Transforming neighborhoods, changing communities : collective agency and rights in a new era of urban redevelopment in Washington, DC
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As the demand for center city living in the US has grown, housing has been used to revitalize neighborhoods and contribute to the tax base of the city. I investigate the ways that change, fostered and shaped in part by federal and local housing and planning policies, affects low income neighborhoods undergoing redevelopment at the level of “community.” To study these issues I study the Washington, DC neighborhoods of Columbia Heights: In less than ten years, this neighborhood was transformed by planning and housing policies from a primarily low-income, isolated neighborhood to a truly mixed income neighborhood housing residents of varied ethnicities and income levels. Using an ethnographic approach, I interviewed residents, policy makers, agency staff, advocates, and housing developers; conducted archival research on planning documents, newspapers, blogs, neighborhood list-servs, and public hearing proceedings; and observed - both directly and as a participant – in public parks, commercial establishments, public hearings, community, tenant and organizational meetings, and at rallies and town halls. My findings suggest that the District of Columbia, neighborhood groups, housing advocates, and developers instituted some of the best practices in urban planning and housing policy, which led to a mixed income neighborhood with a focus on dense, mixed-use and multi-modal transit oriented development. However, in spite of – or perhaps because of – dramatic changes in the concentration of poverty, through the combination of the preservation of existing affordable housing and the addition of higher income new residents, low income residents’ sense of community, political power and access to amenities changed significantly. Moreover, the focus on place and physical amenities that has been a hallmark of large scale redevelopment has implicitly devalued less tangible elements of neighborhood life related to use-value, community cohesion, and culture. Further, the implied benefits of mixed income communities for low income households, combined with the narrative of urban decline and rebirth that echoes across American cities have combined to justify the social, political and physical displacement of existing residents.