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Aesthetic Erasures and Displacement from the Past in Gentrifying Washington, D.C.

Authors: Rebecca Summer*, Portland State University
Topics: Cultural Geography, Urban Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: gentrification, race, historic preservation, aesthetics, Washington DC
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In historically Black Washington, D.C., scholars have noted that gentrifying neighborhoods often adopt aesthetics that celebrate Black culture, using “diversity” as an amenity to attract a growing white population, at the same time that Black populations experience cultural and physical displacement (Summers 2019; Hyra 2017). Blagden Alley, located in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, is a prime example. At this hipster destination—an alley with hidden establishments offering cappuccinos and craft cocktails—colorful murals on garage doors depict Black people in powerful poses. While Black individuals are conspicuously celebrated through the murals, the murals distract from far subtler and more numerous aesthetic choices that erase the long history of Black people in this space. For most of the twentieth century, Blagden Alley was a space defined by the presence of Black people who lived and worked in the alley. Yet while Blagden Alley is a historic landmark with buildings carefully preserved, the history of social life is increasingly invisible. Instead, an idealized past is represented through the resurrection of historic signage, photographs on cultural tourism kiosks, and careful brickwork restoration—none of which recognizes the centrality of Black people to Blagden Alley’s history. This paper calls on geographers to pay attention to the subtle aesthetic choices in gentrifying neighborhoods that not only facilitate displacement in the present, but also displacement from the past, further loosening historical claims to urban space.

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