By Jenna Dublin
Editor's Note: This article by Jenna Dublin is the introductory essay in a compendium of essay’s called Perspectives of Neighborhood Change. This compendium is part of a broader collection of resources for the report Preserving African American Places: Growing Preservation's Potential as a Path for Equity.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has launched a research-based campaign to examine the intersection of historic preservation, the built environment, and equitable development in African American neighborhoods across the United States.
Over the past two years, the Action Fund awarded more than $2 million to organizations that preserve historically significant places of African American experience, activism, and achievement to elevate stories of national impact, many of which were previously untold and erased from historical records or unacknowledged by the preservation movement. In many instances the Action Fund supports existing preservation efforts, such as restoration of the 17th-century African Meeting House in Boston. In others, like the Historic Westside neighborhood in Las Vegas, the Action Fund is helping local leaders build upon the community's own ways of preserving the cultural value of everyday places, and supporting the first comprehensive historic resource survey and local historic district designation in the community.
As historic preservation becomes more inclusive of diverse histories and places, we need to intentionally consider, through deep listening and collaboration, whether current approaches to preservation adequately serve the needs of diverse communities. African American neighborhoods are unique places in their own right; rich in social and cultural life and they, unlike other neighborhoods, are distinctly forged by systems of racial segregation and discrimination that have made them disproportionately vulnerable.
Today, legacies of inequality are still unfolding. In strong market cities where demand is growing, previously marginalized African American neighborhoods are becoming hotspots for development. While this growth has brought new prosperity and investment to some, it has also stoked grave concern that it will lead to diminishing affordability, displacement, and demolition of places that reflect the African American experience. Much work needs to be done to gain a deeper understanding of the complex intersections between the built environment and racial justice, and of preservation’s role in bending neighborhood change towards greater justice and equity.
Therefore, this research campaign seeks to explore the complex issues of neighborhood change and how the tools and capacities of the preservation movement can help create more equitable neighborhoods in African American communities, beginning with a closer look at African American neighborhoods in 10 cities where the National Trust is working across the country: Atlanta, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; Louisville, Kentucky; New York, New York; Oakland, California; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; St. Louis, Missouri; and Washington, D.C. This research involves data analysis, interviews, and case study research. We are gathering the knowledge of local preservation partners and drawing upon existing scholarship that demonstrates preservation at work for broader goals of social, economic, and environmental equity.
Perspectives of Neighborhood Change
When historic preservation and neighborhood change are viewed only from perspectives of the powerful, we miss out on local perspectives, nuance, and complexity. To address this, in the summer of 2018, ten students at universities across the U.S. were selected as AACHAF Research Fellows from a competitive pool of applicants and were commissioned to research and write essays on neighborhood change and historic preservation in each of the ten study cities. The Fellows, who range from undergraduate to doctoral students in sociology, urban planning, American studies, and historic preservation, developed their own approaches to examine African American neighborhoods of their choice in each of the study cities. The ten Research Fellows are: Akilah Favors (Atlanta), Jeran Herbert (Birmingham), Ni’Shele Jackson (Chicago), Kaelyn Rodriguez (Los Angeles), Shaonta’ Allen (Louisville), Emily Junker (New York City), Stephanie Jones (Oakland), Julia Cohen (Philadelphia), TK Smith (St. Louis), and Theodore Wilhite (Washington D.C.)
The result is this collection of essays, Perspectives of Neighborhood Change, that range in orientation but together highlight a variety of voices and perspectives. Some of the case studies focus more closely on historic preservation. For example, Research Fellow Ni'Shele Jackson examines the roles of culture and preservation in anti-gentrification activism in the Woodlawn and Bronzeville neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. TK Smith's case study of St. Louis elevates residents' and local historians’ accounts of two African American communities that once existed named Mill Creek Valley and Laclede Town, but were demolished during urban renewal and now referred to as Midtown. TK finds that as large-scale demolitions continue in the city, public commemoration and place making are powerful tools for re-establishing black presence and agency in urban space. Focusing on the neighborhoods of Mantua and East Parkside in Philadelphia, Julia Cohen's research explores the roles of vacancy, community organizing, and historic preservation in the unique contexts of these neighborhoods.
Others took a broader scope to capture a moment in time and the dynamics of diverse actors. In Akilah Favor's study of two Atlanta Westside neighborhoods, the Atlanta University Center and Ashview Heights, she found that perceptions of new transit investments and accompanying waves of development vary greatly among African American residents as renters or homeowners. Emily Junker examines how older co-op buildings created by a special program in New York City and maintained independently by residents may provide housing security in Harlem amid gentrification.
Their essays also challenged some of our own assumptions about patterns of neighborhood change and opened up potential new research directions. Research Fellow Shaonta’ Allen finds out what residents think about the future of Louisville’s West End neighborhood and most say that gentrification and economic displacement do not accurately describe current dynamics of change. The “noise” of gentrification discussions is drowning out the more pressing issues of vacancy and neglect in a city still racially divided. Allen’s interviewees in Louisville demonstrate that although economic displacement is not happening now, West End residents are experiencing cultural and social displacement long before market forces make their current homes unaffordable. Neighborhood change by historical patterns of disinvestment is also captured by Jeran Herbert’s study of Birmingham. Herbert interviewed local economic development practitioners to find that unlike other study cities, the challenges that residents face are due to vacant and deteriorating properties that may prime large scale demolition and neighborhood clearance, rather than rising housing prices.
The views, opinions, and interpretations expressed in this compendium are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the National Trust. They are powerful and insightful in their own right. As a result of these perspectives, we’ve committed to investigating the concept of cultural displacement, and to more clearly recognize that disinvestment and gentrification are often two sides of the same cycle of change.
The lens of African American experience has also afforded us unique insights into neighborhood change—namely, that changes in neighborhoods’ social and economic characteristics are not the “natural” consequences of competition and residents’ preferences. Rather, neighborhood change is often the result of policies and decisions made outside of communities, which means there are opportunities to make these processes more equitable.
Overall, the work of the Research Fellows demonstrates that when fading historical, cultural, and aesthetic assets of neighborhoods are preserved, their protection fosters close attachments to place which can empower communities to organize and fight for equity in representation, ownership, and the power to stay if they choose.
Jenna Dublin is a PhD Candidate of Urban Planning at Columbia University. Her research examines how and why community-based groups utilize historic district designation as a means to affect neighborhood trends of socioeconomic change and gentrification. Currently, she works as a consultant at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s department of Research and Development.