Coffee With Krystyn Moon
Exploring Alexandria's real estate history.
Krystyn Moon, a Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Mary Washington, lives in Alexandria and has researched and written extensively about the city’s neighborhoods and how they developed.
Moon said that most Alexandrians do not understand “…how heterogeneous and diverse our housing history is and that it [history] depends on what neighborhood we are talking about and what historical moment.” Moon observed that the city’s housing patterns have changed in as little as 10 years.
Local factors matter, but in Alexandria the federal government has always had a major influence. “The big picture is how local and federal policy—since the founding of the nation when we were the District of Columbia—were constantly at play. In the 20th century, the federal government had a presence here in some really interesting ways” through its housing policies and the large numbers of civil servants who lived in the city.
In many ways, Alexandria and Arlington were unintended “laboratories” for federal housing policies. For example, the Civil War saw the development of what Moon calls “refugee housing” in Northern Virginia for an influx of self-emancipated African Americans and Union sympathizers. “It [was] emergency housing. It’s a FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] meets public housing meets a military necessity situation,” she said. The Union military constructed barracks to house refugees throughout Alexandria and Northern Virginia.
For example, Freedman’s Village was an emergency housing project built for previously enslaved people who had fled to Washington, D.C. The site subsequently became the location of what is now Arlington National Cemetery. Moon calls these projects, “one of the first instances of emergency public housing” in U.S. history.
Early Free African American Communities
Moon has researched the emergence of free African American communities that settled in what is now Fort Ward Park and the Chinquapin Park/Alexandria City High School area.
The Virginia Theological Seminary was a major employer in the late 19th century of African Americans. By the 1870’s and 1880’s, African Americans acquired tracts of land, some of them sizable, near the seminary grounds. Moon said, “We don’t know what they’re calling that land in the 19th century—I’ve heard Chinquapin Hollow, we’ve also seen Macedonia. Definitely, by the 1960’s, African American residents were choosing Seminary” as the name for their neighborhood.
Moon said, “One of the reasons why the Seminary neighborhood, and what they faced, and Fort Ward, and what happened there, is so important is because there weren’t that many places where African Americans could live in that part of what was then Fairfax County, and then became [Alexandria]. Because of restrictive covenants and the financial policies of banks that were doing redlining [discriminatory lending],” there were few housing options for African American residents.
The 1930’s and the Coming of Urban Renewal
Radical changes in local housing patterns began with federal intervention in the 1930’s. Moon points to what was known as “slum clearance” which was implemented to improve living conditions and quality of life, but which also had unanticipated effects. “The problem with that [urban renewal], of course, is that they didn’t deal with the other social, cultural, and economic forces that meant that people didn’t have access to certain types of resources—education, jobs, money,” said Moon, “So, in many ways it [slum clearance] is addressing the problem, but only half-heartedly.”
The Importance of Municipal Infrastructure Connections
Fairfax County, which controlled the Seminary neighborhood until 1930, and later the City of Alexandria, did not allow residents to connect to municipal infrastructure—water, sewer lines, etc. The Seminary neighborhood was also known by the derogatory name “Mudtown,” which arose because the streets were not paved, a problem caused by the era’s prevailing policies, not African American residents. Moon said, “This is not unique to that neighborhood. We see this throughout areas that were rural that became suburban” throughout the United States.
In 1939, the City created the Alexandria Housing Authority (now the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority or ARHA) to, in the words of then City Manager, Carl Budwesky, “…eliminate insofar as may be possible unhealthful and unsanitary conditions in many sections of the city due to the fact that many homes in certain sections are not connected with the city sewer system.”
Many African American neighborhoods and businesses were torn down and replaced with public housing. Many homeowners, because of race-based restrictive covenants and other forms of housing discrimination, were forced to either leave Alexandria or move into public housing. They lost the small bit of “wealth” that they had though homeownership.
Post World War II Redevelopment Efforts
After World War II, Alexandria began to apply for urban renewal funds from the federal government. The first project was to build a commercial district near where the King Street Metro station is now. The residents, particularly business owners in Old Town, objected and the project never went forward.
In the late 1960’s, Alexandria applied unsuccessfully for federal Model Cities funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to demolish what was then known as Uptown (known as New Town during the Civil War) and is now known as the Parker-Gray neighborhood.
Urban renewal funds were obtained for the construction of Fort Ward Park and Museum and T. C. Williams High School (now Alexandria City High School), which displaced the Fort and Seminary neighborhoods. The city also received federal funds to renovate the area along South Alfred Street known as the Dip or the Bottoms, another African American neighborhood. This was Alexandria’s last urban renewal project.
How Restrictive Covenants Arose in Alexandria
Race-based restrictive covenants, which were inserted into property deeds, barred certain populations from occupying or owning property and was “very widespread” outside the city’s older and denser neighborhoods. This practice began in Alexandria in the early 1900’s in the Mt. Ida neighborhood. Moon said, “A real estate developer [named Grove] built houses and sold houses with race-based restrictions until his death in 1916.”
The practice was continued by a trustee who succeeded Grove, real estate lawyer Howard W. Smith, who was later elected to the House of Representatives. Moon said, Smith “brought a new idea—to make the covenants Caucasian only, which meant that it [created] not a black/white divide but… a white/nonwhite divide.” Although these covenants primarily affected African Americans, others such as Asian Americans and Native Americans were potentially affected.
Moon said that restrictive covenants spread to Rosemont and other “streetcar suburbs” that began to be built in the 1890’s. “As a subdivision was being developed, that’s when the restriction happened.” Her research has shown that restrictive covenants were evident in over 5,000 properties developed in the city from 1907 until 1962. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such covenants to be unenforceable in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), but Alexandria developers continued to insert race-based restrictions in their deeds until the early 1960’s.
Restrictive covenants and other forms of housing discrimination impacted the ethnic and racial composition of the public schools. Moon said, “In 1965, because of the Civil Rights Act, [the federal government said] if you do not desegregate your schools (and that is different than integrate) we will withhold federal funding. But, because the neighborhoods were hyper-segregated, we had nominal integration.” The impact of these housing practices on education can still be seen, especially in the city’s elementary schools.
The Federal Government: Housing Change Agent and Racial Status Quo Guardian
Moon points out that well-intended policies adopted as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were implemented by, for example, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation, in ways that advantaged some communities over others. An example was the federal government’s creation of maps that identified communities by levels of lending risk, which encouraged banks to avoid lending to prospective minority borrowers. She said, “For example, Braddock Heights got an FHA-backed loan for its development. FHA then told them [in the approval documents] that they need a race-based restriction.”
Yet, the federal government, under the leadership of Robert Weaver, the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from 1966-1968, and others, made a dedicated effort to ensure that minorities, especially men, had access to jobs in federally-funded construction projects in the 1940’s. This is the contradiction that the federal government produced in people’s lives—it promoted discriminatory policies and practices and simultaneously promoted racial equality.
The Paradox of Historic Districts
Alexandria began identifying historic districts in the late 1920’s. Moon explains that one of the questions the historic preservationists faced was, “How do you make historic value equivalent to economic value?” She said that designating properties as “historic” is “another way in which you artificially manipulate the market—you put different boundaries on it, different pressures and that becomes an inflated market.” By the 1960’s, Moon said that the extensive gentrification of Old Town drove out lower income white residents and a small number of African Americans. They sold their homes to wealthier white residents, many of whom had moved to the area to work for the federal government.
These dynamics explain the strong objections in what today is known as the Parker-Gray neighborhood to its incorporation into the Old and Historic District starting in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s, a community group called the 16th Census Tract Committee filed a complaint with HUD asserting that the historic district designation had a discriminatory effect. HUD dismissed the case and then, after data emerged describing the impact of gentrification, the agency agreed with the committee and a mediation process ensued.
The Continuing Struggle for Affordable Housing
Housing and development decisions from many years ago affect where people live today. Moon said, “How do we deal with the fact that in the past we targeted African-American neighborhoods and pushed [residents] into public housing or out of the city completely?”
“We need to make sure that everyone has a safe place to live and that people can afford it. It’s crazy that people work 40 plus hours and they can’t find a place to live here in Alexandria. That’s just frustrating,” Moon said, “But, the second part of this is housing is the way in which most people create wealth for themselves and their children and grandchildren. That is not accessible to certain populations in the city. Is that part of the conversation, yes or no?”
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The pervasiveness of race-based discrimination — and its persistence in overt form until recently — are sober reminders to us all of how far we have to go in achieving true equity. “The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such covenants to be unenforceable in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), but Alexandria developers continued to insert race-based restrictions in their deeds until the early 1960’s.” For more on this topic — quite consistent with Prof Moon’s excellent research — see Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law.
Thank you, Mark, for this important post.