Publication Date

September 5, 2023

Perspectives Section

From the Editor



The AHA TownhouseWedged between the National Mall and the Potomac River, the Washington, DC, Waterfront is not yet a city again. It has the bustle, the nightlife, the commotion and vibrancy of a city, but it lacks the sense that it is truly a place where people live. This is not an accident. A glut of new construction has recently and deliberately erased the historical sediment of human habitation, replacing a Black urban community with a rich white aloneness. Some small bits remain, like the municipal fish market (in operation since 1805), but the new colony on the river shore otherwise lacks those small irregularities in the urban fabric that, as they accrete over time, make a neighborhood feel alive and more than just a collection of buildings. The architecture looks just like any other urban development built to a budget over the past two decades—maybe one day some remaining 5-over-1s and their associated “gentrification aesthetic” will be protected as historic, but the style does not currently spark much joy. The stores and restaurants, from Shake Shack to Hell’s Kitchen, are iterations of entities that exist outside their specific locale. From surroundings alone, you could be anywhere.

About a mile and a half east-southeast, another new development sits on the banks of a different river. Once a lively port on the Anacostia River, the actual naval yard portion of Navy Yard shrank and consolidated as shipbuilding moved elsewhere and trade goods came to the city on railroads instead of rivers. Then, in a familiar midcentury tale, urban planners rammed interstates through the city’s heart. I-395 and I-695 made the predominantly Black neighborhood unsightly, and rhetoric about crime, poverty, and urban blight soon followed. Robert Moses be praised, the area is now “renewed” with a baseball stadium, swanky eateries, and luxury condos. Recent transplants from more sparsely populated regions of the American empire often land in Navy Yard and find it shiny and fascinating; then they post terrified screeds on the Nextdoor app regarding their neighbors who still live in adjacent blocks of public housing.

Not all tales in the district are quite so grim, at least with respect to the recent and forced relocation of established communities. Alongside the construction of an infill station on one of the city’s Metro lines, the run-down warehouses of the NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) and neighboring Near Northeast neighborhoods have given way to an abundance of offices, condos, and hotels and an entire “beer trail” of breweries. The revitalization project has created density close to transportation and federal office buildings, mostly at the expense of surface parking lots—though surface parking lots are, generally speaking, the pavement gravestones of a previous urban fabric and the individuals who inhabited it. And this story is far from complete. Some queer-friendly clubs and music venues that were forced out of Navy Yard landed in the cheap warehouse spaces in Eckington, a neighborhood on NoMa’s northern border. As developers keep looking for new projects, these businesses may be forced to move once again.

These are only a few of the more recent stories that define the space where I and others live, work, and play. They are the stories of the space in which I have chosen to build my life, stories that depend or rest on other stories. Those stories are just a few in a multitude of individual and collective stories—histories—that exist in both chorus and discord here. It’s stories all the way down.

As was announced in May, over the next year, Perspectives is especially (but not exclusively) interested in pitches for articles with something to say about urbanism and rurality, words intended to prompt a reader to ponder the scope of an idea, rather than to mark its borders. Pieces about them may not appear in every issue, but attentive readers will find the thread of a conversation across this year’s publication. And as I have invited you to share your stories and histories, so I will continue to share mine.

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Leland Grigoli
Leland Renato Grigoli

American Historical Association