Greater Greater Washington

History


When the cars had won the war

Martin Austermuhle made a whimsical point on Twitter about this picture, a 1992 historical photograph DCist featured to celebrate the convention center's 10th birthday:

Martin wrote, "D.C., pre-war on cars. The place was motorist heaven."

This makes a real point. We've been hearing a lot about the "war on cars" lately as AAA, the car lobby organization, has been really pushing the theme hard in the press and outlets eager for controversy lap up the destructive rhetoric.

But let's not forget where we were. Not that long ago, much of DC had been shaped by a multi-decade "war on the city." Well-meaning urban renewal efforts tore out large swaths of the urban fabric to build things like the Southeast-Southwest Freeway and big parking lots, like the ones in the picture.


Southeast Freeway construction. Image from DDOT.

The 1958 zoning code that DC is currently trying to replace was a weapon in that war. Its author, Harold Lewis, wrote that the city's form was unable to adapt to a more car-oriented form and zoning must therefore compel it "for the salvation of the downtown area."

In 1950, the federal government decreed that places like Shaw, Southwest DC, and more were "obsolete" and had to be replaced with more car-oriented development patterns. The "obsolete" zones include the area in this picture; this was the result.

It's also worth remembering this era to understand the time when, as we discussed yesterday, very strong historic preservation protection was not only clearly necessary but absolutely urgent. The preservation plan quotes one resident saying "The next generation of preservation leaders is not there; where are the future activists?" Commenter drumz pointed out that there isn't really "an example in DC today of the same sort of large scale clearing that inspired the first preservation movement."

Nobody is trying to wage a war on cars. AAA is just pushing the idea because after their long and successful war on urban places, the trend is moving in the other direction. And anyone who lives in the Mount Vernon Triangle today instead of that 1992 wasteland is pretty glad it is.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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the photo somewhat misrepresents the time. The land where the Convention Center was tied up in the possibility of becoming a central campus for UDC. In fact, the Mount Vernon Metro Station was called Mount Vernon Square/UDC.

And we can't fully blame the car for the hollowing out of the city back then. The riots didn't help. Some corridors were wrecked, including downtown, but especially 7th St. NW. Overnight, that eliminated a lot of retail business in the city.

But still ... I like your point about the AAA and their war on cities. It's a riff on a joke I make about Detroit, that Detroit today is the end game, the culmination of what the auto industry wanted to have happen to cities, so that we would be dependent on automobility.

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport

Not a single mention of crime in this story?

The reason there were massive empty spaces around the old Convention Center is the fact that DC had terrible crime.

It wasn't that they thought surface parking lots were awesome.

It was that no one wanted to build anything anywhere near downtown. So the default use was surface parking lots.

And, of course, open air drug deals, murders, etc.

I remember going to the DC Eagle back in this time period. Everybody there knew somebody that had been mugged getting to or from the Eagle.

If memory serves me right a couple of people were killed in the parking lot that is now in the footprint of the convention center itself.

by Hillman on Mar 14, 2013 3:55 pm • linkreport

The reason there were massive empty spaces around the old Convention Center is the fact that DC had terrible crime.

That's what happens when racism basically declares large parts of the city as a no man's land (despite large numbers of people living there who happen to be the wrong color) and basically abandon the institutions in those areas needed to have a healthy society.

by drumz on Mar 14, 2013 4:00 pm • linkreport

@Hillman,
It could be argued that crime was the result of the abandonment of urban environment for the automobile-centric suburbs.
Like most chicken and egg debates, we'll probably have to agree to disagree.

by Ginkgo on Mar 14, 2013 4:01 pm • linkreport

"The reason there were massive empty spaces around the old Convention Center is the fact that DC had terrible crime.

It wasn't that they thought surface parking lots were awesome."

mebbe, but if you look at what was built in the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s, not the SFH areas but the apartments that people moved to mostly because they didnt want to live in DC because of crime (or related issues) I think you have to conclude people DID think surface parking lots were awesome. I mean Southern Towers, anyone?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 14, 2013 4:04 pm • linkreport

Wow. That didn't take long.

Blaming it all on racism in less than four posts.

Racism didn't force anyone of any color to mug their fellow man.

As for declaring large parts of the city a no mans land, worth noting that DC government at the time was majority black.

Not sure who exactly declared it a no mans land based on racism, since the government in charge at the time was black.

by Hillman on Mar 14, 2013 4:06 pm • linkreport

Racism didn't force anyone of any color to mug their fellow man.

Of course it does. It's not some disembodied voice that says "go mug someone" but instiutional racism which prevents you from getting a good education or any decent job prospect while ignoring social problems, not to mention the apathy to outright hostility of the police will lead to situations where people can only resort to crime in order to get by.

by drumz on Mar 14, 2013 4:23 pm • linkreport

edit: while the gov't (at all levels) ignores social problems in those marginalized areas.

by drumz on Mar 14, 2013 4:24 pm • linkreport

That's what happens when racism basically declares large parts of the city as a no man's land

It's a stretch to say the crime war blacks declared on whites was the cause of the city's decline (albeit an apt description in Detroit) but you do have a point.

by Hernando de Soto on Mar 14, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

That Metro station was named Mount Vernon Square/UDC because there was already a downtown campus in that area. It closed about 20 years ago, if I remember correctly.

And AAA pisses me off every bit as much as some of the anti-car whackjobs who are just as extreme. A happy medium between public transit and automobiles can and must be reached.

by Ron on Mar 14, 2013 4:30 pm • linkreport

crime war blacks declared on whites

It's the opposite.

by drumz on Mar 14, 2013 4:32 pm • linkreport

The rhetoric about race is certainly relevant, but not to this argument.

Fact is, before the 1958 zoning code, there were 800,000 residents in DC and about 50 murders. The population bottomed out around 1992 with barely over a half a million residents, and close to 500 murders. in 42 years the murder rate increased by an order of magnitude.

There were certainly a great many reasons for this, but the lavish car-friendliness of the District certainly wasn't doing anything to lower it.

by Dave Murphy on Mar 14, 2013 4:34 pm • linkreport

It's the opposite.

LOL. Yeah, white-on-black crime was rampant in DC then.

by Oh Please on Mar 14, 2013 4:35 pm • linkreport

Further to my above point, in the 20 years since the city has become less "friendly" to cars and the murder rate has dropped by almost an order of magnitude (88 murders in 2012, population of 630,000). Correlation is not causation, but it is pretty solid correlation.

by Dave Murphy on Mar 14, 2013 4:37 pm • linkreport

300 years of slavery followed by another 100 years explicit and outright discrimination in the legal code leading to today where the law is fixed (kind of) but you can see de facto discrimination pretty much anywhere and yet its still seen that crime is just something that happens. Especially in "those" neighborhoods.

So I stand by what I said.

by drumz on Mar 14, 2013 4:41 pm • linkreport

One more thing... You can look at where those murders are happening today in DC. You can say they are happening in black neighborhoods. Or you can say they are happening in the neighborhoods that are most friendly to cars.

The shooting just the other night on North Capitol Street was a drive by. Thirteen people got shot. That section of North Capitol Street is practically a freeway. The shooters just sped off. And they probably got on one of the nearby freeways.

by Dave Murphy on Mar 14, 2013 4:44 pm • linkreport

Dave, well said. It's the old broken windows meme. In this case, it's broken urban fabric. I'd like to see a professional criminologist study the correlation (not necessarily causation as that would be a second, separate study) between complete urban fabric and crime. I think we'll see similar correlation all around the U.S.

by Cavan on Mar 14, 2013 4:51 pm • linkreport

Naw Dave Murphy...everyone knows mass transit breeds crime!

by thump on Mar 14, 2013 4:54 pm • linkreport

Well you figure abandoned buildings to stash things. Empty lots that are ignored by their owners so its easy to cut through them to hide or get away or to something.

by drumz on Mar 14, 2013 4:56 pm • linkreport

" It's not some disembodied voice that says "go mug someone" but instiutional racism which prevents you from getting a good education or any decent job prospect while ignoring social problems, not to mention the apathy to outright hostility of the police will lead to situations where people can only resort to crime in order to get by."

DC had a majority black government, majority black police force, majority black everything for the past 40 years.

When this massive crime epidemic took place.

The majority-black DC government gave out the jobs and the education that you claim institutional racism denied blacks in DC.

A little harder to blame the white man when your city is run by the minority you claim is being discriminated against.

I'm not saying racism hasn't played a huge role in America. Of course it has. To our everlasting shame.

I'm just saying that in instances like in DC forty years of blacks being in control and in positions of power where they could provide the resources needed to help their fellow black man seems to be something you dismiss as being irrelevant.

Or was the stunningly inept and terrible government in DC the last 40 years because of racism as well?

Worth noting of course that the majority of blacks in DC at the time never resorted to crime.

Why not? Were they not victims of racism as well?

by Hillman on Mar 14, 2013 5:06 pm • linkreport

Worth noting of course that the majority of blacks in DC at the time never resorted to crime.

Those of us that could got out just like the whites before us did.

by PG County Resident on Mar 14, 2013 5:11 pm • linkreport

I did a project on this about two years ago... it was on a national scale, and it pertained to the activities of a certain criminal cartel, but they were most active in cities that did not have fixed rail transit, had low population densities, high concentrations of surface parking lots, and/or invasive urban freeway systems. The correlations were pretty solid.

Here's a map of 2012 murders in DC. Some of them occur in very walkable areas, but I believe most would agree that the majority of them occur in areas that are decidedly more car friendly.

http://burgersub.org/murders2012.htm

by Dave Murphy on Mar 14, 2013 5:12 pm • linkreport

1. I thought DA was discussing the 1950s, when white southern congressmen ran DC, not 1970 and later

2. the fact that black DC pols from 1970 to the late 1990s tended to be corrupt and not up to the needs of the era, is not unrelated to the poverty, lack of educationa, and (often justified) racial resentments of their constituents.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 14, 2013 5:25 pm • linkreport

I brought up racism because it was mentioned that crime contributed to urban decline. The origin of that crime has a lot to do with racism.

by Drumz on Mar 14, 2013 5:29 pm • linkreport

Now I've heard it all. DC's drug/murder problems are some kind of racist conspiracy? I think that was the plot of Undercover Brother.

Getting back on topic, I'm not sure a photo of one of the particularly rundown areas of town is really representative of the time.

by Chris S. on Mar 14, 2013 5:35 pm • linkreport

Hillman,

This is bigger than just DC and tge past 40 years. DC had a black government which was/is great. Meanwhile they had to step in as whites largely fled and then they were the ones standing strong while things were at their worst. I'm not blaming city govt at all.

Turns out that when investment comes back to DC it ends up that a lot of those inept politicians weren't inept and just overwhelmed in a lot of ways.

So yeah, again, it's racism.

by Drumz on Mar 14, 2013 5:37 pm • linkreport

"2. the fact that black DC pols from 1970 to the late 1990s tended to be corrupt and not up to the needs of the era, is not unrelated to the poverty, lack of educationa, and (often justified) racial resentments of their constituents."

Nonsense.

Marion Barry was a well educated man. As were many on the DC Council and in many positions of power in DC.

And perfectly capable and very smart people can rise from poverty to lead very well.

As for racial resentments, that's not exactly a legit reason to treat your own race terribly.

Which is exactly what Marion Barry and his followers and two entire generations of DC leaders did.

by Hillman on Mar 14, 2013 5:43 pm • linkreport

@Chris S: What, you haven't heard of The Plan?

by Distantantennas on Mar 14, 2013 5:44 pm • linkreport

"This is bigger than just DC and tge past 40 years. DC had a black government which was/is great. Meanwhile they had to step in as whites largely fled and then they were the ones standing strong while things were at their worst. I'm not blaming city govt at all."

Really? DC has had a 'great' government over the past 40 years?

Really?

That statement alone sortof says all I need to know about your point of view.

by Hillman on Mar 14, 2013 5:45 pm • linkreport

"I brought up racism because it was mentioned that crime contributed to urban decline. The origin of that crime has a lot to do with racism."

It has FAR more to do with personal morals and a lack of personal responsibility, coupled with a DC government designed to encourage and even celebrate that lack of personal morals and responsibility.

by Hillman on Mar 14, 2013 5:46 pm • linkreport

I was speaking to the fact that it was great that DC had black leaders not their performance.

Otherwise you're thinking of racism as a set if choices. I'm talking about it as a system and one I particular that has been explicitly part of our politics and society far longer than it hasn't.

by Drumz on Mar 14, 2013 5:52 pm • linkreport

Yet you say you're not blaming DC city government, and saying that they 'stood tall'.

Presiding over the hell that they inflicted on this city is not exactly my definition of standing tall.

Yes of course racism has been a part of our society far longer than it hasn't. It is still present, and likely always will be.

But to be precise racism is still alive and well in DC. And worth noting that institutional racism toward whites by DC government personnel has been fairly routine for as long as most of us can remember.

by Hillman on Mar 14, 2013 6:00 pm • linkreport

So you acknowledge the impact of racism on society and how it's affected the country and city but to mention that it may be a direct factor in the events of the past 40 years or so is preposterous. Ok.

by Drumz on Mar 14, 2013 6:03 pm • linkreport

@Distantantennas - I think it had something to do with Billy Dee Williams opening a fried chicken chain.

Anyway, I am glad to hear that DC had such an amazing government in the 80s/90s who could not possibly be responsible for any of the city's problems on their watch. I guess Mr. Barry rode the tide of those great performance reviews to his multiple Mayorships.

by Chris S. on Mar 14, 2013 6:06 pm • linkreport

So Marion Barry and the DC government were responsible for what was a nationwide inner-city crime epidemic?

And institutionalized racism/poverty traps had nothing to do with it?

I thought we all learned about this stuff somewhere along the way. But apparently naming "instiutional racism which prevents you from getting a good education or any decent job prospect while ignoring social problems" as a prime factor in urban decay is now a controversial statement that people feel the need to get personally whiny about?

by MLD on Mar 14, 2013 6:19 pm • linkreport

That lot is puny compared to the fed lot that used to be at the Reagan Building location.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 14, 2013 6:20 pm • linkreport

Getting back to the topic at hand, I have fond memories of attending auto shows at the previous convention center. It was not an architectural beauty to be sure, but distinctive in a blocky 70s kind of way.

The current one is certainly a step up. I wonder how good business is with the competition from the Gaylord center at National Harbor.

by Chris S. on Mar 14, 2013 6:43 pm • linkreport

"But apparently naming "instiutional racism which prevents you from getting a good education or any decent job prospect while ignoring social problems" as a prime factor in urban decay is now a controversial statement that people feel the need to get personally whiny about?"

There was no institutional racism at the local level in DC for the past 40 years that prevented anyone from getting a good education or a decent job.

You could maybe argue that at the federal goverment level that existed, and since the federal government is a major local employer that had an impact. But I'd argue that affirmative action and a host of other factors probably counter-acted that pretty well.

The primary local institutional racism in DC for 40 years has been black toward white.

The DC government has held open countless contracting and job and education opportunities for blacks only for 40 years now.

Well, on the education front..... DC government and residents were unable to create a quality education environment. But it certainly wasn't from lack of funding or resources.

And the DC educational experience was by and large produced by black residents and officials. Certainly the reins of power were held by black men and women.

Blacks have had immense opportunities presented to them for 40 years in DC.

And in DC the results were a resounding failure. With the notable exception of a rising black middle class, many of whom moved out of DC once they had a chance.

Which is astonishingly sad.

by Hillman on Mar 14, 2013 6:56 pm • linkreport

So a group of people locked out of political participation for decades are finally allowed to participate but only in places in decline and with crippling social issues. And since they can't fix the problems immediately and indeed some things get worse for a while they obviously failed on their own merits and its actually white people who are having the real trouble and we should feel bad for them instead.

by Drumz on Mar 14, 2013 7:34 pm • linkreport

So with regards to all that, I think it's perfectly fine to still attribute a lot of the city's problems to racism despite personal failings of political leaders.

It's not it is/or it isn't racism. It's the fact that when its brought up its so vociferously denied that it has any impact at all.

by Drumz on Mar 14, 2013 7:37 pm • linkreport

@ Chris S. - yes, that's my memory of the old convention center - the auto shows. Those were actually fun when a Saab, an Audi and a Chevrolet all looked different from each other.

@ Tom Coumaris - yes, that lot was huge. I remember waiting there for the old L4 going back home to Maryland. It used to go all the way from there to Wheaton, Aspen Hill (L8), and even Garrett Park (L6). The Maryland routes were cut back to Van Ness (1980) and then Friendship Heights (1984), and even the DC portion was cut back to McPherson Square on the south end. And the Garrett Park portion became part of the Ride On 5 (1978).

by Frank IBC on Mar 14, 2013 8:24 pm • linkreport

@FrankIBC - Yeah, different car brands used to have much more distinctive personalities. Now everyone seems to go to the same design school. It was kind of cool last year that the show set up a track in the middle of the floor to test drive Fiats. But then again, they were Fiats.

Part of the problem today is that so few companies make sports cars. Not so much exciting design work with sedans and SUVs.

by Chris S. on Mar 14, 2013 8:33 pm • linkreport

And the other part of the problem is that the quest for better aerodynamics means that all cars are gradually converging to the appearance of an egg.

by Frank IBC on Mar 14, 2013 8:38 pm • linkreport

@ hillman -

"It has FAR more to do with personal morals and a lack of personal responsibility, coupled with a DC government designed to encourage and even celebrate that lack of personal morals and responsibility."

You know, this sounds an awful lot like what Anita Bryant said before she was served a fruit pie in her face.

by Frank IBC on Mar 14, 2013 8:39 pm • linkreport

Is that TechWorld Plaza? It looks quite different from the air.

by Meredith on Mar 14, 2013 9:25 pm • linkreport

Not a war on 'cars' but rather on interstate highways:

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2012/01/crafted-controversy-scuttling-of-jfks-b.html

by Douglas Andrew Willinger on Mar 15, 2013 12:00 am • linkreport

"So a group of people locked out of political participation for decades are finally allowed to participate but only in places in decline and with crippling social issues. And since they can't fix the problems immediately and indeed some things get worse for a while they obviously failed on their own merits and its actually white people who are having the real trouble and we should feel bad for them instead."

There was no reason DC had to be in decline or have crippling social issues.

Yes, there was population loss. But it was also the seat of the federal government, and dang near recession proof. And has immense job and educational opportunities (outside of DC public schools, that is).

And stunning real estate, transportation, and other assets, which were ridiculously neglected over the past 40 years.

As for an immediate fix, I'd say 40 years is more than enough time. Particularly with all the resources the DC area had available.

As for feeling sorry for white people, I'm not suggesting that. I"m simply pointing out that racism cuts both ways.

by Hillman on Mar 15, 2013 12:45 am • linkreport

"You know, this sounds an awful lot like what Anita Bryant said before she was served a fruit pie in her face."

Not really similar.

Anita Bryant hated gay people because they were gay.

Them being gay had nothing to do with a lack of morals or personal responsibility.

Whereas shooting someone in the face or stealing their car - that's absolutely a choice someone makes, and it is a moral failing and a lack of personal responsibility.

by Hillman on Mar 15, 2013 12:47 am • linkreport

"So with regards to all that, I think it's perfectly fine to still attribute a lot of the city's problems to racism despite personal failings of political leaders."

It's not just personal failings of political leaders.

It's the failings of a ton of the local residents as well.

And those problems were cultural. And those cultural shortcomings were coddled and often celebrated, both by leaders and the population at large.

Yes, it stands to reason that some of this was generated by racism, particularly in the earlier years.

But a whole lot more of this was self-inflicted.

by Hillman on Mar 15, 2013 12:54 am • linkreport

People shouldn't forget the laws that encouraged demolishion of the fabric. You'd pay a lot less taxes on empty land so if you couldn't rent to whites and didn't want to rent to blacks and wanted to save some money, demo the building and rent out the space for parking to the downtown offices and federal workers still going downtown. Another strategy aided by banks was to red-line neighborhoods so there was even more incentive to tear down the fabric.

These photos show a pattern of a fire wall being torn down between the encroaching black shaw and the downtown. Highway construction and location was another aspect of this strategy that while certainly not some great conspiracy, was nontheless a stron factor of buisness men making what they thought where good buisness decisions.

Tearing down historic fabric also made it possible to build something new in the future that might possibly encourage the "right kind" of tennant one wanted. While the city was abandoned by residential whites for a variety of reasons, the downtown core was still thought of as a huge office park to be serviced by a variety of highways, just look at the plans. This necessitated massive parking lots since the trolleys that filled downtown with close in neighborhoods where ripped out while massive tax dollars went to building the highways that would drain the city of it's street vitality.

I wouldn't throw around the 'War' word if I where the AAA because if they want the real story to come out, the car will only be made to look worse. Imagine elliminating the car for the monday to friday commute for half the people driving today and freeing up the roads for more pleasure driving? Why, this 'war on the car' would seem like freedom fighters determined to restore the nobility of the car drive!

by Thayer-D on Mar 15, 2013 7:20 am • linkreport

@DA: Nobody is trying to wage a war on cars. AAA is just pushing the idea because after their long and successful war on urban places

It is a mistake to lay the blame for such scenes on AAA; and your repetition of this line is starting to appear as a prejudice. As others have pointed out the reasons are far more profound and complicated than what was lobbied by AAA to accommodate cars.

The population decline started years before the '68 riots, due to the US supreme court desegregation decision. This hollowed out the school system. Part of that response is racism, but this was aggravated by the straightforward assessment by parents, that pulled their kids out of schools because they were not doing their job. The draining away the good, hardworking people with kids, that kept the streets clear of ne'er-do-wells, left those streets open to rogues and crime went through the roof. Of course the '68 riots made this situation all the worse.

In the 80s, people would come to downtown to take care of some business and get mugged. It was a scary place.

But another thing not mentioned is urban pollution. Smog in cities was far worse in those days, and people wanted to move to the suburbs to escape this. It was a well understood to be an important health issue. I cringe every time I see an old movie that shows a city, what with cars spewing smoky, lead-laden exhaust driving among lead-painted houses. The concentration of toxics was far higher in the cities, and it has taken 40 years of engineering to get this down.

by goldfish on Mar 15, 2013 8:49 am • linkreport

There was no reason DC had to be in decline or have crippling social issues.

Yes, there was population loss. But it was also the seat of the federal government, and dang near recession proof. And has immense job and educational opportunities (outside of DC public schools, that is).

And stunning real estate, transportation, and other assets, which were ridiculously neglected over the past 40 years.

As for an immediate fix, I'd say 40 years is more than enough time. Particularly with all the resources the DC area had available.

So the de-population, the riots, stagflation, the drug war and all were just bumps in the road? Anyway its not like things started improving yesterday. The city has been doing better for a long time regardless which eats into that 40 years.

As for feeling sorry for white people, I'm not suggesting that. I"m simply pointing out that racism cuts both ways.

Discrimination may go both ways but not racism. Racism is systemic. It pretty much only flows one way. A lot of people use racism to describe discrimination but its imprecise.

Whereas shooting someone in the face or stealing their car - that's absolutely a choice someone makes, and it is a moral failing and a lack of personal responsibility.

Look, you said that crime was a big factor. I countered that racism (via poverty) is the underlying reason for crime. Again, I'm talking systemically. I can't provide specific reasons for every single criminal act but to write it off to just moral failings doesn't do much to actually coming up with ways to stopping crime.

by drumz on Mar 15, 2013 8:55 am • linkreport

As DC has never really been an industrial city, I am not sure the smog thing is any sort of justification for the demographic shifts cited above.

In DC it was all about race and schools, in my opinion.

by William on Mar 15, 2013 8:57 am • linkreport

"You'd pay a lot less taxes on empty land so if you couldn't rent to whites and didn't want to rent to blacks and wanted to save some money, demo the building and rent out the space for parking to the downtown offices and federal workers still going downtown. "

It'd take one heckuva committed racist to tear down office buildings and forego millions in rent and value just so they didn't have to rent to black people.

Not saying it couldn't happen. Just seems mighty unlikely, particularly in an office building setting.

by Hillman on Mar 15, 2013 9:05 am • linkreport

goldfish does make an important point about pollution. The garden city movement in England and the early romantic suburbs in America were all about industrial pollution and congestion versus the idealic and bucolic suburban landscape, at least as it was beng marketed by home builders.

I'm not sure it's necessary to perfectly identify all the specific ills that led to the cities decline suffice it to say that they should all be mentioned not to affix blame on any one group of people but to be able to look at an issue in all it's complexities and to inform the best way forward in addressing similar problems today.

I do take exception to some of your points though. "the US supreme court desegregation... hollowed out the school system." No, what hollowed out the system was a lack of government will to maintain the standards for poorer districts that where now thought to be responsible for only turning out "service" workers, ie. masons and burger flippers.

"The draining away the good, hardworking people with kids, that kept the streets clear of ne'er-do-wells, left those streets open to rogues and crime went through the roof."
I'n not sure calling the whites who fled inner city neighborhoods "good" helps at all. By definition, the kids left behind where "bad"? Did the cops persue rogues in black neighborhoods with the same vigor that they do in white neighborhoods? Do we get extensive write-ups of all the dreams and aspriations that the little black girl in the projects had when killed by a stray bullet that we do about the upper northwest Rhodes scholar? It's not a big conspiracy but let's not kid ourselves that money talks. The government's job isn't about picking winners and loosers, just to make sure the race is as fair as it can be.

by Thayer-D on Mar 15, 2013 9:18 am • linkreport

Hillman,
You don't have to be a racist to take advantage of a tax incentive that promoted needless demolition of ones downtown. Look on bing maps of countless midwestern towns whose city directories can be mistaken for a German city and you'll see the same thing, block after block of vacant streets. I'm not suggesting blacks or racism made those people destroy their own towns, I'm saying there where certain tax laws that for whatever reason incentivized many property owners to demolish their buildings. Why do developers still hold on to empty buildings when they could be renting them out? People have their own reasons, we should just look at the existing regulations and be sure that they don't needlessly encourage demolition when that brings down the value for the rest of the owners who valiently hang in there with lower paying tenants.

by Thayer-D on Mar 15, 2013 9:24 am • linkreport

@Thayer D: I'n not sure calling the whites who fled inner city neighborhoods "good" helps at all.

I did not write "whites" and I did not mean "whites".

by goldfish on Mar 15, 2013 9:29 am • linkreport

So a group of people locked out of political participation for decades are finally allowed to participate but only in places in decline and with crippling social issues. And since they can't fix the problems immediately and indeed some things get worse for a while they obviously failed on their own merits and its actually white people who are having the real trouble and we should feel bad for them instead.

This is one of the most concise, on-point summaries of the problem I've read. There's a long-running suburban middle-class conceit that, if DC in the 80s and 90s had only had the fortune of electing the Prince William County Board of Supervisors to public office, outcomes would have been substantially different, even with the same population.

Whites left en masse because of school desegregation; middle-class blacks left because national white flight had created a national narrative of a house in the suburbs as The American Dream. I don't care who your political leaders are, when your city's population consists of 400,000 crushingly poor people and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, you're f-ed.

I think Barry was and is deeply flawed, but in that situation, cranking up the city's public sector employment at the expense of everything else was a perfectly reasonable governing strategy.

by oboe on Mar 15, 2013 9:38 am • linkreport

@Thayer-D: let me explain a bit, before you go off the deep end about what I wrote.

The police are responsible for probably only 30% of crime prevention. Take the case of the New Dragon. This restaurant was front for drug dealing gang that was corroding the surrounding neighborhood. This place was run by corrupt owners with lots of drug money, backed up by lawyers and street thugs with guns -- a very scary place. It was well known to the police, but their hands were tied. It was the neighbors and in particular, the parents of the students that went to the school on that same block, that banded together and got the place closed.

Without that social fabric -- the "good people" -- the city will devolve into a playground for rogues. When those people leave because of the schools, whether it is out of racism (an invalid reason) or out of poor performance (a valid reason), the crime will go up.

by goldfish on Mar 15, 2013 9:42 am • linkreport

goldfish, you didn't say white, you said "The draining away the good, hardworking people with kids, that kept the streets clear of ne'er-do-wells" In the context of "white flight", you don't need to be a dog to hear that whistle. Also, there's a difference between racism and ignorance, al be it a subltle one. If I don't know "black" culture, am I a racist to fear the unknown? Of course not. Would I be apprehensive of walking into a Japanese tea house for the first time? Does that mean I hate Japanese people? Some of the whites did think blacks where inferior and didn't want to mix, but the others feared the unknown, and given all the polarizing talk from both sides, why should they not look out for what they thought where in the best interests of their children. I used to live in DC, but when I had kids, I wanted something better than the average DC school can give them. In their current school, they are in the minority, but the school's safe and has good standards.

by Thayer-D on Mar 15, 2013 9:44 am • linkreport

@Hillman - look at who the victims of crime were (and are)-- young black men. It's really offensive for you to assert there was some sort of organized "war on whites" perpetuated by blacks.

@Dave Murphy - re: cars and crime.
I recently read a series of research papers exploring population blood lead levels and violent crime.

Most experts agree there is no single or simple explanation for the drop in violent crime over the past decades.

One of the behavioral effects of elevated lead levels is violent and anti-social behavior. It turns out the rise and fall of violent crime correlates with lead in the air from vehicular exhaust as well as population blood lead levels. Its an interesting observation.

by Tina on Mar 15, 2013 9:50 am • linkreport

"There's a long-running suburban middle-class conceit that, if DC in the 80s and 90s had only had the fortune of electing the Prince William County Board of Supervisors to public office, outcomes would have been substantially different, even with the same population."

as an aside, thats essentially the current NoVa view of PG county. Any suggestion that PG suffers from the beginning of suburban death spiral that might serve as a warning is dismissed, as its problems are all attributed to misgovernance.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 15, 2013 9:52 am • linkreport

@Thayer D: you don't need to be a dog to hear that whistle

..but apparently any sound will do, whether or not it was a dog whistle.

by goldfish on Mar 15, 2013 9:53 am • linkreport

@Hillman - look at who the victims of crime were (and are)-- young black men. It's really offensive for you to assert there was some sort of organized "war on whites" perpetuated by blacks.

The thinking runs something like: "Hey, maybe of the 500 people being killed in a year, 498 of them were black. But that's okay, since they were probably engaged in some sort of nefarious behavior. After all, the perpetrators were black too, so they probably knew each other. But when a white person gets killed, you know they were probably just minding their own business. So when the "thugs" kill a white person that's a *real* crime."

No racism there, though.

by oboe on Mar 15, 2013 10:20 am • linkreport

So... if a black drug dealer kills an unfortunate innocent black youth... that's an act of racism?

This line of thinking that all we have to do is stamp out racism and crime would disappear seems fanciful at best and irresponsible at worst. Government must do many things to maintain a safe community for all of its citizens, certainly including the promotion of better race relations, but also providing better economic opportunities, education, social services, infrastructure, and law enforcement. There is no magic bullet.

by Chris S. on Mar 15, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

Richard Layman is exactly right. The Mount Vernon Square site was intended for the main UDC campus. For reasons that may have been related to cost, the DC Government decided to merge its public institutions of higher learning and locate them at what was then the Washington Technical Institute campus on Connecticut Avenue. WTI was eventually merged w/ the Federal City College (itself an outgrowth of earlier segregated teacher's colleges) to become UDC. So after all the demolition, plans changed, and the squares north of the Carnegie Library lay fallow for nearly two decades. It wasn't so much a sinister AAA plot as just a 20-year hiccup in the process of DC development. Of course, this rather dry statement doesn't consider the human costs of leveling about six full city blocks! Also, a quick look at the upper right hand corner of the photo helps to explain the proliferation of parking lots in that area: the then-new DC Convention Center created incentives for the demolition of the old fabric of the neighborhood -- referred to as "blighted" by the "enlightened" planners of the day.

by Publius Washingtoniensis on Mar 15, 2013 10:41 am • linkreport

this long discussion UDC and racism misses the point in my opinion.

Go look at what was built in places like the I395 corridor in that era (and that was not distant sprawl, but close in multifamily development centered on both auto and transit (via the Shirley busway) access to DC. Gads and gads of surface parking lots.

DA's original point, that this was an era when cars won and that impacted the larger urban fabric (using urban broadly in this case) negatively is on point - whatever you think about the relationship of racism and crime, the reasons for the decline of DC schools, or the motives for demolition near the Mt Vernon library. Y'all are missing the autocentric forest for the 9th street specific trees.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 15, 2013 10:47 am • linkreport

@Chris S. -So... if a black drug dealer kills an unfortunate innocent black youth... that's an act of racism?

:-~ total confusion. No one said black on black crime is an expression of racism. I said @Hillmans assertion that there was some kind of organized "crime war blacks declared on whites" is offensive (and implied it's racists perspective) and incorrect if one looks at who the victims of violent crime were (and are) e.g. not primarily white.

by Tina on Mar 15, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport

So... if a black drug dealer kills an unfortunate innocent black youth... that's an act of racism?

No the circumstances that lead black people to be overwhelmingly the victims of crime as well as the most incarcerated is due to poverty and racism.

by drumz on Mar 15, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

The population decline started years before the '68 riots, due to the US supreme court desegregation decision. This hollowed out the school system. Part of that response is racism, but this was aggravated by the straightforward assessment by parents, that pulled their kids out of schools because they were not doing their job. The draining away the good, hardworking people with kids, that kept the streets clear of ne'er-do-wells, left those streets open to rogues and crime went through the roof. Of course the '68 riots made this situation all the worse.

This story is best told by Tom Sherwood and Henry Jaffe in their superb 1994 book, Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.

Regarding the District of Columbia Public Schools, remember also that the very first elected office ever held by Marion Shepilov Barry, Jr. was on the D.C. Board of Education.

by C. P. Zilliacus on Mar 15, 2013 11:11 am • linkreport

...I also suggested there may be evidence that violent crime is correlated to automobile traffic in the era of leaded gasoline (and lead paint) b/c of the elevated level of lead in the blood among populations most exposed, (inner cities due to most exposure to traffic and older blds w/decaying lead based paint) and the known and documented effect of elevated blood lead leading to violent and anti-social behavior.

by Tina on Mar 15, 2013 11:13 am • linkreport

"It'd take one heckuva committed racist to tear down office buildings and forego millions in rent and value just so they didn't have to rent to black people."

There's a simple answer for why there are so many surface parking lots in that picture: there wasn't enough demand at the time in that area to make any other use economically feasible. In 1992, DC's population had been shrinking for several decades (for a variety of reasons) and businesses had been moving to places like Tyson's (again, for a variety of reasons). In that economic context, the owners of the properties in that pictue made the economically rational decision. I'm sure they would have loved to have turned those parking lots into condos or hotels or whatever, but that was not a realistic option at the time.

Trying to cram everything into the "war on cars" narrative is pretty myopic, IMO.

by Potowmack on Mar 15, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

Speaking of reasons crime spiked in the 50's and 60's, I wonder what television's role might have been. The social isolation and removal of a lot of street life that tv's afforded couldn't have helped with maintaining the person to person relationships on a block to keep crime down. Many good and hard working people deciced to stay downtown, while others didn't find the most welcoming neighborhoods in the suburbs, but whatever reason they stayed, the city's commitments as equal partnership citizens can't be compared to the expectations of the good people that left to the suburbs. Another reason to feel less than perfect about your situation. In the end, I believe in personal responsability, but I can't honestly say I wouldn't have had a chip on my shoulder if my Dad came home and told me about being pulled over for some arbitrary reason. It's not black and white, ironically.

by Thayer-D on Mar 15, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

"There's a simple answer for why there are so many surface parking lots in that picture: there wasn't enough demand at the time in that area to make any other use economically feasible."

This is true, but why did so many European cities that where being abandoned by good hardworking people not get leveled the way that happened here? Or why did some cities in America resist the kind of demolition that others suffered, only to have no historic fabric once the trend of abandoning cities turned around? All I was saying is be sure the regulations are such that there's no incentive to tear down perfectly good buildings that might both contribute to a sense of place and who's loss might further accelorate the feeling of a place as worthy of abandonment.

by Thayer-D on Mar 15, 2013 11:29 am • linkreport

Well, frankly, I think we've veered way off the topic of parking lots by this point, so it's probably time to let this rest.

I'll just say that I am glad that DC has made great strides in recent years to make its streets safer for its citizens. I hope they keep up the momentum.

by Chris S. on Mar 15, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

Tina:

You are misquoting me.

I said DC has experienced institutionalized racism from blacks directed at whites (and Hispanics and Asians and other groups, thought I didn't mention that specifically).

I didn't claim a 'war on whites'.

But I can tell you that the three young black men that held a gun to my genitals after a mugging in 1996 absolutely made it a racial thing.

Unless you think the statement that 'you'll not be having any more cracker babies' as they threatened to pistol whip my genitals was maybe a slip of the tongue.

On a side note, it was doubly sad that the best racial slur they could think of was cracker.

by Hillman on Mar 15, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

@Thayer-D the crime spike was not in the 50's & 60's. It was late 70's to mid 90's, coinciding exactly with the aging of the population with the highest blood lead levels into adolescence and young adulthood. Its an interesting observation.

by Tina on Mar 15, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

Like most chicken and egg debates...

There's no debate. The egg came first.

by David C on Mar 15, 2013 12:00 pm • linkreport

"I don't care who your political leaders are, when your city's population consists of 400,000 crushingly poor people and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, you're f-ed.

I think Barry was and is deeply flawed, but in that situation, cranking up the city's public sector employment at the expense of everything else was a perfectly reasonable governing strategy."

I would have been cool with Barry hiring so many government workers if they'd been worth a damn.

There were some fantastic hardworking DC government workers.

But many were not. Many were given make-work jobs.

And DC was never just crushingly poor people. There have always been a sizeable number of wealthy people here, and a small middle class.

But quite often they were overlooked and their contributions downplayed at best.

And often that was because they were not black.

Albert Einstein could have run for DC Mayor or City Council in the past 40 years, and no way he would have been elected. Because he wasn't black.

Ditto for countless others with outstanding qualifications.

But we got Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and countless others.

Their primary qualification was the color of their skin.

How is that not racism?

But then the flaw in my analysis is Jim Graham. That guy is truly terrible and his policies and shenanigans have hurt DC for as long as he's been in office. And he's white as the fresh driven Canadian snow.

by Hillman on Mar 15, 2013 12:01 pm • linkreport

@Hillman-I'm sorry you had such a terrible experience. i too have had my life threatened on the street. Twice. Once resulted in an ambulance ride and reconstructive surgery to my face. However I did not conclude from these incidences there was some kind of organized conspiracy. The data speak for themselves. The overwhelming majority of violent crime victims were (are) young black men. Your experience was outside the norm, as were mine, and they in no way indicate a pattern.

Regarding misquoting you -my mistake. However, you really think there was some kind of conspiracy of "institutionalized racism from blacks directed at whites"? That sounds kinda paranoid.

by Tina on Mar 15, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

@And DC was never just crushingly poor people. There have always been a sizeable number of wealthy people here, and a small middle class.

But quite often they were overlooked and their contributions downplayed at best.

And often that was because they were not black.

You and I have had a very different experience in Washington DC. From my very arrival here in 1989 I met, knew and lived with middle class African Americans. Of course I also met plenty of whites who(pre 2000) would not go east of Connecticut Avenue.

by Tina on Mar 15, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

Tina:

I'm very sorry to hear of your incident.

Luckily mine was just the threat with the gun - they got scared and ran off.

What was perhaps the most painful part is they ran right into the public housing complex that they'd lived in all their lives - at my expense.

I don't think there was some sort of massive conspiracy.

But I absolutely believe that casual racism toward whites was accepted behavior in DC.

There's a reason that anyone in the building or permitting field hired only permit facilitators that were black.

Why? Because black guys, even if totally unknown to DC government workers,would get clearly preferential treatment when presenting plans or permit requests.

I myself witnessed it on many occasions, as I was too poor to hire someone to get my business licenses for me.

I routinely heard black city employees say that all white people (particularly Jews) were conniving bad people, and that anyone you had to protect yourself against them, and that the DC government was there in part to help you do that.

I'd hear that in the rental housing office in particular.

And you would see it on a daily basis.

The attitude of the woman behind the counter was all sunshine and tulips for every black customer, and shocking rude and dismissive toward everyone else.

It wasn't just a little.

It was a lot.

It got to the point that my employers actually knew that if I came home very quickly from a government office that it was because I was unable to get one of the few clerks that wasn't blatantly racist, so they knew I would have to try the next day instead.

And you heard it in casual conversation.

Enough to know that it wasn't just a few bad apples.

It was a common thing.

by Hillman on Mar 15, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

"All I was saying is be sure the regulations are such that there's no incentive to tear down perfectly good buildings that might both contribute to a sense of place and who's loss might further accelorate the feeling of a place as worthy of abandonment."

Replacing an existing building with a parking lot still comes down to economics. If taxes are based on assessed value, vacant land is typically going to have a lower assessment than a parcel with improvements (even if those improvements are empty and/or decrepit). Few property owners want to use their property for surface parking lots. Sometimes, though, it's the only viable option.

I'm not aware of any zoning or other regulatory rules in the timeframe we're talking about that encouraged those surface parking lots. It was just a matter of property owners picking the least bad option available.

by Potowmack on Mar 15, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

There's no debate. The egg came first.

Pish! Everyone knows the Archaeopteryx lithographica came first...

by oboe on Mar 15, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

Hillman, what you say about the permit office and a lot of other offices is true, there was preferential treatment for blacks by real or percieved favoratism for years to whites. Two wrongs don't make a right, but the world isn't perfect. If you get crappy treatment by some lackey government worker it dosen't mean that there's institutional racism, it just means you've got some dumb ass government workers that need to be fired.

by Thayer-D on Mar 15, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport


@Hillman-yes services were appalling. i experienced abuse trying to PAY taxes! And I know plenty of blacks who also suffered bad service and abuse. Though it may have seemed so to you, the rudeness was really not reserved for whites only. Thank you Tony Williams!

The much improved services we saw during the Williams administration continued to be provided mostly by African Americans and mostly by people who retained their jobs after the Williams mass training sessions. I conclude from that that the bad behavior was institutional un-professionalism (that goes w/o saying) rather than institutionalized abuse of whites by blacks. The fact that the abusive nonprofessionals were fired proves it was not intentionally institutionalized, just lousy management.

i guess there are many reasons for the decay in the 70-90s.

I think @Potowmack has point about property values. But i am certain the destruction of neighborhoods with interstates and interstate-like roads, was a major factor.

Having an expressway next door wrecks your property value.

by Tina on Mar 15, 2013 1:08 pm • linkreport

"Having an expressway next door wrecks your property value."

Probably true for residential property. But not really true for commercial or industrial land.

by Potowmack on Mar 15, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

I do wonder how the relatively new townhouses built within feet of 395 in SW would be value-wise if the freeway wasn't there.

It didn't seem to stop them from being built, but common sense would say they'd be worth more elsewhere.

by Hillman on Mar 15, 2013 1:56 pm • linkreport

Tina:

Absolutely service from the DC government was dreadful for all.

But it was particularly worse if you weren't black.

And specifically because you weren't black.

Of course that wasn't universal.

I remember vividly when I first moved here. It was a day and a half waiting in line for a DC drivers license.

I'll never forget the astonishingly friendly and patient woman that had the terrible duty of telling us after waiting in line all day we wouldn't be seen.

She went way beyond the call of duty to deal with a bunch of very unhappy people.

But sadly too often she was the exception.

by Hillman on Mar 15, 2013 1:58 pm • linkreport

"Though it may have seemed so to you, the rudeness was really not reserved for whites only"

Plenty of rudeness to go around.

But absolutely a bunch of it was based on racism toward non-blacks.

by Hillman on Mar 15, 2013 1:59 pm • linkreport

OK, I think this racism sub-thread has gone on long enough and people have made their points. I'm putting this thread on moderation and will let through any posts about the urban fabric of the past or other points raised in the article, but filter out further comments about race relations.

by David Alpert on Mar 15, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

The riots did not come out of nowhere--those neighborhoods were in decline well before 1968. The economic decline likely was at least in part due to the fact that businesses on strips like H street, U and 14th streets and others were built around an extensive public city-wide streetcar system on which they depended for a portion of their business. That system was dis-invested and ripped out during the 2 decades prior in favor of cars and highways to the suburbs.

Thesis idea: Compare tax records of businesses before and after the removal of streetcars on their street. I'd bet there would be a correlation in drop in revenue.

by Horace on Mar 15, 2013 4:05 pm • linkreport

The reason that there was lots of surface parking is that the lots were cleared and the only short term viable economic activity was cheap leased parking. Back then DC's central business district land patterns were more typical of most other American cities. Even those with much-worshipped tall buildings have vacant surrounding blocks which are used for surface parking.

by Alf on Mar 15, 2013 4:12 pm • linkreport

@Tina: There was actually a huge crime spike in DC in the 60s:

http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/dccrime.htm

by alexandrian on Mar 15, 2013 4:39 pm • linkreport

@alexandrian, its hard to read a table of figures like that (would prefer a histogram) but yes it looks like violent crime started to creep up in the 2nd half of the 60's with a huge spike in '69, with that awful trend continuing through 2000 when the trend started to decline.

If you look at a figure of blood lead levels and lead in the air they rise and fall together with the violent crime trends.

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=117453&page=1

So I'm suggesting the urban fabric with respect to crime may be related to car-oriented design and policies that prioritize driving over at the expense walkable neighborhoods and active transportation. At least there is an observation that raises that question.

by Tina on Mar 15, 2013 5:45 pm • linkreport

see the figure titled The Pb Effect

http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline?page=1

by Tina on Mar 16, 2013 5:11 pm • linkreport

"If taxes are based on assessed value, vacant land is typically going to have a lower assessment than a parcel with improvements" Then change the way abandoned buildings are assecced. Tax it like it was an empty parcel, and when it's occupied, tax it like an "improved" lot. The unintended consequence of property owners "picking the least bad option available" made the rest of the block that much more unattractive, creating a spiral descent of property values, to say nothing about the lost revenue of when things turn around and you don't have the nice fabric that's so in demand.

by Thayer-D on Mar 16, 2013 8:43 pm • linkreport

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