Capitalizing on Marginalized Space: Redesigning and Rebranding Alleys in Washington, D.C.

Authors: Rebecca Summer*, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Topics: Urban Geography, Cultural Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: alleys, gentrification, public space, Washington DC
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Washington 3, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


American cities from Seattle to Austin to Washington, D.C. have recently turned to their downtown alleys, assessing them as overlooked public spaces in which a range of city goals can be met: housing density, green infrastructure, commercial development, and public art. In Washington, D.C., these new alley functions have been made possible by an array of local government incentives and have been celebrated for innovative urban design. Based on semi-structured interviews with urban planners, developers, architects, and alley property owners, I argue that the success of these alley transformations also depends on a cultural imaginary that celebrates alleys as the dirty and dangerous antithesis to the recent influx of sanitized, high-rise luxury developments.

This poses a problem for cities like D.C.; using alleys to implement solutions to urban challenges capitalizes on the histories of marginalized people and activities in these spaces. Once vilified as African American slums in the early twentieth century, as dumps for waste in mid-century, and as sites of violent crime in late-twentieth century, D.C. alleys are now be rebranded in the twenty-first century as edgy and “authentically urban.” Members of the D.C.’s increasingly young, white, and affluent population are invited to belong in a space that now excludes the very people and activities whose histories are still intentionally traceable in the built environment. This paper focuses on the process of alley transformation in the historically African American Shaw neighborhood, where alley redevelopment dovetails with discourses around gentrification and Black branding.

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