I remember listening to my parents talk about growing up in “Southwest”. That’s all they had to say and you could tell there was a world that none of their 5 children could really grasp or relate to. At times it was if they were talking about the wild west and other times, it represented a tight-knit community defending itself to survive in segregated D.C. You could tell if anyone was from Southwest by the way their face lit up. Remembering those conversations makes me realize that someday our children will recall how we all spoke of Ward 5 and the slow, quiet death of heritage and culture from gentrification.
The Ward 5 Heritage Guide: A Discussion of Ward Five Cultural and Heritage Resources is a must read for all Ward 5 residents. It’s an historical guide of the birth and transformation of Ward 5 from farm land and Native American territory, through white flight in the 50’s and 60’s, to its current resurgence. It also paints a picture of some lost treasures such as the razing of historic landmarks such as the original Dunbar Senior High School (First Class – Dunbar High School, Celebrating Black History – Dunbar High School); America’s first public high school for black students.
“Whose Downtown?” is an excellent article on the story of Southwest D.C. as if a prologue to Ward 5 residents. “The implementation of the urban renewal project displaced the large number of African Americans living in Southwest D.C. The project leveled 99 percent of buildings in the Southwestern quadrant of the city and forced the 4,500 African American Families who had previously resided in Southwest D.C. to relocate to other areas –mainly to Northeast and Southeast D.C.” It’s probably no coincident that the longtime predominantly white Ward 5 changed around the same time of Southwest’s displacement.
“Ward 5’s racial composition began to change from white to predominantly black in the 1950s. In those post-World War II years, Brookland was considered by the Washington Post as the most prestigious neighborhood in the city for blacks,” states the DC Office of Planning’s “Ward 5 Heritage Guide”. One of the most compelling sections of the guide is “Coming Into the 21st Century”. It talks to the outlawing of segregation that led to black families moving into Ward 5 as homeowners. It also speaks the massive real estate scams in Trinidad by real estate speculators and illegally obtained federal mortgage insurance to circumvent rent control laws. “This, in turn, forced out long-term stable renters and homeowners only to be replaced by transients and drug traffickers.”
It goes on to tell how that road into the 21st Century is attracting investments along the Rhode Island Avenue corridor, Truxton Circle, Bloomingdale and Eckington. The guide points to one of the most heartbreaking redevelopment projects in the ward: Union Market. “Some longstanding landmarks of the ward, such as the Union Market Terminal/Florida Avenue Market, Soldier’s Home, and McMillian Reservoir are being redeveloped that compromises the historical character they now convey.” Any Ward 5 resident that shopped at the “6th Street Market” before its transformation to a swank, millennial hot spot where bacon sells for Wall Street prices, and you can’t find fresh greens in an era steeped in being green, knows what I’m talking about. That priceless piece of culture and heritage is gone forever.
The guide goes into the industrial make-up that is fueling the current redevelopment explosion. We all can find reasons to criticize D.C. politics and its corresponding agencies. When The DC Voice started several years ago, we searched high and low for a comprehensive guide to Ward 5. Even the vaunted Martin Luther King Jr. Library struggled to piece together bits and pieces of information. So, The DC Voice applauds The DC Office of Planning for this simple but masterful publication. “The Ward Five Heritage Guide” is a must read for all Ward 5 residents. Not just for its historical perspective but for its recognition that preserving the culture of this Ward is critical to all its residents; current and future.
It concludes with many preservation strategies including:
- Continue research to accurately document significant historic sites.
- Support preservation efforts such as the development of Cultural Tourism’s neighborhood heritage trail and Walking Town DC programs and other cultural initiatives
- Ensure that preservation and community conservation are fully considered and integrated into neighborhood planning efforts.
- Recruit community groups to participate in the DC Community Heritage Project as a way to engage residents in an inquiry of neighborhood cultural resources.
- Engage and assist community-based explorations of heritage preservation and goals.
- Conduct informal inquiries into preservation goals/issues of stakeholders.
- Fund and/or support cultural resource surveys of discrete areas of the ward, such as Bloomingdale, Trinidad, and Ivy City.
- Support the growing public arts program as a tool for heritage preservation.
- Nominate eligible sites for historic designation in consultation with affected owners and residents.
“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Don’t let that be the story of Ward 5. It’s worth preserving.”
There’s tons of information hidden in plain sight! Check out the DC Office of Planning