Barry Farm is on the frontlines of gentrification in Washington, D.C. Established in 1867 by the Freedman’s Bureau, Barry Farm (referred to locally as Barry Farms) became a suburban homestead for black Civil War veterans and freedmen. They set their foundations and built their homes, they stretched their roots deep within this fertile soil with a great view of the Anacostia River to the west, the all-white Uniontown neighborhood to the north, and green hills to the south and east. Today a freeway and military base blocks the view of the river, another freeway snakes down the middle of Barry Farm, the new headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security is rising up to the south, and, like much of the southeast quadrant of Washington D.C., it is marked by significant urban decay, lack of sufficient employment opportunities, and deteriorating infrastructure. There are still trees within the neighborhood, however, and green spaces without; and, except for the freeways and unlike many of the black communities throughout the District, there are no major waste, power, or rail facilities in sight. In short, it is prime property for Hope VI (the federal plan for changing public housing projects into mixed-income housing units) multi-use redevelopment, and upscale housing and retail developers are eager to begin dismantling the public housing units Barry Farm residents currently call home.

            Barry Farm residents — many of whom have lived there for decades — are faced with scant healthy housing options as they move out of their homes, and they have little hope of returning to Barry Farm after redevelopment. With few affordable options within the city they will seek such without, and the places where they find them will often lie along the fences surrounding power plants, rail yards, garbage dumps and incinerators, and other environmental hazards; just as residents of other gentrified neighborhoods throughout the city have found (Energy Justice Network “DC’s Waste” n.d.). This leaves residents with the feeling that they must choose between one of two unsavory options: 1) fight redevelopment, clean-up, amenity-building, and sustainability projects so that they can keep their community intact, or 2) welcome redevelopment and hope to find better health and reestablish community elsewhere when they are eventually forced out of the gentrified neighborhoods which likely will follow (Empower DC 2015).

This study briefly reviews the history of gentrification and redevelopment within Washington, D.C., reflecting upon the changes dramatized in this documentary “Chocolate City,” and the literature on gentrification in search of an alternative third option for the residents of Barry Farm and other neighborhoods where the underserved populations of the city are fighting to maintain their communities while also improving their environment and economic opportunities. It focuses on an explicit linking of gentrification to historical racialized policies — despite the racially and politically neutral language of economic development and sustainability initiatives — thus defining gentrification as it is commonly experienced in Washington, D.C.: as an environmental justice issue. It finds that there exist — within examples of successful initiatives in other cities as well as within existing District programs and policies — tools for ensuring social justice is addressed as a component of sustainability and urban development projects, providing opportunities for residents of historically black and economically depressed neighborhoods to realize a vision for their community other than those currently proffered by the city and developers. 

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The racialized history of urban development in D.C.

Washington D.C., like major urban areas throughout the Union, has followed a trajectory of industrialization, racialization, white-flight, increased pollution and urban decay, and economic revitalization which has disproportionately and negatively affected the economic, social, and physical well-being of its black residents. Williams (2002:96) highlights a portion of this history succinctly in quoting a local activist:

In the 40s, early 50s, east of the river, Anacostia was 82% white. By 1967 it was 66% black, and there were seven housing projects that had been placed here [along with] seven landfills . . . They dumped 400,000 tons of incinerator ash at St. Elizabeth’s [hospital]. They put in [Interstate] 295; they put in the Suitland Parkway. The Suitland Parkway split the community, just split it right down the middle.

Two products from the Environmental Justice Network (EJN) (“Our County” n.d.; “DC’s Waste” n.d.) indicate that during this period the city operated 15 waste transfer stations and three fossil-fuel power plants, all of which were located in majority-black areas and which, along with the steadily increasing traffic exhaust, polluted air, land, and waterways throughout the city. Though all of the power facilities and most of the waste transfer stations have since been moved, they have left behind several polluted sites which have yet to be cleaned and continue to pollute waterways and surrounding land (e.g. Stewart 2015). Adding insult to injury, Mike Ewall of EJN (personal communication, September 11, 2015) explains that after winning the removal of polluting sites through decades of activism, many of the people from communities which formerly bordered them have found themselves again living on the fencelines of their replacements in surrounding counties.

Areas of former contamination have not stopped development, but rather have often become targets for large-scale economic and housing development projects. Take, for example, the DC United soccer stadium planned for construction at Buzzard Point where soil remains contaminated from previous power generation projects (Empower DC n.d.). As with the case of Harlem described by Checker (2011), urban development in D.C. has focused on developing such economy-building projects as the stadium, retail stores, and businesses in the service industry; along with multi-story loft-style apartment buildings designed (and priced) to appeal to middle- and upper-class residents. In order for these projects to be contracted and constructed, the city has made use of the traditional tools of eminent domain, neglect, re-zoning, and public housing program restructuring to push long-time residents out of their communities. As in other gentrifying areas in communities across the country, city officials have used the politically neutral language of economic development, urban sustainability, ecological conservation, and construction of public amenities to justify and the changes and property seizures (Checker 2011; Curran and Hamilton 2012; Essoka 2010). These apolitical discourses are designed to avoid the realities of gentrification being generally realized as a process which ejects residents who are generally working-class and black, a process which Foster (1998) suggests overlooks the normative conditions which root these conditions in issues of historic racism. Indeed, Essoka indicates that “[racial] segregation remains the key factor responsible for creation and perpetuation of impoverished and physically degraded communities” (2010:301). Ignoring the racialized history of the region undercuts the supposedly race-neutral arguments, indicating that urban development, and concomitant racialized gentrification, is indeed an environmental justice issue.

At an annual meeting of Empower DC members held recently near Barry Farm, residents and activists described how all of this history is playing out in the Barry Farm housing projects. They highlighted the numbers quoted here in the “Gentrification of Barry Farm Public Dwelling” video here that in the last decade 40,000 whites have moved into the city while 27,000 blacks have moved out. They also discussed successful efforts to block developers, sometimes physically in the case of a bus tour of developers through the neighborhood, and of residents to resist eviction from their homes. Many of the members expressed outrage at the proposals for mixed-income developments, explaining that the current plans provided only “affordable housing” (that is, housing whose rent is made cheaper through an income-based formula through provision of municipal subsidies) and did not truly provide housing that is affordable to residents suffering poverty the way publicly-funded housing does. To continue resisting these efforts, Empower DC is engaged in a campaign to educate Barry Farm residents about the threats to their community and what they can do to fight them, raise knowledge among other DC residents who might act as allies in lobbying the city council for more appropriate development options, and raise funding to support these activities (Empower DC 2015). Their assessments and feelings are reflected in an in-depth article from the Washington Post which outlines how gentrification and failed city development plans have indeed resulted in rather bleak options and outcomes for the District’s poorer residents (Samuels 2013).

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Not all development is bad

Defining gentrification as being generally an environmental justice issue does not, however, mandate that residents of brownfield communities need only entertain the options of continuing to live in the shadow of industry or leaving their homes and established social networks behind. As the case study of Greenpoint, Brooklyn detailed by Curran and Hamilton (2012:1027) shows, there remains at least one other option, which they describe as a “just green enough” strategy, allowing for economic development, urban revitalization, and even some gentrification to occur without displacing entire communities. Were such situations the norm, however, there would not be such a strongly negative connotation to gentrification among communities of color. So why is Washington, D.C failing to support its long-time residents as it seeks to boost capital and quality-of-life within the district?

 Giving city officials and developers the benefit of the doubt, I will assume (reservedly) that the oversight is not a deliberately racialized effort to whiten D.C. neighborhoods and is rather a result of the development decision-making process. The literature supports such an evaluation, suggesting that urban development is often predicated on evaluations which attend to environmental and economic concerns while neglecting social justice concerns, resulting in a (perhaps inadvertent) middle-class bias which serves to disrupt and further disfranchise black communities and institutions (see Pearsall 2010; Pearsall 2012; Pearsall and Pierce 2010; Rast 2006; Williams 2002). Curran and Hamilton (2012), Rast (2006), and Pearsall (2012) indicate that the problem thus outlined offers its own solutions: inclusion of social justice evaluations within the decision-making process, enhanced participation of long-term residents through democratic inclusion in that process, and conceiving economic development projects which utilize the skills of local residents. Such solutions provide support to the social justice portion of the solution, allowing for environmental clean-up, greater shared prosperity, and the ability of residents to remain in the communities they’ve known for years, but transforming them from depressed, post-industrial urban locales into healthy and lively places to live, work, and play. Eugene Puryear (2015) of Justice First’s Washington, D.C. branch adds to these options an additional solution to answer an ancillary problem within historically black communities in the District: use such redevelopment visions to reduce recidivism by ensuring returning citizens have the ability to work and live in their home community.

Washington, D.C. residents need not fear development, revitalization, and gentrification so long as the city becomes committed to supporting those residents who desire to remain in their communities through proactive social and environmental justice efforts. Such a vision requires the city to find ways to continue to make renting and owning housing affordable for its poorest citizens, to identify and actively clean-up brownfield sites, to address failing infrastructure within neglected communities, and encourage development which minimizes displacement while encouraging communal continuity. It requires a more democratic decision-making process which recognizes its historical exclusion and neglect of black residents and addresses the real social and physical pains of that community resulting from that history. As the final video here shows, there are in fact mechanisms already available to the city to meet these requirements, but which are either under-utilized or wholly disregarded. With such an approach the residents of Barry Farm will be able to stay in Barry Farm (or return after needed structural repairs or replacement) while also enjoying the benefits of improved amenities and reduced pollution.


- Checker, Melissa. 2011. “Wiped Out by the 'Greenwave': Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability.” City & Society, 23(2), 210-229. doi:10.1111/j.1548-744X.2011.01063.x.

- Curran, Winifred, and Trina Hamilton. 2012. “Just Green Enough: Contesting Environmental Gentrification in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.” Local Environment, 17(9), 1027-1042. doi: 10.1080/13549839.2012.729569.

- Empower DC. (2015). Taking Action. WPFW-FM. Washington, D.C. November 3. Retrieved November 9, 2015, http://www.empowerdc.org/uploads/Taking%20Action%2011.3.15.mp3.

- Energy Justice Network. (n.d.). “DC's Waste and Environmental Racism.” Retrieved November 9, 2015, http://www.energyjustice.net/content/dcs-waste-and-environmental-racism.

- Energy Justice Network. (n.d.). “Our county doesn’t need 5 fossil fuel power plants.” Retrieved November 9, 2015, http://www.energyjustice.net/files/md/PG-NGPP-factsheet5pg.pdf.

- Essoka, Jonathan D. 2010. “The Gentrifying Effects of Brownfields Redevelopment.” Western Journal of Black Studies, 34(3), 299-315. Retrieved Sep. 27, 2015 (http://proxyhu.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=51647392&site=ehost-live).

- Foster, Sheila. 1998. “Justice from the Ground Up: Distributive Inequities, Grassroots.” California Law Review, 86(4), 775. Retrieved Sep. 27, 2015 (http://proxyhu.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=912033&site=ehost-live).

- Pearsall, Hamil. 2010. “From brown to green? Assessing social vulnerability to environmental gentrification in New York City.” Environment & Planning C: Government & Policy, 28(5), 872-886. doi:10.1068/c08126.

- Pearsall, Hamil. 2012. "Moving out or Moving in? Resilience to Environmental Gentrification in New York City." Local Environment, 17(9), 1013-1026. doi: 10.1080/13549839.2012.714762.

- Pearsall, Hamil, and Joseph Pierce. 2010. “Urban sustainability and Environmental Justice: Evaluating the Linkages in Public Planning/Policy Discourse.” Local Environment, 15(6), 569-580. doi:10.1080/13549839.2010.487528.

- Puryear, Eugene. 2015. Justice First. In address to participants in a community forum. November 6.

- Rast, Joel. 2006. “Environmental Justice and the New Regionalism.” Journal of Planning Education and Research, 25(3), 249-263. doi: 10.1177/0739456X05280543.

- Samuels, Robert. 2013. “In District, affordable-housing plan hasn’t delivered.” Washington Post. July 7. Retrieved December 1, 2015 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/in-district-affordable-housing-plan-hasnt-delivered/2013/07/07/789f1070-bc03-11e2-97d4-a479289a31f9_story.html).

- Stewart, Kathy. 2015. “Pepco sued by Environmental Protection Agency.” WTOP-FM. Washington, D.C. October 31. Retrieved November 9, 2015 (http://wtop.com/local/2015/10/pepco-sued-by-epa/).

- Williams, Brett. 2002. “Gentrifying Water and Selling Jim Crow.” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, 31(1), 93-121. Retrieved Sep. 27, 2015 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/40553558).