Black parishioners of St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church
1928 table showing farm acreage in the D.C. area; Anacostia is the largest circle, near center
Less than fifty years later, Anacostia's schools were 83% over capacity (D.C. schools elsewhere were 16% over capacity); the federal and D.C. governments owned more buildings through foreclosure than in any other part of the district; and over 75% of Anacostia's land was zoned for apartments, when D.C. zoning law prescribed an 80% rate of single family occupancy in the other parts of the city. (3)
This radical transformation of Anacostia could be a simple story of rapid population growth and extremely poor zoning laws. But it is also the story of urban renewal and the expansion of bureaucracy on one side of the river, and the creation of racialized public housing ghettos on the other. The (indirect) role of the federal government in the creation of ghettos elsewhere in the country through FHA/HOLC/VA loans, the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, and subsidies for infrastructure improvements connecting city to suburb has been well documented by Arnold Hirsch, George Lipsitz, Douglas Massey, and Nancy Denton among others. They show that the federal government provided the funds and enabling legislation for local authorities to create racialized ghettos. Anacostia provides an example in which the federal government was more directly, and self-interestedly, involved.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Washington's poorest citizens lived in tenement housing in the alleys of the Nation's Capital; at the turn of the century, blacks comprised two-thirds of the alley population. Various acts of Congress dating back to 1872, including the 1914 Alley Dwelling Act which was declared unconstitutional, attempted to eradicate the alley population, which persisted into the 1940s. In 1930 the alley population stood at 11,000-13,000 people, down from its high of 25,000.
The National Capital Parks and Planning Commission addressed the alley problem in its 1930 comprehensive plan for the District. The NCPPC called for a Congressional act which would give the President and local agencies of the federal government the power to purchase/condemn alley buildings and to relocate alley residents, primarily to vacant street dwellings elsewhere in the District. The Commission strove "to assure street property owners and tenants that the character of their neighborhoods will not be injured. The search for vacant houses is confined to negro blocks so as not to raise any question as to the population of a given square."(4) The NCPPC justified the demolition of alley dwellings on the grounds of code violations and building obsolescence, but also through a moral appeal that alley tenants were particularly disposed to crime, delinquency, and communicable disease. The Commission's intent to relocate these tenants exclusively in black neighborhoods ignored the minority of white alley dwellers as well as the class-based heterogeneity of black neighborhoods. The Commission added, "Also, it is recognized that there are differences among the negroes and it is not proposed to give respectable colored neighborhoods a new character by flooding them with undesirable new tenants. This is a difficult problem. all alley dwellers are not undesirable neighbors. The transition must be handled with consideration and tact." (5)
Although the Commission claimed that enough vacant street dwellings were available to house the relocated alley dwellers, their numbers actually argued otherwise. The NCPPC's efforts would have rehoused families from 1,620 alley dwellings in 510 vacant street houses. If we assume that the street dwellings were bigger and thus able to accomodate multiple families, the NCPPC's formula would have worked. However, affordability destroyed the feasibility of this solution. In a breakdown of alley dwelling rents, the Commission reported that 133 alley dwellings rented at between one and two dollars per room per month; 399 rented between two and three dollars per month; 842 cost between three and four dollars a month; 206 between four and five dollars; and 40 cost above five dollars. In contrast, no street dwellings were available for between one and two dollars; only 44 rented for between two and three dollars; 122 cost between three and four dollars; 162 between four and five dollars; and 182 rented for over five dollars, per room per month. (6) Because the figures for street dwellings represent rent costs per room, unless multiple families occupied a single room they could not hope to piece together the higher rents.
Public housing in D.C. as of 1950
Level of deterioration in D.C. residential dwellings; darker colors represent a higher % of unsafe housing
1950 map showing locations of decentralized government centers
The NCPC planned that some of the redeveloped areas would be used again for housing, and it wanted a variety of income groups housed there, "not just displaced lower income groups." (10) This caused a net decrease in housing for the poorest residents of D.C. Where were low income families to go? The NCPC concluded in 1965 that D.C. probably couldn't house all its low income families because 1) the District's low height requirement precluded a high-rise solution, and 2) the expansion of the federal government in D.C. drove up land prices and made it unfeasible to find room and to pay for construction of low income housing. The NCPC proposed instead that low income black families could be housed through "a wide extension of the housing supply available to non-whites by a significant integration of housing throughout the metro area. It must occur on a scale sufficiently large to avoid "blockbusting" activities." (11). Although the NCPC plan recognized suburban restrictive covenants as one of the factors preventing low income black families from finding good housing, it failed to see that the significantly lower incomes of many black families would prevent them from being able to afford down payments and mortgages for suburban housing. An NCPC document written a year later listed the loss of purchasing power for blacks in the D.C. area due to discrimination (i.e., unequal pay for equal work/training) at $300,000,000 per year.
Map showing existing residential densities in D.C. in mid-60s; darker colors represent higher densities
Unfortunately public improvements didn't keep pace with the glut of apartment construction in Anacostia during the period. A lack of health care facilities in the 1970s forced residents to make long bus trips across the river to D.C. General Hospital and public health clinics; Anacostia schools in 1970 were 83% over capacity; and the Anacostia subway station was among the lowest priority projects during Metro construction during the 1970s. Local residents asked Metro officials to review this decision in light of the lack of work opportunities in Anacostia; the few bus routes going directly to the District, compared with other outlying areas; the topography and street design of Anacostia, which made extensive bus service impractical; and the fact that it would serve 160,000 people. In 1972 the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation challenged Metro's plans to bypass the community entirely and provide direct service to Suitland, Maryland. Although the Anacostia station was retained, it remained one of the last to be built in the initial stages of Metro construction.
Rather than rehabilitate developments like the Congress Park Apartments, which was built in 1950, comprised 684 apartments in 80 buildings, and was abandoned less than twenty years later, private developers and the National Capital Housing Authority continued to build new (and often shabbily constructed) public housing. The explosion of apartment construction in Anacostia far exceeded the need for public housing in the '60s. In 1970 in the Anacostia/Barry's Farm area, one of the oldest neighborhoods in east of the river, one third of the total housing stock was garden apartments less than ten years old. This translated into a significant number of foreclosed and abandoned properties; by 1970 the vacancy rate in Anacostia was 4.5%, compared to the city wide rate of ony 2.8%.
Apartments constructed during the 1960s, vacant today.
Attempts by local activists to change the situation exposed class-based fault lines within the black community. A townhouse development in 1975 was the first single-family housing development constructed in Anacostia in 25 years. During the 70s a nonprofit organization called Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc. gave renovation loans and coordinated bank funding to first time home buyers who were unable to secure loans by themselves in District banks. The D.C. government ran a similar lending program at the same time, but it proved less popular. Mary Kolesar, the Anacostia head of the D.C. Neighborhood Improvement Program, commented about the residents, "They aren't enamored with city programs. Their fear was that if you let a housing inspector in your house, they [the city] were going to take it from you." (15) Representatives from Neighborhood Housing Services joined the Frederick Douglass Community Improvement Council and the Fort Stanton Civic Association to request that the D.C. government rezone a fifty block area from mixed use to single family dwellings. Their concern was chiefly for the vacant land which existed in the area and their plan exempted most of the existing businesses and apartment houses there, but it still raised the ire of some Anacostia residents and developers. One southeast developer labelled it "snob zoning at best" while a resident argued that "we have to be cautious that this works for the benefit of citizens now living in Anacostia--not for the relocation of those citizens." (16) Too many Anacostia residents experienced urban renewal and relocation elsewhere in the city to feel completely comfortable with the proposed rezoning, which the D.C. government ultimately approved. Henry Lutterlough of the Fort Stanton Civic Association said, "It's very helpful to us out here to have this type of zoning. We can begin to become part of Washington now. In the past we've been isolated because of the helter-skelter way people were allowed to build here. Now we can attract people of the type we'd like to have as neighbors." (17) This class division manifested itself in other ways as well; when the lower middle class members of his congregation balked at the idea of a halfway house next to the church, Reverend George Stallings commented, "This is the kind of experience [that makes me think] my people have kind of gone to sleep on this whole thing." (18)
Certainly middle class blacks living in Anacostia during the 1970s were not to blame for their desire to see the area return to the level of prosperity and homeownership black communities there had enjoyed in earlier days. Nor can they be blamed for their concern over the number of vacant buildings, a rising crime rate, and a growing drug problem. The transformation of Anacostia into the racialized ghetto of today was a complex process which encompassed a variety of factors, many of them familiar to other cities; however in Washington, at least part of the responsibility rested with a federal government whose priority was its own expansion and public image, rather than the needs of the citizens in its backyard.
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1 National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, _Plans and Studies: Washington and Vicinity_ 1928: 14, 16 2 Ibid 11,52 3 Washington D.C. Department of Urban Renewal, _Washington's Far Southeast '70 Report_ 1970: 23 4 National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, _Reports and Plans, Washington Region_ 1930: 76 5 Ibid 6 Ibid 83 7 National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, _Washington Present and Future_ 1950: 20. 8 National Capital Planning Commission, _Problems of Housing People in Washington, D.C._ 1966: 49 9 Ibid 107 10 National Capital Planning Commission and National Capital Regional Planning Council, _A Policies Plan for the Year 2000: The Nation's Capital_ 89 11 National Capital Planning Commission, _1965/1985: Proposed Physical Development Policies for Washington, D.C._ 1965: 35 12 Ibid 23 13 Washington D.C. Department of Urban Renewal 47 14 Ibid 38 15 Patricia Camp, "Neighborhood Housing Services Help People Get Loans to Buy Single Family Homes," _The Washington Post_ Oct 24 1977: A1 16 Anne Oman, "Citizens Opposed Over Proposed Rezoning in Anacostia," _The Washington Post_ Mar 16 1978: DC 02 17 Anne Oman, "Compromise on Rezoning in Anacostia," _The Washington Post_ Sept 7 1978: DC 06 18 Phil McCombs, "Almost All Black Community Now Pondering Its Future," _The Washington Post_ Dec 25 1978: B1