tions prevented the government from building true high-rises, either for
government offices or for low-income families. Hence, urban renewal.
Or “urban removal,” as certain critics cynically say.
Some of my mother’s family were “urbanly removed” from time to
time over those years, especially from southwest to southeast of the Capitol. And although many of those old row house dwellings in Southwest
were like “see-through” houses to me—that is, the back doors seemed to
lie just behind the front doors—they were nonetheless home to family,
and displacement is displacement. When my mom was young, shortly
after her father died, she and her mother, sister, and two brothers stayed
with relatives in that black Southwest. And when they had to move, their
search for housing was traumatic for her: she was so afraid that they’d
wind up homeless and on the streets. Fortunately, they managed to secure the last, demonstration model, garden apartment in a new public
housing project near the Navy Yard in Southeast, projects other friends
and relatives had moved to, projects that I considered my second home
when we traveled across the Anacostia River, with kids constantly running in and out and family packing Grandma’s four-room, two-story
corner place during holiday gatherings, she holding court like the queen
of the domain that she was. Still, Mom’s early brush with possible homelessness was one “hit-home” example of the fact that DC proper wasn’t
going to have enough public housing for everyone in need.
But across that river from the central city, from the “real” DC, across
that river that met the Washington Channel at Fort McNair and converged with the larger Potomac River at Haines Point, across that river
sat an area whose original residents were the Nacotchtank Native Americans (also known as the Nacostines); it was an area to which there was
only the original little 11th Street Bridge for more than a century, an area
that didn’t get a high school until 1935. Across that river lay Anacostia.
All of that acreage, rolling and relatively expansive. Anacostia was suddenly the solution.
And so, slowly but surely, as zoning laws changed, public housing
projects rose much faster and in greater density in Anacostia than in
any other area of the city. And slowly but surely, the social and economic
fabric of Anacostia began to change as well.
Such change was also effected—ironically for some, “tragically” for
others—by integration. Gradually, from the late 1950s into the 1960s,
with rigid segregation crumbling, middle-class black families began to
leave Anacostia for better, larger homes in other parts of DC and in the