The Cost of Urban Redevelopment

Second annual Equitable Development Conference addresses gentrification, housing rights.

Local artist Jess Solomon created visual notes throughout the second annual Equitable Development Conference.
Local artist Jess Solomon created visual notes throughout the second annual Equitable Development Conference.
March 30, 2015

Phyllissa Bilal lives in public housing in the historic Barry Farm community in Southeast Washington, D.C. She remembers walking her three sons past a new playground in their neighborhood, which is a site for proposed redevelopment. The boys were eager to try out the new equipment—but were stopped at the gate. She said many residents thought the playground would be for all Barry Farm residents. But the entrance was padlocked.

“These are children who have been deprived of a playground for two or three years,” she said. “I have to explain to my children that they can’t play at an empty playground that’s less than 100 feet from their house.”

Ms. Bilal, who is the cofounder of neighborhood group the Barry Farm Study Circle, spoke at the second annual Equitable Development Conference Thursday. Hosted by the George Washington University, the symposium, “Sustainability from Below,” brought together community activists, neighborhood residents, government representatives and academics for an electric, participatory discussion on issues of sustainability and gentrification. It was co-sponsored by the university’s Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service and by ONEDC.

“[At GW] we want to increase the capacity for individuals and institutions to solve difficult social environmental and economic problems that are impacting our communities and neighborhoods,” said Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Harris Reed in introductory remarks. “Hosting today’s forum is an indication of the role we hope to play as a convener of thought and debate about issues of citizenship and leadership.”

Keynote speaker Mindy Fullilove, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and the author of “Root Shock: How Tearing Up Cities Hurts America and What We Can Do About It,” delivered a historical examination of the ways that America’s cities have been redeveloped and what she described as the destructive impact it has had on American society. 

“When you scoop out the core of the city to get rid of the black people, the city falls apart,” she said. Cities are held together by their cores, and “You can’t have a dense and lively core without dense and lively people.”

Dr. Fullilove, a social psychiatrist, demonstrated the ways that practices like “redlining”—assigning investment value to neighborhoods based on the size of their non-white populations—have made it impossible for poor urban residents to maintain the social and community ties that create political power.

The implementation of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 was made possible by the close-knit black neighborhoods of that city, she said. When those neighborhoods have been divested of resources and those tight social bonds have been dissolved, concerted power is difficult—if not impossible—for poor communities to access.

“Part of the work of community is solving collective problems,” Dr. Fullilove said.

“Communities are the way we talk about what we do next…Without community, we all die.”

Two panel discussions, focused on national and local issues surrounding equitable development, followed the keynote. At the local panel, Bill Updike, a representative from the city’s Department of the Environment, laid out plans for community driven, environmentally friendly public housing projects.

But fellow panelist Schyla Pondexter-Moore, a D.C. native and community activist with Empower DC, said that what was needed was not big renewal plans, but practical action from the municipal government.

“Sustainable development in public housing looks to me like, one, a moratorium on demolition—stop tearing down sound buildings—and, two, to renovate it for us to a living standard,” she said. “We need simple repairs. We can’t even get our faucets fixed.”