomac Gardens Wikipedia page!

I handed out this guide, which anyone can use:

After they logged into Wikipedia at their computers, there was an immediate debate about whether Potomac Gardens ever had the nickname "Magic City." Someone told me that it had been called this, and months ago I had added it in the Wikipedia page. While one person vaguely remember this name, everyone agreed that Potomac Gardens had only one nickname: "The Gardens." So, two of the students changed that on two different parts of the page.

A discussion broke out about how anyone could update the page. Someone suggested that the history on the page must therefore be false. Someone else referred to a fact about Potomac Gardens that was true. Another asked, how do you know that? She said, I know it from the Wikipedia page. I admitted that I had written most of the page. One person turned to me quite surprised: but you don't live here. How do you know this information? Another student said, you did research? I then asked, how can we get information about the history of Potomac Gardens, how can we get historical information? Some said that they could ask some older residents. Others said that one could Google for more information. I said that there was almost no information on the web about Potomac Gardens' history. So, they would have to research and write it themselves.

The discussion was a professor's dream discussion. The class became incredibly loud as the very nature of history was debated along with the topics and details they each wanted to include in the page. It was agreed that a section called "Community Life" would be added. A student added this section, while other students wrote up different paragraphs in Word, which they then posted to the new section. Actually, more correctly, most of them wrote up their parts in beautiful handwriting and then typed it up in Word. The non-profit organizations operating on "Community Row" in Potomac Gardens and the old recreation center came to life. One of the senior residents revealed the pride and joy of the senior building -- the greeter system they had implemented themselves (see the page for details).

So, it was a fantastic time. The experience made very clear how history writing reflects one's perspective. The glorious University of Maryland, College Park, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins has contributed her work on "intersectionality" to feminist standpoint theory, which is valuable when thinking about how one's perspective or standpoint influences one's view of history. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Feminist standpoint theorists make three principal claims: (1) Knowledge is socially situated. (2) Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. (3) Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized.(1)
Wikipedia provides the tools for marginalized groups like those at Potomac Gardens to make the non-marginalized aware of histories and power relations not necessarily visible to the non-marginalized. Much more research and further revisions of the Wikipedia page are necessary. I also, of course, can't stop making revisions based on information I find. One can then ask what my perspective or standpoint is. In the meantime, you can see the page's current state, and you can take part in this history writing as well.

(1) "Feminist Standpoint Theory," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Confronting Gentrification panel RSVP

If you are thinking about going to the Confronting Gentrification panel, please RSVP at Facebook (if you do Facebook). It looks like it might be rather crowded, and the organizers want to get a good idea of how many are planning to attend:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sociology in My Neighborhood on AU Panel

I'll be presenting data on gentrification along with Empower DC activist Parisa Norouzi who will be talking about organizing and the gentrification situation on the ground now in DC. Tuesday, Feb. 18 at 6:30pm, Mary Graydon Center 5 at American U. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

DC Historical Studies Keynote Addresses

Northwestern University history professor Kate Masur gave an excellent keynote at this year's DC Historical Studies Conference. She talked about Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, and its portrayal of African-Americans. Let's just say that oceans of history are missing from the movie. I highly recommend viewing her talk. Below there are links to previous talks.

2013 Letitia Woods Brown Lecture
"Black Politics in Civil War Washington"
Kate Masur, Associate Professor of History, Northwestern University

2011 Letitia Woods Brown Lecture
2010 Letitia Woods Brown Lecture

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Gentrification is not friendly

In the Washington City Paper's Answers Issue, I was asked to comment on the following question:
Q: Are D.C. residents getting less friendly to each other, or am I just getting old? I hear that new neighbors aren’t as friendly as they used to be across huge swaths of Northwest. Are these anecdotes or is there a way to see if this is real? (I’m talking about people not saying “hi” to each other on the street or acknowledging each other’s presence to full ignorance of neighbors).
I spoke about the influential work of American University anthropology professor Brett Williams.Through her ethnographic work, Professor Williams came to understand that working-class African Americans in DC lived deeply in the city, socialized from an early age to know the names of all their neighbors and the shop keepers and always to greet them. In contrast, the white middle class lived broadly, not paying attention to the local neighborhood but moving across the city and having close connections with those around the country and around the world. Brett Williams' work has shown me that the city can teach us to live deeply, which much of the white professional class wants, as discussed by one commenter:
I really noticed this difference when I moved from west of the park (white neighborhood) to east of the park (African-American neighborhood) about 10 years ago. As a white person, it took me by surprise but I happily adjusted. I had never lived in such a friendly urban neighborhood before and I really treasured the experience. With the advent of gentrification, the neighborhood has changed somewhat. The new younger white residents are nice folks and we say hello, too, but, while it's still pleasant, the warmth of the older African-American long-time residents is noticeably missing. It's a genuine loss.
Another commenter wrote:
"...less friendly or ...getting old?" A combination of both for many historic residents. Whereas as late as 30 years ago I could hardly go anywhere in any quadrant of the city and not see at least ONE person I knew from childhood, I traverse the city now and see few familiar faces other than in my native Southeast. We wouldn't DARE pass by one another today without a nod or a word. I'm uptown a lot (U Street/Shaw/Adams Morgan). The city's gone cosmopolitan: Nobody knows one another, didn't go to school with a fellow pedestrian, aren't fellow parishioners. To paraphrase the late comedian Richard Pryor, D.C. is not longer composed of "neighborhoods," but has become an amassment of residential districts!
As you can see, I really appreciate these comments. They make me realize that I misunderstood "living deeply" because it wasn't only about living in one's neighborhood deeply but also living in the entire city deeply. This ability to live deeply in our neighborhoods and across the city is an important skill that I believe that DC still offers us and is treasured by many. 

Jonathan Fischer did an admirable job answering this difficult question. But I don't agree that white professionals and the African American working class are just two side of the same coin or two equal camps: "Of course, it goes both ways: Just as older residents may get a cold vibe from newer ones, the reverse can be true." Those displacing and those being displaced are not equal sides, but rather are interconnected through relations of power.

The white professional class legitimates its displacement of other residents with a set of interrelated perspectives, seeing gentrification as:
  • an inevitable process 
  • an enjoyable process since the city is becoming more fun and comfortable 
  • a positive process because the city is becoming "better" as people they judge as inferior are displaced with people judged as...superior? 
  • a necessary process because they know how the neighborhood should be changed and have a right to demand this change. The needs of others, they think, can be ignored because gentrification has already or will soon completely expel the inferior people. Historians of colonialism have shown how colonizing powers argue that they are bringing the future and that those they colonize are living in the past, so the colonizers see their own needs as more important and more progressive than those they colonize. 
From the perspective of the colonizer, change must happen as quickly as possible because it is inevitable, necessary, progressive, positive, and enjoyable. Those being displaced or colonized would have a whole different view of this process.

Of course, listervs are dubious resources, but I use this one example to demonstrate how the pro-gentrification perspective makes impossible or nearly impossible the thought that one might work in solidarity with one's neighbors. Here a resident of Capitol Hill East is arguing for the removal of a local organization that helps people overcome substance abuse: 
I've lived over here over a year and even in that time, I have really seen the neighborhood change. While 5 years ago, this project may have represented the needs of the community, I really don't think the neighborhood is quickly changing and I don't see this as the best fit...I think residents have a right to voice their concerns...I'd encourage you to meet with the newer residents and see how the times have changed.
How does understanding gentrification as inevitable disregard the needs of one's neighbors? How might living deeply counteract the view that displacement is inevitable, necessary, progressive, positive, and enjoyable? Might living deeply help build solidarity with our neighbors, a solidarity that crosses races and classes? Might radical friendliness and radical neighborliness be necessary in Ward 6 and in DC today?