Documenting gentrification: A video rough cut

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map showing teardownsIn 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.

  1. Jo-Anne says:

    Looking forward to seeing the final product.

  2. Decatur Resident says:

    Really? Have you vetted this man’s “work”? He engages in hyperbole and flat-out misrepresentation. He is a poor excuse for an “historian”. His so-called interviews have been twisted with context removed. Several of his subjects, including the former mayor and his former neighbor, felt horrified, misused and exploited when shown how he was engaging in twisting their words to prove his shallow thesis.

    Furthermore, he continually engages in litigation against citizens of Decatur, accusing them of harassing him when they merely point out his view of the history of our city is incorrect. His most recent merit-free court appearance was only a few months ago. He actually had to move out of Decatur because residents fought back against his constant harassment.

    As a near-lifelong Decatur resident with advanced degrees in history and experience in both academics and preservation, this man is nothing but a poor excuse for an historian and his research needs to be carefully reviewed before it can be accepted.

    1. Ted Baumann says:

      Sounds like you have an axe to grind …

  3. cathy says:

    To my editorial eye, and in my judgment as a public historian, David Rotenstein’s work is rigorously documented and also highly transparent, at least to the extent that it can be in what is obviously a very contentious civic environment. Moreover, he’s documenting patterns that are very widespread in many parts of the world where older and poorer neighborhoods have become fertile ground for upscale development. His work has clearly won him some enemies, who unfortunately don’t play by the same rules of evidence and transparency that serious scholars follow. (For instance, as with your own comment above, those who are “cyberstalking” David have tended to hide behind pseudonyms instead of having the courage to use their own names; readers interested in the murky legalities of all of this can follow some of the ongoing saga here.)

    There are lots of important questions to be debated about this topic (as the commenters on another of David’s articles did, following a similar initial personal attack by another pseudonymous critic) and lots of points of view on the questions involved. Merely attacking and distorting David’s positions from behind a wall of anonymity gets us nowhere in terms of talking about the complicated realities of gentrification.

  4. Leif Terry says:

    If you want to find out what happens to Rotenstein’s critics who are not anonymous, you can read my old personal journal here:

    He inexplicably quotes from this document, section III, in the video.

  5. Ted Baumann says:

    I’m not in a position to comment on the details of Mr. Rotenstein’s work, since I have not had a chance to review it in detail, but as an Oakhurst resident who has worked in the field of urban human settlement for almost two decades, I can confirm Cathy’s comment. Gentrification is a pattern we see almost everywhere – including the bitter reaction to criticism from residents who apply different value systems to their assessment of its impact. I look forward to seeing the final result of his work, and to an open an honest debate about the issues it raises.

    1. Leif Terry says:

      If you’re not familiar with Rotenstein’s work, you probably didn’t see the one in which he predicted that the current gentrification in Decatur would be followed by a government sponsored relocation program comparable to the “Trail of Tears”. Or the one where he calls me an “imbecile” and said that my Oakhurst neighbors are “sick”? Or the one where he describes how he monitors the internet activity of “more than a dozen” of his enemies? Or the many others filled with exaggerations, bizarre claims, and personal attacks that are his hallmarks?

      The “bitter reaction” you see is almost certainly due to Rotenstein’s inflammatory style, and not with discomfort with the subject matter. It’s true that he is applying a different value system, so different that many of us living in Decatur have had to call police to deal with him. There’s a reason that most of his commenters prefer to be anonymous.

      I too am interested in the topic of gentrification and I’d be interested in an honest discussion of the issue. I don’t think I’ll find it here.

      1. cathy says:

        You will if you can focus on something other than your feud with David Rotenstein, which this blog is not going to be a platform for. Either there’s something in his interpretation or there’s not (and as one of the lead editors I obviously accept that there is). If there is, then an appropriate response is to present your own carefully documented evidence about what’s happening in the neighborhood and let readers make up their own minds on the issue. If you’re arguing that his interpretation is baseless, then I would question whether you’re really interested in an honest discussion about gentrification. David’s photographs alone are very compelling evidence of the change that’s happening in this particular neighborhood, and it’s one that’s very familiar to anyone who’s paying attention to this kind of urban redevelopment.

        In any case, any future comments that prolong the feud will be taken down, as they’re flirting with our policy prohibiting ad hominem attacks and they’re not productive of thoughtful discussion of this issue.

        1. Leif Terry says:

          Cathy, you’re right that we should evaluating his work based on its merits, not based on his previous writings.

          I don’t have any complaints about it, other than the fact that I am included in it. I don’t think there is a legitimate reason to do that other than to, as you say, prolong the feud. If he needs a quote I’m sure that he can find one from one of the thousands of Decatur residents that he does not have a personal history with.

          Thank you for allowing me to respond. If you can convince him to leave his feud out of this writing, feel free to delete my comments.

  6. Gentrification happens. But it can happen in various ways. Some preserve the beauty of historic architecture while still growing the overall living area of the house while others run rough shod over the history, values, and community of a neighborhood. We have seen both happen in Fort Collin, Colorado. We’d like to think that everyone is going to be a good neighborhood. That they’ll meet with neighbors first to get feedback on changes they’re going to make to their houses. But instead they move forward, even when neighbors ask them to sit down and talk through what they’re doing. The people expanding or replacing a house get what they want – more space, updated features, etc – but it’s the neighbors who pay the price – loss of sunlight due to towering houses next store, loss of privacy as neighbors can now look right down into their yards and bedrooms from upper stories, and loss of context as historic neighborhoods are cut up to make way for new builds that would have fit in better stylistically in other parts of town.

  7. The video previewed in this post premiered at an Atlanta program held March 11, 2014 at Charis Books and More, Atlanta’s oldest surviving feminist bookstore . Fifty people, including Decatur residents interviewed for the project, attended and began a conversation about gentrification that organizers plan to continue in the metro Atlanta area.

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