Thursday, July 31, 2008

Tying Up Loose Ends

Over the past year or two, several issues have emerged in our neighborhood that superficially appear to be unrelated.

As the Growler disclosed on Wednesday, while ARHA officials denied that there were Hispanics living in public housing in the Braddock Metro area, they were conducting public meetings for Jefferson Village residents in both English and Spanish as neighbors increasingly observed that more Latinos were moving in to ARHA properties.

Meanwhile, many residents of the Parker-Gray neighborhood were shocked and angered by the City's unexpected attack on "gentrification" prominently featured in the Braddock Road Metro Small Area plan passed earlier this year by the City Council.

Then there's the Braddock Metro small area plan's strange notions about preserving the run-down Queen Street business strip, which many neighbors avoid walking through and which regularly jars the sensibilities of anyone who stumbles upon it, thinking from our lovely surrounding homes that they are driving through Old Town.

The City's interest in preserving the neighborhood's history and a two-block business "corridor" is hardly convincing. Among other things, had it been committed to preserving this history its top officials would not have sat on the Parker-Gray historic district nomination for 16 years until the City was finally embarassed into action through public disclosure.

And if the City feels it is important to freeze neighborhoods in a time warp, when will it begin to fight to restore the biker bars and railroad workers' boozy dives that used to grace Mt. Vernon Avenue in Del Ray before it became trendy? The 5th of never, of course.

In the end, the Growler believes all of these loose ends are elements of the same thing. the Marion Barry-esque attack on gentrification and the attempt to freeze-flash our neighborhood's 1970s identity is cynically rooted in the politics of public housing.

The evidence suggests the City is orchestrating a campaign to preserve this neighborhood's former racial identity in order to justify the continuing presence of concentrated public housing. The logic is that if a significant number of units are off-sited, the "community" will be broken up. Hence the need to deny that the neighborhood demographics have changed, that population served by public housing is changing or that Queen and Fayette is dysfunctional. The fiction of the "community" and who or what qualifies as being part of that "community" must be maintained and even propped up.

Make no mistake, public housing was first built in our neighborhood starting in the 1940s to replace shockingly substandard and dilapidated structures that blighted the area. Most of these properties, although not all, were earmarked for the African-American community. For many years these projects were a critical component in the stock of local housing because under Jim Crow blacks were denied the opportunities to live in most other areas of the City. It's understandable how this sense of propriety about public housing was born.

But that's ancient history now. Forty years ago, with the Fair Housing Act and the civil rights movement, black Parker-Gray residents were finally free to move elsewhere and many (including ARHA Chairman Melvin Miller) did so. The City's own comprehensive housing plan has noted, with apparent approval, that both black and Hispanic Alexandrians are less segregated in a handful of neighborhoods than in years past. And the change in the population in Parker-Gray has not been due to forced evictions and bitter condo conversions but the quiet transfer of valuable single-family homes and profit on both sides of the transactions.

Readers need look no further than the two versions of the Braddock Road draft small area plan from 2006 and then 2007-08 to see that the public housing issue shaped and changed the plan.

The first draft, produced under then-P&Z Director Eileen Fogarty, did not address public housing redevelopment. It paid homage to Parker-Gray's past history but acknowledged the neighborhood had changed and was far less doctrinaire about preserving the old community.

The second draft was more radical and, in the opinion of some here, more racist than its successor. It was drafted as ARHA was in the throes of negotiations over the bailout and redevelopment of Glebe Park and James Bland, and as staff were preparing to launch a full-scale planning process for all Braddock Metro-area ARHA properties.

What is undoubtedly compelling to the politicians about this approach is that it absolves them from the need to (1) pay for off-siting units; and (2) accept units in their own backyards. It also provides an opportunity to strut their credentials for compassion.

At the same time, curiously, the presence of public housing is being used to justify the massive density planned for the Braddock Road Area.

The City can't entirely bury its head in the sand about segregation and the need to deconcentrate public housing, something which has been a pillar of housing policy in the last generation. It also knows that economic development in the Braddock Road Metro area has only moved by fits and starts for a quarter century. (Wasn't it curious that we had so many ex-P&Z planners turn out for the charrettes?)

But as noted before on this blog, the City's approach is now to pour more density in and around public housing in our area and claim that this "dilution" approach deconcentrates public housing and desegrates the neighborhood.

This, however, may be an example of the City shooting itself in the foot once again. In more than 20 years, economic development has never taken off at Braddock Road Metro in large part due to the persistent presence of public housing. Our officials are taking a huge risk that once the area is built out, potential homeowners and retailers will continue to shun the area because of the City's failure to tackle the deconcentration of poverty and disorder on some of the most valuable properties in Northern Virginia.