Tuesday, April 29, 2014

High Modernism returns to DC

Last week, I attended the excellent Cities at the Center of the World conference organized by Mason's Center for Global Studies and Cities and Globalization Working Group in collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Of the many interesting discussions, I want to talk first about UCSB Professor Paul Amar's outstanding keynote lecture "Cities of Megasecurity."

Amar began by talking about the high modernist architecture and urban planning of the 1940s and 1960s. The high modernist view involved both a certain kind of monumental building:
L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, Expedia.com

and a lunar view of the city or the view from a military plane ready to bomb or already bombing the city:
Southwest DC during urban renewal 1955, National Capital Planning Commission
High modernism was the project of, in Amar's words, crony state actors and corporations. Jane Jacobs and many others have criticized high modernism, calling for a more human city. Yet, Jane Jacobs was soon coopted by developers into giving a human face to the now walkable corporate landscape.

As the extraordinary Columbia University sociology professor Saskia Sassen has shown, cities in the 1980s became financial hubs and primary agents in the global economy. Interestingly, I have found references to DC as a financial center at this time. Richard Florida gave this financial city of modern buildings and monumentalism a "fun" spin, as the Creative City. An example of this is the Yards area of DC with its restaurants, parks, and monumental buildings:
Forest City's rendering of the DC waterfront project, JDLand
Importantly, according to Amar, the Creative City is an increasingly privatized city, run by real estate management or other kinds of corporations.

Amar's keynote primarily explored the new fantasy cities of the Third World, spectacular, monumental, high modernist cities modeled on Dubai. These new cities are managed primarily or completely by private corporations and highly secure, defended by either state militaries or by private police, and funded by Saudi, Qatari, or other Gulf investment groups.

High modernism of this new sort has appeared in DC, in City Center. As reported in December in the Post:
Qatar’s real estate investment arm decided in 2010 to pump $650 million into City Center, becoming the main owner of the $1 billion project on the site of the District’s old convention center in Northwest Washington...“Qatar is a family business with a seat at the United Nations,” said Chase Untermeyer, a business consultant who was U.S. ambassador to Qatar under President George W. Bush. “It doesn’t really matter who owns Al Jazeera or Qatari Diar [the state-owned real estate investment company] because it’s all part of the same family business.”
Here is an image of a planned hotel at City Center, which will join luxury retail: "Dior, Herm├Ęs, Longchamp, Paul Stuart, Salvatore Ferragamo and Zadig & Voltaire. Tumi and Allen Edmonds have both already opened their stores and Burberry, Hugo Boss and Kate Spade have announced their plans to follow." (Post, April 23, 2014):
Washington Post, April 23, 2014
Amar noted that these new forms of spectacular high modernism funded by Royal families are created for a wealthy crowd who seek megasecurity, to be protected from the rest of the city in enclaves, including from people who work for them. In contrast to such exclusive cities or enclaves, those in Tahrir Square in Egypt called for an integrative city. What kinds of cities do monarchies create? Can DC be an integrative city?

P.S. What would Jane Jacobs say? Jane Jacobs harshly criticized such urban renewal based on "cataclysmic money," huge investments that fundamentally change a section of the city. Jacobs called for gradual change in communities and gradual money invested in neighborhoods.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Interesting Graphs about 1980s/1990s DC

The Wire City narrative presents cities like Baltimore and DC as emerging out of a past of chaos and devastation. The show "The Wire" repeats the narrative that the city was destroyed, but now it is finally recovered and vibrant. With the riots in 1968, the murder rates of the past, and the problems since then, DC seems like a prime example of a city once in decline and in chaos, which is now on the upswing. I happened upon a 1998 report written by Craig Johnson and John Mikesell, professors at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, about the financial state of the District leading up to the take over by the Control Board in 1995.(1) In general, they criticized the financial affairs of DC. However, these graphs were surprising.

In Figure 1, we can see per capita income in DC (black bars) and in the US (white bars) from 1986 to 1995. Over this period, per capita income is continually increasing, except in 1991 (the middle bar). DC income is also always above the national per capital income level:


In Figure 2, we can see the Total Annual Assessed Valuation of Commercial (black bars) and Residential (white bars) Property from 1986 to 1995. We can see the assessed value of both forms of property increasing through 1992. Residential value is still increasing until 1995, while commercial property values are decreasing:


In Figure 3, we can a significant drop in construction and the value of construction from 1988 to 1995:


In Figure 4, we can see the DC Operating Deficits from 1986 to 1995. The DC government is operating at a deficit in 1990 and 1994. In 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, and 1993, the DC government was operating with a surplus:


So, was DC on an upswing through the 1980s? through the 1970s and the 1980s? What happened in 1994 and 1995? I'm not suggesting that a downturn could happen any moment, rather I am asking: Have the narratives of the DC's past been incorrect? And what have people done based on these perceptions of DC's past?


(1) Johnson, Craig L., and John L. Mikesell. 1998. The Collapse of Federal Fiscal Home Rule in the District of Columbia: An Analysis of Municipal Financial Condition. Bloomington, Ind: School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Centaur State and Gentrification in Baltimore

Today I was looking through files of slides at the National Archives in College Park, in search of photos of the Potomac Gardens public housing project. I came across a file titled "Housing (Renewal)/Urban Homesteading," which was about Baltimore. The photos showed many empty 19th-century houses in the Otterbein, Barre Circle, and Stirling St. areas of Baltimore in 1980. No one was around, except one person walking by in one picture, but the houses were encircled with fencing and under renovation. Under urban homesteading programs, cities like Baltimore sold abandoned houses for $1 to those who promised to renovate them. What caught my eye were two photos: one of a "Relocation Office" run by the city of Baltimore and the other was a sign selling "Fourteen Fine Townhomes" by a subsidiary of Lovell/IMG Holding.

Why was no one living in these houses? What had happened? In 1967 or 1968, in order to expand a highway, Baltimore established a condemnation line. Within this line, a swath of Baltimore would be condemned and demolished, including Barre Circle, Sharp-Leadenhall, Fells Point, etc. In addition, several high-rise residential buildings were also planned in Otterbein and Stirling St. It seems that this process of condemnation for the highway did not begin until 1972, which led to the city owning at least 100 houses (maybe many more?). This explains the photo of the Relocation Center. Through a Relocation Center like the one I saw in the photo, the city moved people out of their houses and out of their neighborhood. 

Very quickly, in 1973 and 1974, the city declared that the highway plans and the high-rise buildings had been scrapped, in part due to public outcry. The continually indecision about the highway and building plans since the 1960s had led the overwhelming majority of residents to move away, owners not to make repairs or needed renovations, and the city not to provide services or repair infrastructure. One resident told the Baltimore Sun that this process made the area "into a ghetto." 

At about the same time, the city started its urban homesteading program, selling the condemned houses for $1. Otterbein soon became quite a tony neighborhood. Developers also arrived in the area, building luxury townhouses. This explains the Lovell/IMG Holding sign in the photo. Overseas real estate developers like Lovell/IMG (IMG Homes is a subsidiary of Investors Management Group) were investing throughout the Baltimore-Washington area. For example, the fourteen townhouses built by Lovell/IMG in Otterbein priced (according to a 1981 Baltimore Sun article) at $140,000 (about $375,000 today). The 19th-century Victorian history was celebrated, and a historic district created. (In this post and this post, I wrote a bit about the problem of seeking to return to the Victorian era.)

Why weren't the former residents invited back? The city of Baltimore sought to "attract back into the city individuals whose incomes can help balance the increasing proportion of low-income families in the city," to "increase the tax base," and to create on every homestead block "a new neighborhood" (quotations taken from Emily Lieb's excellent Columbia University dissertation on Baltimore). The point of urban homesteading was not for the former residents to return, but rather was to bring new wealthier residents to the city. These areas of the city were seen as merely abandoned and seen as profitable. Their history was Victorian, not the history of the recent past. According to CUNY Geography professor Neil Smith's rent gap theory, gentrification "is most likely to occur in areas experiencing a sufficiently large gap between actual and potential land values" (p. 464). These areas had decreased so severely in value, but many could see their potential value. In the view of the city of Baltimore and the real estate industry, this potential value required a new kind of person with a certain kind of taste and the income to realize this taste.

UC Berkeley sociology professor Loic Wacquant talks often about the "centaur state," how the state punishes the poor (through displacement, mass incarceration, and paternalist disciplining) and nurtures the middle class and the wealthy. Did/does Baltimore experience the centaur state? What was the role of companies like Lovell/IMG and the real estate industry? What happened to all the people who passed through the Relocation Office? Did they try to buy a house for $1? Were they rejected? Did this happen in DC?

P.S. For more about urban pioneers and vigilantes, see my previous post "Capitol Hill Vigilantes."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Keep Public Housing II

According to Where are They Now?, a fascinating study of those evicted from SW, "Southwest Washington was a rat-infested, refuse-covered, unsanitary slum," from which DC cleared out the housing and 23,500 residents by 1960 "in order to build a 'new town in the city' with air-conditioned apartments for middle and upper income groups as well as some 929 public housing units." I wrote previously about how some of those displaced became sick with grief, similar to that experienced by a death in the family. This was a common reaction to such relocations nationwide.

Before 1960, those who had lived in SW often resided with extended family or made extra money housing boarders. The housing market in DC, especially for African Americans, was incredibly difficult, and was made more difficult after the evictions of 1960 with thousands of residents looking for new housing. A lucky few made it into public housing or adequate private housing. The Where are They Now? researchers were most surprised by the different responses from those who had moved to public housing and from those who had moved to private housing. In line with the popular dislike of public housing in the 1960s, the researchers had expected much better experiences among those in private housing. They instead found: "the public housing resident is a much more integrated, optimistic, and informed person than the private housing dweller. The picture is consistent in every area that was studied." Why? While they complained about the institutional nature of public housing (especially the bureaucratic rules), the public housing residents had a sense of community. The researchers found:
The respondents in public housing are less anomic, more hopeful as to what the future will bring them, have a greater sense of belonging to their new neighborhoods, believe more strongly that they can organize for community improvement, have a great knowledge of community institutions, and believe to a greater extent that the Government actions to eliminate the blight of old Southwest was correct.
These social connections are a much needed by low-income residents, and public housing can enhance such connections. (see also the comment here by a former resident Arthur Capper public housing project)

When the lucky few moved into public housing, however, they were no longer allowed to house members of their extended families or boarders. In interviews, former public housing residents remembered cousins or other relatives periodically living with them. To move into public housing, families had to be transformed into more nuclear families. This was likely also the case with private apartments that often are zoned to have a certain number of residents. As a result of these restrictive policies, many people likely became homeless for various periods of time.

Now, with the tearing down of public housing and replacement of it with mixed-income, families are transformed again. The Post had an article about the stalled redevelopment of the several public housing projects, including Lincoln Heights. Finally, some Lincoln Heights residents were invited to move into a new mixed-income building. The article describes how one former resident moved into a wonderful new apartment. Another resident, however, "opted to stay where she was. She was approved for a one-bedroom but did not want to leave her two adult sons on the street." The family was being transformed again, as relatives had to be neglected and the family reduced to just one person or just a few people, who can fit within the studios and one-bedroom apartments that might be available in DC. Luckily, the woman could choose to stay in Lincoln Heights public housing and be with her sons.

Public housing must remain as an option for people. This post also suggests that affordable housing must be more than studios and one-bedrooms. All sorts of people do miraculous work taking in relatives, friends of friends, friends of relatives, and others desperately in need of housing. This system of mutual aid has become overloaded too, which might explain the recent surge in homelessness that left one mother with a two-week-old baby homeless. Public housing must remain an option for our DC neighbors.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Keep Public Housing

I was struck by this comment in the Washington City Paper (Chatter, Shelter Skelter, 3/21/14) a week or two ago:
[DC] Public officials attributed the crisis to a confluence of little affordable housing and the vapor trails of the Great Recession. Reader spmoore offered a diagnosis: "The demolition and elimination of thousands of public housing units in the last 10 to 15 years has resulted in a definite spike in family homelessness. There are simply less units to house low income families in need…Society and the city seems perfectly fine with demolishing public housing, negatively stereotyping public housing, and then act so concerned about the homeless spike."
An apartment in public housing is a whole lot better than being homeless. I happened to have dinner in Potomac Gardens on Tuesday evening. It was a great time eating, talking, and, yes, visioning with a small group of Potomac Gardens residents, local homeowners, and grassroots community organizers. This was part of Art in Praxis' experiment, "The Future of [Your] Street" "to activate neighbors in collectively shaping the kind of community they want to live in and be a part of." Potomac Gardens and Hopkins as public housing projects were an essential part of this vision.

The dinner guests discussed ideas that so closely resembled those concepts used in urban sociology, such as Logan and Molotch's Urban Fortunes. They spoke about the difficulties caused by a mindset focused on protecting or increasing housing values and/or on renovating houses as an investment, especially real estate agents and investment groups seeking to maximize their investments (exchange value), as opposed to the mindset of those focused on having a home and building a community to satisfy social and personal needs (use value)(see pp. 1-2 of Urban Fortunes). Many people have a mix of these, but renters have the most interest in use value, of course. As a result, more of the neighborhood was being mobilized for those with higher incomes and for investors than for renters, especially low-income renters, and those homeowners focused more on use value.

One Potomac Gardens resident spoke so thoughtfully about how he wanted more interactions with the neighborhood like this dinner because he felt that those who were new to the neighborhood needed to know things (such as, I think, the norms and folkways of the neighborhood) to feel more comfortable in the neighborhood. This knowledge would allow people to move beyond their imaginations (or common assumptions) and fears about public housing and about the neighborhood (like assumptions about cities based on "The Wire"). This might allow for a more inclusive discussion about The Future of Our Street/Community.

Are you interested in joining in the visioning, in which public housing is fundamental to the vision?