Documenting gentrification: A video rough cut
22 July 2013 – David Rotenstein
In 1975 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designated a one-square-mile part of Decatur, Georgia an Urban Homesteading Demonstration Program neighborhood. The designation meant that the city’s housing authority could sell distressed properties in its inventory to qualified buyers for one dollar.
The 113 homes sold between 1975 and 1982 initiated successive waves of gentrification in the inner ring Atlanta suburb. By the turn of the 21st century, Decatur was home to hip restaurants and bars and the former urban homesteading neighborhood had become fertile territory for teardowns and mansionization.
After my wife and I moved to the neighborhood in 2011, I watched and filmed one of the former dollar homes being demolished. My subsequent research into housing history in South Decatur brought me into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory as a historian who specializes in architectural and industrial history: the contentious nexus of race, class, and privilege in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
The trajectory from homeowner to accidental participant observer and would-be activist was documented in two [email protected] posts (Part I and Part II) published in September 2012 and in a piece published in the Tikkun Daily blog in February 2013. And some of my initial research on urban homesteading in Decatur appeared in the DeKalb History Center’s Spring 2012 newsletter.
By the first half of 2013 I had done about 40 interviews with current and former urban homesteaders, four former Decatur mayors, and elderly African American homeowners who helped integrate the neighborhood in the 1960s. These interviews and the documentary research will be the basis for articles and a book on housing history in South Decatur between 1890 and 2012.
As I am writing the narratives, Decatur’s elderly African American homeowners continue to live in a community where privilege denies their history. Daily efforts to get them to sell their small homes continues a cycle of serial displacement that began with the city’s earliest slum clearance efforts starting in 1938. I decided that the recorded audio interviews could be paired with historical images and footage of old homes being demolished and new ones being built to tell a story about gentrification’s impacts and how the lens of privilege denies disadvantaged people their history and their perspectives on housing and community economics.
The result has been the production of a 30-minute documentary video rough cut. Once the video is finalized I will try to use it in presentations on South Decatur’s housing history and the path from Gilded Age streetcar suburb to 21st century super-gentrification. The two clips in this post are culled from the rough cut. The first clip is an introduction to the neighborhood and the issues and the second clip introduces viewers to a woman I’m calling Iris Buchanan, an octogenarian Decatur native who is watching her emotional and social ecosystem deconstructed around her. The interview segment with Buchanan was done on her porch as heavy machinery worked next door completing the demolition of the small house that had been her neighbor for the half-century she lived there.
~ David S. Rotenstein (Historian for Hire) is an independent consultant working in Atlanta, Washington DC, and beyond.