Max Morris owned Frank’s Department Store at 712 Fourth Street SW, as well as the hardware store next door. It was a few years after World War II; the economy was humming along, and the neighborhood was bustling. So Morris was understandably puzzled when the government decided to use the then-untested law of “eminent domain” to take both of his properties, tear them down, and give them to a private developer for “redevelopment.” Morris sued, lost, and appealed to the Supreme Court. (When Morris died, his stepson, Samuel Berman, took up the case.) Eventually, the Supreme Court upheld the city’s right to seize the two stores, a decision that, in just a few years, led to 99% of the buildings in Southwest being razed to the ground.
America was obsessed with “urban renewal” in the wake of World War II. Many European cities had been leveled by years of bombing, and architects and urban planners there were rebuilding from scratch, designing the new buildings and plazas in accordance with the latest theories of modernism. American officials were jealous, but what could they do? America’s cities hadn’t been physically damaged by the war. Enter “urban renewal.” By designating large swaths of cities as “blighted,” governments could bulldoze them and build shiny new buildings. The District was one of the earliest adopters; they passed the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act in 1945 for the purpose of “slum clearance.” Southwest – then a heavily African-American neighborhood – was quickly targeted as an area ripe for redevelopment. The DC Land Redevelopment Agency set to work putting a plan together to seize and destroy almost 4,800 buildings in Southwest, and relocate 1,345 families, 97.5% of which were black. Many people criticized urban renewal as blatantly racist, pointing out that the large majority of people being evicted were non-white – eventually, 2/3 of all evicted people were black or hispanic – but once the federal government passed the Housing Act of 1949, guaranteeing cities federal funds to rebuild, the gold rush was on, with 800 cities eventually signing up for “urban renewal.”
But when Morris’ two stores in Southwest DC were listed for seizure and demolition, he probably thought he’d win his legal challenge easily. After all, his stores were successful and in good repair, and the government could only seize private property for public use. To seize property from a private citizen and hand it to a different private citizen seemed clearly illegal. The Supreme Court disagreed. Urban renewal demolitions were rationalized as eliminating “blight,” a loaded term which was defined as any conditions that were dangerous to the community’s health, safety, or morals – a definition so wide and subjective as to be meaningless. The Supreme Court interpreted this to mean that if the seizure was beneficial to the community as a whole, it was justified. (That opinion has often been criticized, with some experts claiming it was just downright stupid.) Morris’ stores – as well as dozens of other buildings in Southwest in perfectly fine shape – were taken and demolished, and, with the new tool of “eminent domain” in hand, American urban renewal accelerated.
Of course, the experiment was mostly a failure. Across the country, 1 in 17 of all dwellings were destroyed, and only a fraction of them were rebuilt – meaning that today’s housing shortage has its roots all the way back in urban renewal. Here in the District, the “new” Southwest was largely moribund until the recent re-redevelopment headlined by the Wharf. Many of the displaced families were moved into poorly-planned and poorly-supported communities east of the river, which are still struggling. Even in the short-term, it was a bad deal for locals. The law that was upheld by the Supreme Court mandated that a third of new buildings in Southwest had to be rented at the pre-renewal market rate – at that time, $17 a month. After the Supreme Court verdict gave the District’s plan an unconditional green light, that part of the law was quietly repealed. Almost all of the new housing was expensive, which was probably the plan all along. White flight had already begun, and cities were desperate to lure affluent taxpaying citizens back from the suburbs. That sad part is, it worked. In 1953, the area of Southwest targeted for redevelopment brought in just over $592,000 in taxes; less than twenty years later, in 1971, that take had skyrocketed to almost $4 million.