Exhibit reveals D.C.’s history of systematic housing discrimination

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"Undesign the Redline" reveals the District's history of racially discriminatory redlining. (photo courtesy of Pepco Edison Place Gallery)
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By Avery Anapol, Current Correspondent

In the District and numerous other U.S. cities, decades of racial inequality have been linked to housing-related discrimination — from rules that explicitly blocked certain races from buying or renting a given property, to mortgage lending policies that more subtly accomplished the same end.

Now, organizers of a traveling exhibit say they want to start the conversations that will remedy the effects of these practices for future generations.

“Undesign the Redline,” a free exhibit highlighting the history and effects of “redlining” in D.C., will be at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery through Sept. 30. Redlining refers to a series of urban housing practices that emerged from government policy in the 1930s that effectively blocked African-Americans and other minorities from moving into certain neighborhoods for fear that their presence would devalue the area.

The interactive exhibit invites visitors to add their personal stories to the timelines, maps and display boards lining the gallery’s walls. This is the 13th iteration of the exhibit, which curator April De Simone has taken to different cities since its launch in 2015.

The documents on display show how redlining and other discriminatory practices contributed to segregation by race and class in D.C. neighborhoods, as well as in New York City and communities in Maryland. Through the use of primary sources like maps and government documents, the exhibit shows how the consequences of redlining still affect today’s communities.

De Simone said the goal of the exhibit is to inform people of all ages, races and backgrounds about the destructive impacts of redlining, and to prompt them to speak productively about how to design solutions with local government and organizations.

“Undesign the Redline” is a traveling exhibition showcasing the history of discriminatory housing practices. (photo courtesy of Pepco Edison Place Gallery)

“You have these juxtapositions of a young, African-American male with an elderly white male having conversations that they said they would never have,” De Simone said.

De Simone said that she hopes the exhibit will inspire activists and officials in D.C. to start to create “true, affordable housing” that goes beyond what’s already in place by incorporating businesses and involving whole communities.

“If people have one frame of thinking because they’ve never been taught this information, it’s hard to interact with each other,” she said. “If we can have this information out there and have conversations to really change and pivot what we thought we knew, how great would that be?”

Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit organization that provides housing opportunities for low-income families, helped underwrite the costs of the exhibit and has hosted it at its offices in other cities.

David Bowers, Enterprise’s vice president and Mid-Atlantic market leader, said today’s issues of inequality, discrimination and gentrification are consequences of redlining. Because certain people — including his own parents — were prevented from living in some D.C. neighborhoods when they moved to the area, their families continue to have lesser access to resources, even 50 years later.

“People have to take ownership and personal responsibility, but when we understand some of the complexities, you understand that it’s not that simple,” said Bowers. “Sometimes, people may have been doing all the right things and still, structurally, were in a situation where they just weren’t going to ‘win.’”

Bowers said that even with heightened racial and political tensions in the country, he hopes visitors to the exhibit will feel inspired, not discouraged, about joining the fight for justice.

The exhibit features interactivity with attendees. (photo courtesy of Pepco Edison Place Gallery)

“This is not the time to feel like, ‘Woe is me, woe is us, we can’t do anything,’” Bowers said. “People throughout the history of this country, oftentimes against overwhelming odds, were fighting back in all kinds of ways. People need to feel a sense of empowerment.”

The exhibit also examines current-day responses to injustice, like the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements.

Bernard Demczuk, lecturer on D.C.’s black history and culture and official historian at Ben’s Chili Bowl, was the keynote speaker at the exhibit’s opening reception. Demczuk discussed the history of redlining in D.C., and argued that its effects should be remedied through reparations to underprivileged communities.

“Everybody should go to this exhibit to learn about how the United States of America, through official government policy, created ghettos, and then created the opportunity for crime, drugs, violence, guns and AIDS to enter those neighborhoods,” Demczuk said. “Redlining is a major, major insult and a major criminal activity onto the American people that was sanctioned by the federal government.”

Demczuk said he hopes the gallery’s proximity to the center of politics means lawmakers will come by for the “excellent crash course” about the history of issues that still haunt their constituents’ communities.

“Congress should come see the exhibit,” Demczuk said. “I think 99 percent of the members of Congress have no idea what redlining is — that’s how ignorant our leaders are about American history.”

De Simone, the exhibit’s curator, co-founded the New York-based studio Designing the WE in 2015 to imagine solutions to architectural, economic and structural problems in underserved communities. She called “Undesign the Redline” the group’s “manifesto in action” and highlighted the exhibit’s interactivity.

“This is really at the core of our work and what we’re doing,” De Simone said. “It becomes a living archive so that developers, politicians and other agencies and people have a place to plug into with data and material. … They’re plugging into the community’s input on an ongoing basis.”