By: Geronimo Collins
The Anacostia Community Museum, located in Southeast Washington and one mile from Frederick Douglass’s home, hosted its grand reopening celebration on Saturday, October 12th after a seven-month-long, $4.5 million renovation. The renovation adds new greenery, seats, lights, and murals to make the museum more communal. It was also the reopening of “A Right to the City,” a photo exhibit highlighting the economic and landscape changes of six DC neighborhoods – Adams Morgan, Anacostia, Brookland, Chinatown, Shaw, and Southwest – over five-plus decades. A Right to the City” is on view at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum through April 20, 2020.
Washington, DC has experienced the highest intensity of gentrification of any U.S. city in the 21st century, which forced most of the city’s low-income black and Latinx populations to relocate to the far north- and southeastern neighborhoods or into DC’s suburbs. Add the preceding years between the post-1968 riots in response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the crack era of the 1990s which saw many middle-class blacks moving to the suburbs at an annual rate of 1 percent of DC’s population, A Right to the City gives a look into what got the ball rolling long before contemporary audiences came to know the G-word.
Each neighborhood featured in the exhibit tells the oft-heard history of each, along with the moments created by local heroes known only by those who lived through these times or culture-keepers. Visitors can also listen to stories from Washingtonians about this bygone era. Here are some key takeaways for those least familiar with DC’s history:
The Adams Morgan Organization was founded in 1972 by several neighborhood advocates and took up the mantle of self-government and community control.
The New Thing Art & Architecture Center was established in 1967 by Collin “Topper” Carew. It was here, young people took classes in creative writing, photography, painting and drawing, filmmaking, and African drum and dance.
Southeast Neighborhood House started its work in 1929 as a social services organization and played a major role in the founding of the youth-led Rebels With A Cause and a tenants association of self-proclaimed welfare mothers living in the Barry Farm Dwellings called the Band of Angels. Eartha Kitt was the Rebels’ most well-known supporter and testified in Congress on the group’s behalf.
“A white man’s road through a black man’s bedroom” was the phrase created during the resident-led fight to stop construction of the North-Central Freeway through Brookland, a neighborhood in Northeast DC. The freeway opposition was led by a truly odd couple – a young black man who worked for the General Services Administration named Reginald H. Booker and an older white man of Syrian descent who worked as a graphic designer and labor organizer named Sammie Abbott.
DC’s Chinatown in its current location (between 5th and 9th streets NW to the east and west, with G Street and Massachusetts Avenue to the north and south) has existed since 1931 and was thriving Chinese community for decades. Because the 1968 riots negatively affected the section of Massachusetts Avenue inhabited by Chinatown residents, many began moving to the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs thus kickstarting Chinatown’s decline. In 1990, the neighborhood was still 66 percent Asian. Once the MCI Center, later the Verizon Center and now Capital One Arena, was built in 1997, Chinese-owned businesses and residences were replaced with national chains such as Ruby Tuesday’s, Legal Sea Foods, and Starbucks. By 2017, only 300 Chinese residents remained in DC’s Chinatown.
Model Inner City Community Organization (MICCO) was founded in the 1960s by Reverend Walter Fauntroy of New Bethel Baptist Church in Northwest DC’s Shaw neighborhood. MICCO’s plan of “Renewal with the people, by the people, and for the people” was implemented to empower the business, community, political, and spiritual leaders of Shaw with resources to make it an economically viable neighborhood.
The federal government’s urban renewal project, deemed by many as the Negro Removal Project, which began in the 1950s had a lasting effect on the smallest quadrant of DC. To make way for federal buildings and the southward extension of downtown DC, 99 percent of the buildings in Southwest were leveled thus forcing 4,500 black families to move to other parts of DC. Only 310 of the 5,900 newly-constructed buildings were moderately-priced housing. This displacement greatly impacted the social fabric of the affected families.
“A Right to the City” is on view at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum through April 20, 2020.