Washington DC in the 20th Century: A History of Housing and Environmental Injustice

by Elena Pastreich

mentor: James Rice, History; funding source: Rosenfeld Family Summer Scholars


My project stemmed from both an interest in environmental justice and local history of Washington, D.C., where I grew up. As I began my research, I found that the issue of environmental injustice in Washington, D.C. is inextricably tied to a long history of housing discrimination. My research for Summer Scholars will culminate in my senior thesis in the History department, focusing on case studies of particular neighborhoods at different periods in the 20th century in which housing injustice and environmental injustice were, and still are, connected.

This poster presents a brief overview of racially restrictive housing covenants and blockbusting in Washington, D.C., two practices that have shaped the racial and socio-economic makeup of D.C. Both practices limited housing available to Black D.C. residents, often so that real estate agents could profit off of racism and segregation. Although both housing covenants and blockbusting are technically illegal today, they have shaped Washington, D.C. since its early stages of residential development and have had lasting impacts.

My project will focus on several case studies. One neighborhood I am focusing on in particular is Fort Reno, which today is a wealthy, predominantly White neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C. In 1926, there was a growing Black community of almost 400 families surrounded by suburbs that were predominately White. Real estate developers saw that White families were willing to pay to live in a racially segregated neighborhood, and so wrote up a plan to build a large park right on top of a residential area that would effectively push out almost all Black residents in Fort Reno. As the plan went forward, a local property owner’s association and the D.C. Commissioners specified that their goal in building this park was explicitly to push out Black families. The proposal passed without a hearing involving community members, and Fort Reno Park still stands today.

Fort Reno Park is one moment in a long history of real estate developers, White D.C. residents, and the local and federal government using racist housing policies to limit the housing available Black families and shape the physical landscape of Washington, D.C. This type of decision making is built into the development of D.C. as it is today, and formed the placement of open natural spaces, waste disposal sites, and accessible public transportation. In part I hope that through this project, I can better understand where I fit into this history and be critical of my experience and presence in D.C.

8 thoughts on “Washington DC in the 20th Century: A History of Housing and Environmental Injustice

  • October 23, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    This is a fascinating project for many reasons. The topic and sources are exceptionally interesting, along with the idea of taking individual neighborhoods and using them as case studies. The most interesting part for me, though, is the personal connection to the area and topic. I think it is an extremely powerful way to look at things. I’m especially interested where the author is fitting themself and their family into the story. That kind of familial-neighborhood-city connection makes sense and feels like a powerful way to communicate both important details and broad topics.

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:07 pm

    I am also from the DC area (McLean, VA) and reading this surprised me because I knew so little about this topic beforehand, even though it concerns my own city. I spent some time in Fort Reno Park during quarantine, enjoying its presence as an urban park, and I didn’t know that it was developed in order to push out Black families–thank you for providing this needed context. Like you say, this helps me better understand where I fit into the history of DC.

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:25 pm

    So interesting to situate yourself and your own neighborhood in these histories as well– how have you benefitted or been affected by these histories, and how has that or is that factoring into your approach, what you’re looking for in your investigation, or what you’ve been finding? Furthermore, why do you think it’s important to situate yourself here in the first place? All in all, I think this is such a cool project and I’m excited to see the end result.

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    Hi Elena, thank you for this project. I happen to be from Tenleytown and went to Alice Deal which is right next to Fort Reno. The park has been a place I have hung out with friends for years. I had no idea about the history behind the park, and I am grateful to your project for pointing it out. I’d love to learn more about your findings in other neighborhoods in DC as well. As others have commented, your framework is creative and especially appropriate for a city like DC which is so heavily demarcated by neighborhood.

  • October 23, 2020 at 5:39 pm

    This is a really cool project, Elena (especially because of its personal significance for you)! Thank you for uncovering and sharing this widely unknown history. I find it very interesting how you connect housing and environmental issues as they pertain to race. Good luck with your senior thesis!

  • October 23, 2020 at 7:10 pm

    I appreciate a lot of the comments from other DMV folks– your project speaks to the importance of understanding the histories of our homes/neighborhoods/communities–and I would even add that it is crucial that in seeing where we fit into these histories that we also imagine how to (re)invest/cooperate (through tangible means) in efforts to support populations that are historically and contemproarily pushed to the margins. Your project makes me think of local housing reform and community land trust efforts in D.C. (and literally so many cities across the U.S.) ! Excited to see where it goes.

  • October 23, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    Elena! Great work and very interesting to see how these same policies manifest in different locations. In my own project I also looked at the role of the Federal Housing Agency and how its processes carried out everywhere across the United States.

  • October 23, 2020 at 9:27 pm

    Though this entire project is interesting, I’m especially fascinated by your section on proximity to the federal government. To me, it was a sharp reminder that one can’t simply can’t think of D.C. as just a swath of government buildings and pricey apartments. As someone not from the D.C. area, I’ve definitely made this mistake.

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