I thought I would post a short note commemorating two anniversaries, one significant to the nation and the other the city of Washington. Forty years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. That event sparked civic disturbances in over 100 cities including Washington, D.C.
This map, published in the book Ten Blocks from the White House shows the extent of fires and looting. The event lay the groundwork for both the large number of subsidized housing projects along these corridors and new private developments like U Street’s Ellington and DCUSA in Columbia Heights.
The late 1960s events are also usually said to be related population decline. Like most cities, its population peaked around 1950 — 18 years before the civil disorder. Population decline should be understood as an interplay not only of urban problems causing middle class “flight,” but also the draw of the suburbs in the form of superior public services and inexpensive housing subsidized by government highways and mortgage programs.
Here are just a few links, please feel free to contribute more in the comments.
> Previous post: Understanding the 1960s’s ‘Civil Disorders’
> History News Network: April 4th, 1968
> W. Post: 40 Years After King, Legacies of the Riot
I don’t know enough about DC planning history after the war to know the specifics, but I do know that in general after WWII there was a real problem with overcrowding in American cities. And a sense that something needed to be done about this, and so between elimination (as in DC) of Alley dwellings or in downgrading density (in the case of SF) were two ways that city governments responded. So at the same time that citizens and their elected leaders were saying — enough growth, enough crowding — the feds and the developers were poised to develop outside of the cities (not that they already hadn’t been, our disgust with cities as Westerners dates throughout modern history, and always rapidly increased with technological advancements in transportation). Having the Federal government grow so rapidly during WWII and the New Deal (and suddenly need to find land for these newly created departments) didn’t help the urbanization any either. So many cofactors, a perfect storm of events, I suppose.
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