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Reviewed by:
  • Historic Capital: Preservation, Race, and Real Estate in Washington, D.C. by Cameron Logan
  • Susan V. Donaldson
Historic Capital: Preservation, Race, and Real Estate in Washington, D.C. by Cameron Logan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. xxvii + 292 pp.; illustrations, notes, sources, index; paperbound, $27.00.

In our current era of Washington-elite bashing, Cameron Logan offers an alternative history of those neighborhoods and residents in the nation's capital rendered nearly invisible by an expanding federal government even as the city became majority black after World War II. In those postwar decades, Logan argues, Washingtonians sought to leave their own stamp on the city and exert their political and economic rights by first restoring old row-houses, then preserving local neighborhoods, and finally taking the lead in remaking and remembering their cityscape.

It is a story, Logan asserts, that combines concerns with rapid urban growth, shifting tastes in architecture—from Georgetown's Federal townhouses to Victorian row-houses in Dupont Circle—and the city's long quest for home rule and African American agency. But it is also a story of the losses suffered primarily by African American residents and neighborhoods as property values accelerated in the wake of restoration and preservation efforts often categorized as gentrification. Logan traces the story of preservation in Washington back to the 1920s and 1930s when Georgetown was emerging from what Logan described as a "dowdy backwater" into a fashionable residential neighborhood with prized colonial-and Federal-era townhouses, the property values of which represented a bulwark against overdevelopment and commercialization (8). Private property ownership, in fact, became an important tool in maintaining the character of local neighborhoods between the 1940s and the 1970s, as the federal government expanded its footprint and as Washington became a majority black city. It was during this period that issues of political representation and local control were increasingly tied to debates over controlling and preserving older sections of the city, from Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill to Shaw, the U Street Corridor, and Southwest, and as those debates intensified so did questions about how to define historical and aesthetic significance of both buildings and neighborhoods—and who was to assume the authority to do so.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, Washington had become, as Logan asserts, "a city that in many respects was created by its preservation movement" (209). Local activists had largely succeeded in rejecting large-scale urban renewal and modernization and in preserving specific neighborhoods on local terms indicating a sense of belonging and proprietorship, but the goal of both controlled [End Page 204] growth and individual property ownership propelling so much of the preservation movement was by and large inaccessible to many of the city's residents, "especially," Logan notes, "African Americans and their families, who made it their home during the twentieth century" (210).

Hence the story Logan tries to tell here is of the city's history through the lens of preservation—and of race. Logan largely succeeds in evoking the central role played by preservation in protecting the city's architecture and neighborhoods and the ties to be drawn between preservation and home rule, but that focus also renders the city's history oddly abstract and elusive by offering few visual or even detailed descriptions of buildings, neighborhoods, residents, and civic groups or demographic statistics on white gentrification, black displacement, or even the kind of vibrant community life defining the neighborhoods affected by restoration and preservation. Indeed, for a study purporting to place race at the center of Washington's history of urban development and preservation, Historic Capital pays precious little attention to the multiple histories of black Washington—to Georgetown as a slave-trading center, to Woodrow Wilson's implementation of segregation in the city, to Washington's own version of the Harlem Renaissance among writers, artists, and educators like Anna Julia Cooper, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Alain Locke, and Jean Toomer, to civil rights activists who began testing the boundaries of Jim Crow as early as the 1940s, and to the 1968 riots and their aftermath. Perhaps more to the point, this study makes no use at all of the resources provided by critical...


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