Achieving “One City” in Washington, D.C.

Cultural diversity should be a strength for any city, but when those diverse groups aren’t communicating with each other like good city-dwellers should, there are bound to be problems. Issues of city unity here in Washington, D.C. have been brought to the forefront in recent years as the city undergoes dramatic changes, namely in the gentrification of long-impoverished neighborhoods and the massive influx of affluent, mostly white new residents to the District, pushing out many blacks. Indeed, D.C. is “Chocolate City” no more.

Current mayor Vincent Gray came to power in 2010 in a surprise upset over the sitting, and generally popular, former mayor Adrian Fenty. Despite both candidates being black, their campaigns were exaggeratedly characterized as representing two separate directions for the city inflected by race: an embrace of young moneyed professionals flooding the city (Fenty) or a refocus on D.C.’s long-established, less-affluent black community (Gray). While Fenty beat Gray in the city’s wealthiest wards and wards experiencing the most recent gentrification (Wards 1, 2, 3, and 6), Gray’s victory rested on his strong support in more heavily black and/or less affluent parts of the city (namely Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8) (full election results here). The campaign’s portrayal of Fenty’s leadership style as rude, abrasive, and cutthroat certainly had a role in swaying voters, but nonetheless, Gray’s win was moreover hailed by the Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy as a “populist revolt”. And while I’m not a fan of Milloy’s usual bombast and confrontational treatment of race issues in Washington, his over-the-top language on the election does, I believe, speak to certain, more rational, perspectives among D.C.’s black community. He has a point.

The election of Mayor Gray hasn’t slowed the march of gentrification and neighborhood change in D.C., but Gray has tried to focus on uniting the city’s diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups, in part with his administration’s ever-present motto: “One City”. It’s a noble goal, as D.C.’s geographies of division become more obvious and pronounced. Even at the D.C. Council level, much of the political dialogue among council members focuses on what is good or bad for “my” ward, rather than the city at large.

It seems neighborhood civic associations aren’t playing nice either, according to an illuminating piece in the Washington Post. For nearly 100 years, D.C. has had two separate organizations serving as bodies “unifying” civic associations across the city: the Federation of Citizens Associations and the Federation of Civic Associations. The Citizens federation was formed in 1910 and soon became an all-white organization, excluding blacks through a formal vote. The Civic federation was formed in response to the exclusion eleven years later to serve Washington’s black community. Today the blatant racism of the past is all but a memory and the federations’ influence has waned considerably since successful home rule developments in the 1970s. But the racial foundations of the organizations linger today, and while each group claims to represent a voice for all District residents, in effect they still represent two distinct Washingtons: White D.C. and Black D.C.

In the respective meetings covered by reporter Mike Debonis, twelve of the 13 people at the Citizens federation meeting were white, while 24 of the 26 people at the Civic federation meeting were black. While the Citizens federation has an unorganized internet presence, leaving their leadership difficult to gather, the Civic federation’s website lists current officers as hailing from Dupont Park, Fairlawn, Northeast Boundary, Kingman Park, Congress Heights, South Manor Park, and Queens Chapel — predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Wards 4, 7, and 8. Recent efforts to merge the two organizations, or at the very least cooperate in open dialogue, have unfortunately failed, apparently due to petty squabbling and political territoriality. While these civic groups certainly don’t have the political clout they once did, the divisions between them are indicative of the rifts occurring in the city as a whole, as the geographies of race and socioeconomic status morph and, as in many American cities, become more sharply segregated.

Ensuring a city can maintain diverse neighborhoods in the face of population growth and economic boom is no small task. But a healthy public dialogue addressing city issues should be possible regardless of race and where these communities are. Understanding the need for cooperation across the divide is fundamental to achieving “One City”.

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A Look Back at “American Murder Mystery”

In 2008, Hanna Rosin investigated the troubling patterns of violent crime in Memphis that cast doubt upon what we thought we knew about urban crime prevention. This fascinating, in-depth article is nearly four years old, but just by taking a look at a 2012 ranking of America’s most dangerous cities, it feels just as relevant now. That’s because, as Hanna Rosin describes, the patterns of urban crime in the U.S. are changing, and rather than our largest cities also being home to the highest crime rates (Chicago’s recent homicide troubles notwithstanding), mid-sized cities like Cleveland, Orlando, and the story’s focus city of Memphis are now showing up on these lists regularly. In Rosin’s words, she wonders, “why has Elvis’s hometown turned into America’s new South Bronx?”

But the crux of Rosin’s article is that within Memphis, the destruction of concentrated public housing hasn’t brought down city crime rates nor has it granted low-income residents new opportunities for improvement. Instead, the results of decentralizing the city’s public housing (via new, smaller developments and Section 8) has broadened the geography of crime throughout Memphis, bringing gang activity, drug dealing, and violent assaults to once quaint, care-free neighborhoods. This flies in the face of what so many sociologists and urban theorists have been led to believe, including myself, since the failure of public housing towers in the 1960s and 70s: mix low-income families throughout middle- and upper-income communities and they will be raised out of poverty and crime through stronger social and economic networks.

But as Rosin points out in her analysis, de-concentration shouldn’t take all the blame for Memphis’s crime woes because the fundamental problems facing the urban poor in large part remain and haven’t been addressed in full. This actually reminds me of the well-intentioned but incompletely thought-out plans for public housing in the 60s that would house hundreds of families in giant “towers in the park”. The new buildings started out clean and new, and there was an assumption that these beautiful surroundings would inspire people to be lifted out of poverty. But if the services, maintenance, and general long-term upkeep plans aren’t established, things fall apart quickly. This roughly sums up the saga of Pruitt-Igoe, a story I’d like to go more in-depth on in later posts. Just as towers in the park were ill-equipped for long-term habitation, perhaps so too are the HOPE VI-style public housing that still fails to address core needs. For example, Rosin notes that one major problem facing the relocated poor in Memphis is that the services they depended on remained at their old sites or were concentrated downtown, leaving many with less support than before the move.

For a more eloquent exploration of these issues, I highly recommend this read. In particular, the video featured alongside the article featuring Phyllis Betts from the University of Memphis describing the current the national dialogue on urban crime is really fascinating.

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99% Invisible: Skateboarding and the Control of Public Space

I could probably devote this blog entirely to promoting each new 99% Invisible podcast because the series is just so damn interesting. But for now, I’ll just highlight a recent episode focusing on skateboarding in Philadelphia’s famous LOVE Park and the city’s efforts to crack down on the “anti-social” behavior. Kudos to park designer Edmund Bacon for standing up for his original design and supporting the organic use of his park as a skateboarding mecca.

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Photo by Robert Francis

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Aris Venetikidis: Making sense of maps

Cognitive maps, cartographic design, and the simplification of a complex transit system. Really cool work by Aris Venetikidis.

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“Scum Villages” in Amsterdam?

Late last year I was alarmed to read about a program put forward in Amsterdam to create so-called “scum villages” to house “persistent troublemakers” tormenting city communities. It’s a fascinating and rather morally questionable way of dealing with anti-social citizens: relocate and isolate them. While I think anyone would love to see their havoc-wreaking neighbors shipped out of sight so you can finally get a good night sleep, if you look at it from the perspective of greater societal welfare, the repercussions of the plan are more alarming. So many questions arise: What evidence is there that isolating bad seeds is the best way to pacify neighborhoods? Is the goal to preserve quality of life for all Dutch, or to nurture the model citizens while damning the rest? Are the poor or ethnic minorities more subject to relocation than the rest of society? Will facilities in these “scum villages” truly be on par with those in the rest of Amsterdam?

As the article notes, this kind of project has been done before, with predictable results for anyone familiar with public housing pitfalls:

The Dutch Parool newspaper observed that the policy was not a new one. In the 19th century, troublemakers were moved to special villages in Drenthe and Overijssel outside Amsterdam. The villages were rarely successful, becoming sink estates for the lawless.

My vision for these “scum villages” (a term which ironically seems to fly in the social welfare-friendly Netherlands, and yet one that I can’t imagine being tied to public policy in the U.S.) is in line with what has happened in Pruitt-Igoe, Cabrini-Green, Queensbridge, and any specialized public housing system that provides “modern” housing for society’s fringe while leaving them without adequate building maintenance, retail, recreation, or public services. And that is a vision of hopelessness, crime, and a general breakdown of the social order. But if Mayor van der Laan’s goal is to simply keep anti-social Amsterdamers out of sight and out of mind, perhaps such consequences would still count as a success.

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