Southwest has always been a special place that people are drawn back to and they tend to form connections to this neighborhood that last a lifetime. The phrase “I know my neighbor” has meaning in Southwest. One can quickly see the huge amount of diversity and sense of belonging among residents here. A close-knit African-American community also existed in this area prior to urban renewal. However, they are only a distant thought and memory. There is very little evidence of the community that once was, with the exception of the remainder of homes south of Q Street, which is affectionately referred to as “Old Southwest.” The rich heritage and culture of the former residents were overshadowed by the desire for change that lead to the forcible removal of 4500 African-American families from this neighborhood during the urban renewal project. These families were relocated, scattered throughout the city, and often handed unfulfilled promises of returning one day to the only homes they had ever known.
There is a belief in this city that when concentrated poverty is broken up in a residential area, it makes way for prosperity and greater economic opportunity for all. Little thought goes into the devastating effects that it has on families and community ties, the same way that it was done in Old Southwest. There is truth in the saying that “If we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, we are destined to repeat them.” How a community takes care of its own is critically important as we move forward, especially what is preserved and what is protected, including the basic rights of vulnerable residents to not be overlooked and slowly forgotten.
A tremendous amount of effort is place into building up areas like Southwest throughout the city. However, not enough attention is going into making a clear and precise plan to ensure that low- to moderate-income families, individuals, and seniors are not priced out of neighborhoods. It should matter to everyone that the future for these residents in Southwest and DC in general hangs in the balance. It is a horrible thing to be kicked out of a home and evicted from a community or to be undesired in an area. This is a harsh reality for hundreds of low-income families and residents throughout the city. It is also hard for many of them to face these circumstances as they are struggling to survive while raising their children and trying to hold onto jobs that barely cover transportation costs and other daily living expenses. Communities are being built up to exclude these residents. Seldom do you hear of anyone crying for children in public housing when their homes are torn down or boarded up in preparation for demolition. How can these families and individuals feel secure when they are not guaranteed a place in the community or even at the table as decisions are being made about their lives? They are casualities of an unjust system that was not designed to care about families as much as it does about the value and profits generated from land.
What the future holds especially as far as housing for all of our low- to moderate-income families is uncertain just as it was for the families in Old Southwest. When the bulldozers came to tear down the community back then, there was nothing that could be done to change the course of history. The destruction rippled through the neighborhood and forever changed the lives of the families that were involuntarily removed from the community. They watched as so many things that had so much meaning to them were snatched away and disregarded like trash. The continued existence of families and individuals that earn well below what is required to live comfortably in Southwest can be secured by the community caring about them now and the significant impact that all of this development will have on them. Otherwise, this area is on a slow but steady path to repeat the past. The lives of these residents matter in this community and throughout our city. We are strengthened by the economic diversity that is created by their presence in our neighborhood.
By: Rhonda Hamilton