Racialized Displacement in Washington, D.C.’s Alley Communities: Tracking the Shift from Micro- to Neighborhood-Level Segregation

Carolyn Swope, Columbia University

This presentation considers how the clearance of Washington, D.C.’s inhabited alleys contributed to segregation on an increasingly large scale, built on Black displacement. DC once contained many communities of alley dwellings which were home to marginalized Black residents, widely dispersed throughout the city’s neighborhoods, and often in the interior of blocks surrounded by elite white residents and institutions. However, the first half of the 20th century saw a rise in not only the intensity but also the scale of segregation – raising the question of the processes by which the micro-segregation configuration of the alley transformed into racialized districts. In this presentation, I chart the destruction of alley communities over time, using historical GIS, and interpret the process through a theoretical lens of Black geographies. I track declines in populations and ultimate disappearance of alleys, and identify where possible the subsequent use of cleared alley space, which has never previously been assessed. I also examine spatiotemporal patterns in relation to neighborhood demographics and other processes of neighborhood change. Moreover, to better understand the logics underlying alley clearance, I place this spatial analysis in conversation with qualitative evidence on elite residents’ and government agencies’ determined battle to eliminate alley dwellings, on the grounds that they were inherently and irredeemably unsanitary, vice-ridden slums. Ultimately, I find that there was a very wide variety in what cleared alley space was used for – including, for nothing at all. I argue that the reason for many pathways all converging on alley clearance is that alleys, as Black space, were constructed as lacking in value and destructible.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 46. Residential Geographies and Segregation: 19th Century