A public history role for building bike lanes in cities?

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L Street NW cycle track, Washington, DC. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

L Street NW cycle track, Washington, DC. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

Gentrification: It’s not just for sociologists and anthropologists any more. Though historians have been making inroads documenting and interpreting gentrification and displacement, there are abundant opportunities for historians to make significant contributions in public policy and planning. One recent kerfuffle involving proposed bicycle lanes and African American churches in Washington, DC, provides a window into how a better understanding of the past could have defused a racially and class charged debate over painted lines in public spaces.

I was attracted to the bike lanes issue for a number of reasons. First, it goes directly to the deleterious effects of ignoring and erasing history–something I’ve written about several times for History@Work. The bike lanes dustup also raises important questions about the roles that privilege plays in public policy and what happens when privilege based upon race and/or class blinds stakeholders to different points of view. I’m also a cyclist.

In October 2015, the District of Columbia Department of Transportation convened a public meeting to discuss alternatives for bike lanes through the city’s Shaw neighborhood. Shaw, like other DC neighborhoods, is undergoing gentrification after decades of disinvestment and municipal neglect. It’s a part of the city that has a rich and storied history because of the African Americans who lived, worked, played, and worshipped there throughout much of the twentieth century. The well-known U Street corridor–known as Washington’s Harlem–bisects the neighborhood from west to east, and it’s home to Howard University. Shaw was named for Civil War Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts regiment memorialized in the 1989 movie, Glory.

There is an unbroken thread of displaced African Americans moving into Shaw. It starts with Civil War-era contraband camps; continues with people displaced by gentrification in Georgetown in the 1920s and 1930s and families unable to find homes in neighborhoods with racially restrictive covenants; and, households displaced by urban renewal after World War II. Decline in Shaw began with black flight to the suburbs after landmark civil rights laws and court cases. The neighborhood was devastated in the civil unrest that erupted after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. It was exacerbated by cut-and-cover Metro construction in the 1980s and crack cocaine’s decade-long hold over the streets and people there.

Despite a wide array of public and private sector efforts to infuse money and people, Shaw languished in poverty until the turn of the twenty-first century. A convergence of economic and public policy shifts in Washington jump-started new residential and commercial investments that began attracting mostly white millennials to the District’s rehabilitating slums. The influx of new investments and new people kicked off new direct displacement pressures–higher property taxes, high rents, and fewer options for housing and commercial space–as police protection and public services improved and new amenities like bike lanes appeared.

Indirect displacement–social and cultural displacement–also occurred. These are changes represented by new people starting to outnumber longtime residents (social) and the increasing dominance of new cultural rhythms and spatial uses that replace existing ones (cultural). These indirect displacement pressures occur in a context where physical displacement has occurred for more than a century. In some respects, even if people don’t succumb to the economic pressures that push people out of neighborhoods, Washington’s long history of public- and private-sector displacement is never far from longtime residents’ minds.

New Bethel Baptist Church. Photo by the author.

New Bethel Baptist Church. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

It is that history to which Pastor Dexter Nutall refers in an interview with me done at New Bethel Baptist Church, where he has been lead pastor since 2009. It’s the same pulpit that had been occupied for 50 years by DC Home Rule advocate and former Congressional Delegate Rev. Walter Fauntroy. Nutall explained that his congregants have been increasingly marginalized from public policy decisions related to development in the neighborhood. “The manner in which it has been done has been in disregard of the interests of the whole,” he said. “When you come into a space that has not only been occupied but preserved, protected, maintained by a party like a church, it is not only unwise but it’s offensive because there is no regard for the history.”

Nutall’s church is one of a handful of other African American churches in the Ninth and Sixth streets corridors in Washington’s Northwest quadrant that would be directly impacted by bike lanes. Nutall and other church leaders say the bike lanes would prevent the diagonal parking that the city permits Sundays. It would, as pastors and residents said in the October public meeting, create hardships for congregants who rely on cars and nearby parking to be able to attend church. One church, the United House of Prayer, hired an attorney and alleges its religious freedoms are being violated.

Washington Post reporter Perry Stein observed in a November 2015 article on gentrification and bike lanes that Washington is one of several cities across the nation where conflict has erupted over bike lanes in gentrifying neighborhoods. For the nation’s capital, the 2015 fight appeared to be a rerun of one from 2013 when District officials proposed building a protected bike track along L Street NW in the same block as a historic African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Anthropologist and cycling equity consultant Adonia Lugo told Stein that one issue among African Americans is how bicycles are perceived as symbols of anachronistic poverty or middle-class elitism. Cars, however, are an equalizing artifact among many African Americans, enabling suburban relocation and affording freedom to return to old urban neighborhoods with strong place attachment.

Sunday parking sign, Galbraith A.M.E. Zion Church, Sixth Street NW, Washington, D.C. Photo by the author.

Sunday parking sign, Galbraith AME Zion Church, Sixth Street NW, Washington, DC. Photo credit: David Rotenstein

The cycling enthusiasts and urbanists pushing for the bike lanes assert that the new infrastructure is necessary for safety. They dismiss the claims from longtime Shaw residents that the bike lanes are related to gentrification and that the bike lanes would be harmful.

Many bike lane proponents echo claims made by the writers and editors of Greater Greater Washington, a local blog that focuses on transportation and development in the region. The GGW community (disclosure: I occasionally write for GGW) asserts that the bike lanes can have no negative impacts and that they’ll only improve the neighborhoods through which the lanes run and those they connect to.

Some GGW writers and readers cannot see beyond the painted lines, bicycles, and cars into the historical basis for concern.  Bike lanes are an appropriation of public space that further marginalizes neighborhood residents who are being physically and symbolically displaced.[1] For Nutall, a 46-year-old native Washingtonian and lifelong church member, and some of the others who came out to oppose the proposed bike lanes, it’s really not about bicycles or their lanes. It’s about a seat at the table and displacement in all its forms. “What I’m interested in is the opportunity for us stakeholders who have protected, preserved, maintained these communities–that everybody all of a sudden has this interest in–that they have an opportunity to participate,” Nutall told me.

Can public history inform contested dialogues like the ones over bike lanes in gentrifying neighborhoods? I believe it can because it brings to the discussion not just historical depth but also engagement tools that could resolve debates in a productive and equitable solution for all.

David Rotenstein is a consulting historian based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He researches and writes on historic preservation, industrial history, and gentrification.

[1] The typical GGW position may be seen in this comment I received from a GGW contributor, quoted here with his permission: “I actually find the whole subtext of oppression and displacement in this debate a bit offensive, because there is real oppression and real displacement that goes on. Wrapping themselves in the victimhood of these real offenses for a case that simply doesn’t qualify as one, detracts from this debate and from the severity of those cases.” This contributor and other bike lane proponents–most of whom are white, middle-class newcomers to Washington or residents in neighboring jurisdictions–don’t appear to understand displacement’s subtleties and complexities, nor do they appear to grasp Washington’s longtime struggles with displacement.

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