Using an aesthetics of “history” to perform progressiveness in gentrifying Washington, D.C.

Authors: Rebecca Summer*, Portland State University
Topics: Urban Geography, Cultural Geography, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: gentrification, race, historic preservation, Washington DC
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/11/2021
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Virtual 50
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In Washington, D.C., a population that is increasingly affluent, White, and left-leaning is drawn to spaces that advertise diversity and multiculturalism (Hyra 2017; Summers, 2019). I call the eager consumption of this discursive branding a performance of progressiveness, and I examine how it is made possible, especially as Black cultural and physical displacement occurs in the same spaces. I argue that this performance requires more than the overt markers of diversity branding, such as public art and signage that celebrate idealized narratives of racial harmony. Using the case of the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Historic District, a network of alleys now popular for public art and high-end dining, I argue that a performance of progressiveness works best when place-based historical narratives are absent. I demonstrate how property owners and residents intentionally obfuscate historical specificity by maintaining a material and affective sense of history, rooted in the red-brick, nineteenth-century built environment. The curated sense of history shields newcomers from confronting the historical reality of Black Washingtonians in these alleys, a history for which the historic district was designated. The sense of history also invites identification with the past, giving credibility to newcomers’ claims in the present, and making performances of progressiveness all the more insidious.

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