Is Logan Circle Clybourne Park?

03/31/2010

No. And I doubt the Clybourne Park depicted in Bruce Norris’s play on view at Woolly Mammoth Theatre through April 17th is the true Clybourne Park either. We’ll get to that shortly.

Act I of Clybourne Park takes place in September 1959 as an African-American couple is attempting to buy a house in Chicago’s all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. The sellers are leaving the city to be close to the husband’s job in suburbia. The white neighbors protest strenuously along the lines of “not a good fit” (not their words). Why, these folks don’t even ski on winter weekends!

Act II takes place in “post-racial” 2009 as a white couple prepares to purchase and rebuild the house as a McMansion. They’re moving to the city to be close to their jobs in the revitalized downtown. Neighbors–among them an African-American couple–representing the local community association, protest strenuously along the lines of “architectural integrity” (not their words). Who’s skiing now?

We’re free to think whatever we want, but I suspect many come away from the play with the impression that racism is the unspoken rationale behind the arguments put forth in both acts. Could be; maybe not—that’s the most fun part of our right to interpret what we see and hear any way we see fit.

Let’s talk about gentrification for a minute, because that’s the possible parallel between Clybourne Park and Logan Circle. “Gentrification” is always a controversial term because it implies that someone is being forced out of a neighborhood as others who are more well to do move in. Property values and taxes rise and the original inhabitants can’t afford to stay. Right?

Well, the real story is far more complicated than that. If you look at the history of Logan Circle, you’ll find that, at various turns, folks have sold their properties and moved to the suburbs as a matter of personal choice. In the 1950s, for example, people actively sought new lifestyles in cool, mid-century suburban developments. In the late 1960s, lots of African-American families left Logan because it had become a lousy neighborhood after the destruction following MLK’s assassination. That left a surfeit of available property, and both blacks and whites who didn’t have children and therefore youngsters’ safety- and school-related concerns started moving in. It was the beginning of gentrification in Logan Circle, but no one was forced out.

Late last year, New York magazine published an article called “What’s Wrong With Gentrification?,” in which Lance Freeman, an associate professor of urban planning at Columbia, studied the degree to which people were displaced in New York’s Clinton Hill and Harlem neighborhoods, both predominantly African-American and rapidly gentrifying. In his book, There Goes the ‘Hood, he writes, “much to my surprise,” that there was no causal relationship between gentrification and displacement. “More surprising,” the New York article goes on, “he found that ‘poor residents and those without a college education were actually less likely to move if they resided in gentrifying neighborhoods.’”

To be sure, gentrification has its victims. I know elderly singles living in big houses whose values have increased exponentially since the early 1990s. Were they not fortunate to be persons of means, wouldn’t they almost certainly be forced to move because they would be unable to pay their out-of-control property taxes? Well, maybe not. You see, Washington, D.C. has for some time had a statute limiting residential property tax increases to 10 percent annually. Ten percent is hefty, to be sure, but the law provided a lot of relief for owners whose home values tripled from 1993 to 2003. Another statute allows certain homeowners to pay taxes on a very low percentage of assessed value; until a recent change in the law requiring taxes on at least 40 percent, many were paying on as little as 10 to 20 percent of assessed value. How many homeowners have been forced out? We don’t have the data, but my guess is very few.

What about renters? Rents have soared along with property values and taxes, almost certainly convincing some renters that they’ll get a much better value in another, less redeveloped part of the city. And long-time, low-income renters may have been forced to relocate when the lease shot beyond their means. Even so, low-income renters have options. The redeveloped apartment buildings on the 1400 block of R Street, N.W., four blocks northwest of my home, have rental units set aside for people with incomes at various percentages of “area median income”; in fact, of the 130 units in the multi-building complex, only six are designated to rent at fair market value. Just around the corner from me, N Street Village completed construction in 1998 on 51 one-, two-, and three-bedroom units that go for 50-75 percent of comparable area rates. Granted, these aren’t luxury units, but they’re plenty decent and they do allow a significant number of individuals and families of limited means to stay in Logan Circle if this is where they want to live.

Getting back to Clybourne Park: It’s a very clever play, and I like cleverness, at least up to a certain point. But I can’t help thinking back to two hit movies of recent years, The Hours and Crash. I loved them, as I love Clybourne Park. Both films were clever beyond anything I could ever think up, but in the end they felt almost too clever, almost cutesy (were it not for the tragedy, that is). What happens with too much cleverness is a certain oversimplification. And that’s why I think neither Logan Circle nor the Clybourne Park depicted in the play fairly represent the true Clybourne Park. The real story is far more nuanced than the play would lead us to believe: There are both more elements of personal choice and more options available to those who want to stay in their native neighborhoods.

But I am with the neighborhood association in Act II of Clybourne Park. It sickens me to see the abominations going up in close-in suburban Maryland and Virginia–take a spin down Lorcum Lane in Arlington, for example–with build-outs just a few feet short of the property lines. I’d like to see municipal governments and not just community associations take action (some are). Historic preservation or even just architectural integrity can only be argued as racist when they force low-income, minority families to spend more than they can possibly afford. That’s not the case when the new arrivals (or current denizens) want to tear down existing structures and build more expensive, inappropriate houses in older neighborhoods.

Oh, and by the way, the rules around historic districts in D.C. are grandfathered, so if you had an aluminum screen door or vinyl windows before the statute was implemented, you can keep them.

Back to the play, in closing: The antagonists in both acts of Clybourne Park are, at turns, both bigoted and dishonest. They pretend that their racist remarks are fact-based and logical, and they are forceful about their prejudices. I would assert that we are all racist to some degree, but are to be forgiven if we make it a lifetime quest to unlearn the prejudicial attitudes we forged, or that were forged for us, earlier in our lives.

LCCA members can see any performance of Clybourne Park for only $30. Use numeric code 788 when arranging tickets. Reservations can be made online (woollymammoth.net), over the phone (202-393-3939), or in person (641 D Street NW, Washington, DC). Clybourne Park runs March 15 – April 17, 2010. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. The week of April 13, performances are Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 8pm and Saturday at 4pm and 9pm. Questions? Visit woollymammoth-dot-net or email Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director, Rachel-at-Woollymammoth.net.

This offer is exclusively for current LCCA members in good standing.

–Tim Christensen

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