City Planning or Dismantling of Black Communities: Gentrification in Southwest, Washington D.C., by Alara Dileklen

June 18, 2021
ARCH 251
Professor Annmarie Adams

Architecture, especially regarding race and gender, is not limited to the creation of physical space but includes the destruction of these spaces as well. When discussing race and architecture, it is particularly important to emphasize the architectural decisions made in the United States around the time of the Civil Rights Movement in which the racial inequalities and discrimination against Black citizens were protested, and people demanded change from social and political platforms. However, while the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. made considerable changes regarding the perception towards Black communities and their rights, some architectural decisions made during these times by the white-male dominated the administration of the United States continued to work against the great efforts of civil rights advocates and, whether intentionally or unintentionally, demolished Black communities through the so-called city planning activities.  This resulted in Black communities moving out from their homes and neighbourhoods and integrated into the new ones created and designed according to the culture and needs of white people and losing not only their physical homes but also the sense of belonging and culture.

Figure 1: Garnet W. Jex, “The Washington Monument towers over rubble from destroyed buildings at 11th Street and Virginia Avenue S.W. in 1959.” Demolition of Buildings on the Southwest Corner of 11th Street and Virginia Avenue SW. Photograph. From DC History Center, Washington D.C., February 1959.

While Samir Meghelli’s exhibition of “A Right to the City1 includes many photographs from various districts and regions in the US that underwent heavy architectural renovations and demolishment, he specifically emphasizes, through the photograph above, how the Southwest in Washington D.C. became ground zero for the US administration’s urban renewal activities and the development of segregation and desegregation narrative through architecture and urban planning. As this photograph could be considered a keystone and an epitome of the coming architectural changes in the US,  I believe that James Baldwin’s description of urban renewal as “Negro removal”2 is quite correct.

Photographed in 1959, the scene from 11th Street Virginia Avenue in Southwest Washington D.C. shows destroyed buildings in a neighbourhood of the district that was once mostly inhabited by the Black communities. After the decision taken by President Eisenhower in the name of gentrification of the slums and unattended neighbourhoods, a lot of residential areas in the Southwest district of the region were demolished while their residents were scattered around the neighbouring regions and lost their sense of community. These Black communities that were forced to move out from their long-time homes were placed in Anacostia, a neighbourhood that is predominantly white. With this act of desegregation, however, there has been a lot of dissatisfaction from both white and Black communities as cohabitation also meant desegregated schools and mutual understanding towards one another’s culture and way of living, a type of approach that the white communities were still mostly lacking.

Although deeper research on the history of Southwest would shed light on both past and current architectural and social problems of the district, the photograph of our analysis by itself reveals a lot about the process of gentrification and its possible effects on Black communities. When we look at the photo, we can see certain buildings have been demolished while others are left standing which may point out the gentrification did not include the whole street, rather targeted specific type of housing considered unfit for the envisioned new city planning. The demolished building is obviously shorter than the one left standing and seems to have a different construction that adds to the varied materials when compared with the rest of the red-brick buildings.

In addition to the differences in materials, the site of demolishment also includes the residue of wood, which might suggest the differences of architecture when compared with the rest of the street. We might theorize that, due to the socio-economic class that Black people were placed in by the embedded racism in the US until the Civil Rights Movement and even after that, the demolished building was a newer building when compared with the classical red-brick houses of colonial heritage and was more likely to later addition to the city planning in the early 20th century. The white painting was revealed with the destruction of the building, and it shows that the demolished house shared the wall with the one left standing.  This architectural decision might be due to financial concerns, as a shared wall would decrease money paid to craftsmen and for materials needed for additional construction. The paint of the wall also suggests that the house is a one-story building, and it is expected to be smaller in size when compared with others.

Another important aspect of the photograph is the other architectural element that catches the viewers’ attention as it stands tall and towers behind the demolished site: the Washington Monument. Built to commemorate the successes of George Washington, the monument is one of the landmarks of Washington, D.C. However, it is important to recognize what the monument may symbolize especially in the context of race and architecture as Washington was a former slave owner. While he was the last president who owned slaves and freed the people he enslaved upon his death, that would not change the fact that he exploited many people in the span of his lifetime. Thus, the monument that was built to eternize his legacy also carries a quite daunting past for the Black citizens of the country and reminds the Black community that while slavery is abolished, this does not mean they are considered equals to others.

From the documentation of the time, as well as the exhibition of Meghelli, we know that the district was inhabited by Black communities who have been living there for a considerable amount of time.3 Due to the segregation and racial isolation, they mostly have been living in close tied communities where they would be partially free to live with their cultures/traditions and away from the isolation and discrimination in the shared public spaces they use with the white population. I would like to point out that architecture allowed Black people to have space free of the discrimination of white people, where their skin colour did not restrict them from existing physically and socially. While segregated spaces were products of racism against Black people and a direct result of the absurd ideology of white supremacy, Black neighbourhoods free from white intervention allowed people to live in some kind of normality and away from the constant reminder of how their blackness alienated them from the rest of society.

Photography, as in the case of other art forms, aims to capture a moment in time in which it reflects the social, political, emotional and physical situation a specific group, an individual, or what society as a whole is experiencing. In this case, this particular photograph taken in 1959 in Southwest Washington D.C. shows the Washington Monument standing tall and strong behind the demolished Black neighbourhood which is destroyed like it never existed. Thus, what the frame captured in the photograph and the particular alignment of the building is important to emphasize as it would help us understand the architectural composition.  While the memories and family history of the former building’s residents have been erased with the demolishment of the house and the replacement of the family, it is not only the physical space that is being targeted but also the social ties that Black people from within their neighbourhoods. As architecture carries both physical and symbolic meanings, the all-powerful and mighty appearance of the Washington Monument behind the crumbles of buildings which was once someone’s safe place.

There are two sides to this photograph; an interpretation that suggests the success of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement which pushes the administration to take action against the demolishment of segregated spaces and integrating Black people within white communities, and another interpretation that suggests the demolishment of Black neighbourhoods as a way of dismantling the unity within Black community which became even stronger with the Civil Rights Movement. The first interpretation would be an optimistic one and assumes that the people formerly living in demolished spaces would be placed somewhere they would equally feel safe and free. While the destruction of segregated spaces would be direct action against the discrimination against Black people, it is also undeniable that architectural or political changes may not be reciprocated in the society. When it comes to the second interpretation, however, we can see how scattering the Black neighbourhoods and unity would be working in the advantage of the people against desegregation and equal rights to all citizens regardless of their race. Being physically approximate to one another and finding power in supporting each other would work against the agendas of white-male dominated administrations. Using city planning as an excuse to divide up the communities is damaging by itself; however, when urban planning included demolishment of Black-owned businesses, this would directly affect the financial stability and power of the people.

It is important to emphasize that the demolished building in the photograph was not identified; therefore, we are not certain whether it was a residential space or a business owned by Black people. The meaning of demolishment changes depending on the purpose of the space. If the building in the photograph was a business owned by Black people, like a barbershop or a store, then the effects of demolishment would be even greater on the society as that space would be serving more than just a family but also the Black community of the neighbourhood in general. If the building in the photograph is in fact a Black owned business, we can assume that it was one of the places seized by with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case of Bertman v. Parker,4 as the government was granted the right to seize the private property and evacuate the owners with this case. While compensation was promised, a lot of Black-owned shops and businesses were either moved to places with exclusively white communities or far away from their original place of settlement.  Considering the time in which the social and political climate would not allow Black-owned businesses to thrive in white neighbourhoods, it would be a direct attack on their household incomes. Thus, this interpretation could also be associated with the symbolic presence of the Washington Monument behind the demolished building as a way of emphasizing the administration’s power on Black communities, both socially and financially.

When we discuss race and what it corresponds to in the mid-20th century in the US, we must mention architecture’s place within this context. Whether we are referring to created or demolished space of or for Black people or the existence/lack of Black architects in society, documentation of the 1950s shows how architectural elements are direct reflections of the social and political climate in regard to race. Thus, this photograph of the demolished building gives us a glimpse into the integrated nature of architecture and politics, while emphasizing the importance of reading art and architecture with a grain of salt, especially when the issue is as delicate as race.

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Alara Dileklen is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 251.

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1 Samir Meghelli, “A Right to the City,” Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Accessed March 31, 2021. https://anacostia.si.edu/Exhibitions/Details/A-Right-to-the-City-6222.

2 “Conversation with James Baldwin, Open Vault,” Open Vault, WGBH Educational Foundation (1963).

3 Allison Keyes, “A New Show About Neighborhoods Facing Gentrification Offers a Cautionary Tale,” Smithsonian Institution, (May 9, 2018), https://smithsonian.com.

4 Samuel Berman and Solomon H. Feldman, Executors of the State of Max R. Morris, Deceased, Appellants, v. Andrew PARKER, John A. Remon, James E. Colliflower, et al. (Supreme Court November 22, 1954).

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