Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Shades of Gray

The final Braddock Road community meeting is set for tomorrow (Thursday, January 24) from 6 to 9 p.m. at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and we were told in the E-mail reminder that one of the topics for discussion will be "community diversity elements."

The growing emphasis on "diversity" in these community meetings has puzzled the Growler, who suspects that City staff as well as the politicians don't really know the dynamic demographic history of this neighborhood.

As with the half-forgotten history of segregated Jefferson School (which surprised a number of the Growler's readers last November), it's time to put diversity into perspective with some eye-opening data mined from Barrett Library's Local History collection. It bears out what the oldest residents of the neighborhood remember and have told the Growler, facts that the baby boomer generation that came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s never knew or conveniently forgot.

First, this neighborhood has always been diverse, though some of its institutions such as schools and recreation centers were segregated until well into the 1960s.

If you flip between the white and "colored" sections of the 1907 Richmond's Directory for the city of Alexandria and compare addresses, it's clear that African-Americans and whites lived side-by-side in this community a century ago just as they do today.

Take the Queen Street corridor for example. Jeweler Charles Evard (white) and foreman Thomas Fairfax (white) lived at 1017 Queen Street, across the street from domestics Fanny, Ida and Florence Smith (black). The Smiths lived two doors down from watchman Marshall Stout (white).

In the 1100 block, railroad car inspector William J. Lynch (white), lived at 1107 while widow Elizabeth Terrell (black) and her daughters Dora and Mary (black) resided at 1119-1/2.

In the 1200 block of Queen Street, railroad workers Edward and Michael O'Neil (white) lived next door to barber Walter Standard (black).

The 1300 block of Queen was a veritable checkerboard. Laborer George W. Smoot (white) lived at 1303 Queen, while domestic Martha Keith (black) and cook Oliver Keith (black) lived next door at 1305. In the middle of the block at 1309 Queen Street lived prosperous barber Henry C. Thompson (black), who operated a shop at 1101 Duke Street. Carpenter Clinton Jones and laborer Norman Simms (both white) lived at 1323 Queen near the end of the block.

It's also worth noting that a number of white merchants in Parker-Gray lived above their stores, including such characters as the famous "Chicken Lady" who sold her clucking poultry out of the basement of her house in the 1000 block of Queen Street.

Parker-Gray was not a wealthy neighborhood. But its citizens — both white and black — had good jobs for that time, most of them with the RF&P railroad at nearby Potomac Yard, and new houses were being built in Parker-Gray to accommodate these citizens.

Contrast this diversity with the Del Ray community at the same era. As the Alexandria Gazette reminded us in last week's edition, the Town of Potomac (founded in 1908 and later annexed by the City) barred blacks from owning homes.

It was another half century before African-Americans were finally permitted to start moving into Del Ray. Even then, the community was not welcoming and the following anecdote may help readers understand why black residents of Del Ray feel more comfortable attending ICCA meetings than those of the Del Ray Citizens Association.

A Washington Post article from June 30, 1962 details how 18 bullets from a .22 caliber rifle were fired into the Del Ray home of Lawrence E. Henderson, a 22-year old black who had moved from the 1600 block of Princess Street in Parker-Gray to Raymond Avenue with his wife and infant son. Fortunately the family was not injured, but Mr. Henderson told a Post reporter that "When we moved to Princess street, it was white and colored living side by side. We didn't have any trouble and we didn't expect any trouble here, either."

A second and even more startling conclusion can be drawn from the Census data on Parker-Gray. While ours is a historic black neighborhood, it was never exclusively black. In fact, there was a substantial white population at most times and in several decades past and present these residents constituted the majority.

Here's the facts:

The 1960 Census for Alexandria reveals that in Tract 16 (Parker-Gray and much of today's Braddock Road area), blacks comprised 42.6 percent of the population.

Ten years later, that percentage fell to 30.8 percent, meaning only a third of the neighborhood was black in 1970.

Ten years later in 1980, the percentage of African-Americans in Census Tract 16 had soared to nearly 90%, or triple the levels of 1970.

But this was a high water mark and not a lasting change. By 2000, blacks made up only 45% of the population of Census Tract 16, falling back to the levels of the 1960 Census. And if the pattern of estate sales over the last few years are any indication, the 2010 Census will probably show an even smaller proportion of African-Americans living in Parker-Gray.

So what we have seen over time is not a neighborhood that was born as an African-American community and remained steadfastly so until recently. Instead, the black population in an integrated neighborhood surged temporarily for a brief period in the last quarter of the 20th century and then fell back again.

Interestingly, blacks and whites together clamored in the late 1960s for improvements in Parker-Gray. A March 1970 study entitled "Final Report: Regeneration Concepts [in] Census Tract 16," commissioned by the City and conducted by Westinghouse Management Services, Inc., reveals that there was deep-seated mistrust of the City, "expressed in numerous instances by both white and black citizens" (Westinghouse Study, p. 3). Together these citizens agitated for better housing, improved streetscaping — the study notes that there were neither sidewalks nor even gutters in Parker-Gray at the time — and better recreational facilities.

So what explains the dramatic but temporary shift in demographics in Parker-Gray from the 1960s to the 1980s?

One of the most important clues lies in the final report of a 1976 study funded by the National Endowment for the Arts' Architecture & Environment Program. It was initiated by local black activist Eudora Lyles, who advocated to preserve the neighborhood for black residents.

The NEA study, conducted by Hammer Siler George Associates, found that the historic preservation movement in Old Town Alexandria played a significant role in the evolving demographic profile of Parker-Gray.

Old Town had always included a number of small but important black neighborhoods, but while it was still an industrial and railroad community it was home to many working class whites as well.

With educated and affluent classes buying and restoring Colonial and Federal homes in Old Town from 1960 on — the NEA study called them "Old Town Whites" — blue collar whites were rapidly displaced. These whites, according to the NEA study (p. 9) "once occupied a substantial number of public housing units in downtown."

(Yes, the face of public housing in Parker-Gray has evolved over time too. It was not exclusively black, and in fact until public housing was integrated in the 1960s, disadvantaged whites had their own segregated project at John Roberts Homes (which was ultimately torn down in 1983 to make way for Colecroft).)

In the 1960s, working class Old Town whites, many of whom were "rural immigrant whites" according to the NEA study (p. 11) were pushed into unrestored and hence affordable homes in Parker-Gray, which had fewer rehabilitated homes and a higher percentage of rental properties. This explains in large measure the rise in the proportion of the white population in Parker-Gray from 1960 to 1970.

Another factor was also at work. With the triumph of the civil rights movement and changes in Federal laws, more housing opportunities were becoming available for African-Americans elsewhere in the City — in Lynhaven and eventually other neighborhoods. Many prosperous black families seized these opportunities and left Parker-Gray or Old Town for other sections of Alexandria.

Near the end of the 1970s, as the NEA study noted, working class whites left Parker-Gray in droves, reflecting a nationwide trend of white flight to the suburbs. "Modest income white numbers have simply dwindled west of Washington Street, down in many cases to elderly owners and renters planning to finish their years in their present quarters and to 'drifters,' skid-row poor, occupying very poor and often one-room housing." (NEA Study, p. 12)

Meanwhile lower-income blacks were pushed into Parker-Gray as Old Town rental housing became became ever more scarce and expensive.

"Realtors and rehabbers contacted during this study indicated that at least by late 1973, Old Town was definitely short of 'unpreserved' old housing" (NEA Study, p. 12). Redevelopment projects in historic black Old Town neighborhoods like the "Dip" displaced blacks, forcing them to seek alternative housing in Parker-Gray. The situation was exacerbated by an overall loss of housing units in Census Tract 16: there was a loss of more than 20 percent of the private housing stock in "Historic Downtown Alexandria" from 1970 to 1975 (NEA Study, p. 13), a loss attributable in part to clearance of dilapidated housing as well as formal urban renewal projects.

Knitted together, these factors dramatically changed the character of Parker-Gray from a stable, diverse working class neighborhood with a number of distinctive middle-class homes into a more crowded, segregated and (as the Westinghouse study noted) more explosive neighborhood.

Twenty years later, the pendulum had swung again. Disenchanted with the suburban life style and exhausted by long commutes, Washingtonians were migrating back to inner city neighborhoods -- a phenomenon still sweeping the country and one that ironically has been promoted by the smart growth movement. Black homeowners in Parker-Gray pushed back against crime and later allied with white newcomers to fight the drug trade and other local ills.

By 1990, Parker-Gray as well as Del Ray (which had also experienced white flight) was being rediscovered by a new generation of more affluent and sophisticated homeowners. And not all of these were white; there are now high-income black and Hispanic professionals living here as well as Asians. At the same time Parker-Gray was undergoing its rediscovery, African-American families here rejected the NEA consultants' proposal in a community vote — by a margin to 10 to 1 — to create a trust fund to keep home values low for future black residents, particularly renters. These homeowners and their heirs gladly sold their dwellings for top dollar to the new owners flocking into the neighborhood.

In the end, the Census data and past community development studies demonstrate that the City's current preoccupation with freezing the neighborhood in one era, with a focus on a single ethnic identity and a single socioeconomic class — individuals with little or no income — is artificial. It is based on a brief and uncharacteristic era plucked arbitrarily from the continuum that is Parker-Gray history and ignores the economic and racial diversity the neighborhood has always had.

So let's start talking about the future at these meetings and dispense with the misplaced nostalgia. The past is, indeed, prologue.