April marks the 50th anniversary of a pivotal month in the history of our country and our capital.
On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In the days that followed, longstanding tensions surrounding race, housing, and economic opportunity erupted in cities across the United States. In Washington, DC alone, thirteen people were killed and 900 businesses were damaged or destroyed in the four days following King’s death. Exactly one week later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law, which prohibited housing discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, or sex. The 50th anniversaries of these moments are an opportunity to look back at our history, recognize its relationship to our cities today, and discuss how to move forward. This process is not new to our work as urban architects and preservationists, but that still doesn’t make it easy.
Even the language we use to talk about the events of 1968 is tricky. AIA DC's Architecture Month theme this year is "the 50th Anniversary of the myriad historical events that (re)shaped the city in 1968.” A quick Google search of “DC 1968” makes clear that the events in question are likely those of the 1968 “riots,” a loaded word commonly used (but also often rejected) to describe the civil unrest that peaked in American cities in the 1960s. Last year Detroit marked the 50th anniversary of its 1967 uprising, an event explored in the exhibition “Detroit 67” at the Detroit Historical Museum. The exhibit opens with the very question “what do you call it?”, with answers ranging from “riot” to “rebellion” or “revolution.”
How we describe the redevelopment that has taken place in areas damaged by unrest in the 1960s is also a challenge. AIA DC’s architecture month is accompanied by the exhibit reBirth::Washington DC 50 Years after 1968, which “presents significant projects in each area that have served as catalysts for change." The topic of how DC has changed in the last 50 years and the role architecture has played is worth exploring, and I applaud AIA DC for tackling that legacy. However, framing these changes to the city as a “rebirth” suggests a fresh start or new beginning, and may reflect a bias in favor of the city’s gentrification, which, according to the DC Commission on African American Affairs, has tracked with a three-decade decline in income and employment for African American residents as well as with their displacement.
We’ve come a long, long way. And we still have a long, long way to go.
Vernon Jordan, civil rights activist
How we tell history sets the stage for how we argue for and against future policy – policy that shapes the city in which we as architects design. The current debate over updates to DC’s Comprehensive Plan and its implications for low income residents and people of color is a perfect example. In this Washington Post opinion piece, public historian Sarah Jane Shoenfeld questions some of the assumptions upon which the proposed amendments to the Plan are based, chiefly that DC’s black population is shrinking because African Americans are leaving the city by choice rather than being displaced by new development. And, as the 1950s urban renewal project in Southwest DC demonstrated, racial bias in city planning can cause irreparable damage to communities and landscapes.
The Conversation Continues
Talking about race and American history is hard. Navigating its implications for our future and our cities is even harder. As civil rights activist Vernon Jordan said in an interview on the anniversary of King’s death, “We’ve come a long, long way. And we still have a long, long way to go.” Anniversaries provide a platform to promote awareness and widen the conversation. The dc1968 project by historian Marya Annette McQuirter “moves beyond the hyper focus on the uprising after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and amplifies the art, activism, architecture and everyday life that made 1968 such an extraordinary year in DC.” The project uses daily #OTD (On This Day) in 1968 posts with stories, photographs, and ephemera to gradually tell a multifaceted history at the speed at which it unfurled. In a similar vein, the National Building Museum is hosting an exhibit this year, The Pilot District Project, 1968-1973. The exhibit uses posters, maps, and photographs to illustrate a period of experimental community policing in DC neighborhoods damaged in 1968. In doing so, it both extends the historic period in question and offers an alternative example of a policy response to a community in crisis. Both of these projects use the events of 1968 as a springboard for moving the conversation into the present.
Like anniversaries, historic preservation and urban development projects have the potential to serve as a platform for historical exploration, community engagement, and thoughtful placemaking. For example, Quinn Evans Architects is part of team involved in two neighborhood revitalization projects in the City of Detroit. These neighborhood-focused planning projects solicit community input and review housing, infrastructure, economic development, historic preservation, and community needs to chart a course for future public and private initiatives. The legacy of our profession has shown that architects cannot have all the answers. But as architects and preservationists it is our job to look back at our history, recognize its relationship to our work today, and shape the conversation that moves us, and our cities, forward.
Contributions from Ann Phillips and Jack Becker.