On the neighborhood-based social media site NextDoor.com, a debate is raging among Southwest D.C. residents. An increasingly dense development in an area formerly known as “The Little Quadrant That Could”—at 4th and M streets SW—has residents riled up over the prospect of even more residential development.But a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum called A Right to The City, which looks back over decades of activism and development in six neighborhoods in the District, shows that this is far from the first time Southwest has been targeted by developers.
Curator Samir Meghelli says the battle in this once predominantly African-American and partly Jewish neighborhood began with the federal policy of urban renewal back in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Many of the stories in this exhibition are about people of color, and their victories and defeats against those who tried to turn their neighborhoods into havens for the haves versus refuges for the have-nots.
“Washington, D.C., being the seat of national power, was ground zero for urban renewal policy, and one of the first neighborhoods to be targeted was Southwest, D.C.,” Meghelli explains, pointing at a 1949 photo of the 700 block of 4th Street SW between G and H streets. It shows an independent neighborhood with its own commercial market and theaters, ensconced in an area with churches and a synagogue. But the federal government looked at the area and saw “blight.”
“It was seen as a perfect prime opportunity to try this experiment of urban renewal, which at the time was really a policy of large scale demolition and … slum clearance,” Meghelli says.
Some business owners fought back against the demolition, which eventually displaced more than 23,000 people and 1,800 businesses. But armed with the landmark eminent domain 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Case, Berman v. Parker, the neighborhood was decimated. Some public housing was built, but the majority of the construction was high-rise, market-rate apartments. Many Southwest residents moved to Anacostia, which is currently in the midst of its own urban renewal.
As the exhibition shows, other District neighborhoods, such as Shaw, looked at Southwest and prepared for battle. An organization called the Model Inner City Community Organization (MICCO) worked for the community to have input into the planning process for urban renewal that would preserve their homes and the historic Black Broadway. A Right to the City chronicles some victories, including the 1969 construction of the Lincoln Westmoreland apartments at the corner of 7th and S streets NW, the first building to rise in the area after the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But Dominic Moulden, a resource organizer for the advocacy group ONE DC, says fair and affordable housing in the District, as well as neighborhoods of color, are still under attack in 2018.
“Absolutely under siege,” declares Moulden, who is featured in a video in the exhibition about Shaw. “Our government doesn’t have a commitment to the human rights of the working class blacks in D.C. It has no understanding about what the right to the city is all about.”
In the 1960s, residents of the quiet, tree-lined Brookland neighborhood absolutely understood what a right to the city meant. Meghelli explains how an interracial group of residents won their fight against the North Central Freeway, which would have required the demolition of hundreds of homes in Brookland and Takoma Park. The exhibition features pictures and artwork on display, some of which was used to galvanize residents against the project.
“The fact of the matter is that urban renewal disproportionately affected African-Americans. But in each of these neighborhoods, communities came together around their shared interests, which were a need to have an effective way to shape the change that was happening in their neighborhoods,” Meghelli says.One of the reasons Meghelli thinks this exhibition is so important is that it celebrates histories of neighborhood organizing and activism that transformed the District in ways that many have overlooked. He also thinks it explores a subject—urban renewal—that remains very much on the minds of residents currently dealing with rapid gentrification in neighborhoods around the city. There are lessons to be learned, not only for other U.S. cities including Chicago, Atlanta, and Brooklyn, New York, but globally in places like London and Brazil.
“My hope is when people are walking through the exhibition, they get the sense of the real damage and destruction that was meted out by local and federal governments,” Meghelli muses. “It is a continuing struggle for neighborhoods and residents to shape and reshape their neighborhoods in ways that serve their interests and that is never going to be resolved.”
At the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum to April 20, 2020. 1901 Fort Place SE. Free. (202) 633-4820. anacostia.si.edu.