"The city in L'Enfant's Washington is really new nature. The models derived from the Europe of absolutism and despotism are now expropriated by the capital of democratic institutions, and translated into a social dimension certainly unknown at the Versailles of Louis XIV."
-Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, Reason's Adventures, p32
When I grew up in Washington DC in the 1980s it was the Blackest the nation's Capitol has ever been. White flight had been an ongoing process for so long that the traces of a white majority city were hard to find or, for me, even imagine. Elders had to explain to me the ways in which the city used to be majority white, beyond the confines of Capitol Hill and Georgetown, and heavily segregated. For me the District was a wide open place where my mother took taxis to meet with clients all over the city, sometimes taking me along. Her legal office was up a few flights in a commercial building in Chinatown. In the summers I shuttled between martial arts day-camp in SE and my mom's work in Chinatown and the courthouse. During the school year I went to private school on Capitol Hill with white kids who mostly lived in renovated townhouses on or near Pennsylvania Ave. (The vibe of the DC that reared me might be captured a bit in this Washington Post photo below of a Bad Brains concert the year after I was born).
It wasn't until I went to an elite private high school in NW DC that I understood that there was a sprawling monied world out in the suburbs. The vast majority of the students at my high school had never been to my neighborhood or even the sliver of the District's quadrant that I lived in (Southwest). A couple of my classmates even debated me as to whether the SW quadrant of the District existed. This was the first time in my life I was face to face with white flight.
White flight is not a disappearance. Those of us who remain in the neighborhoods, cities, and institutions from which white flight flees do not shrink. We do not bemoan the absence of white people. We do not shutter the storefronts and cultural institutions and schools and nightlife establishments -- not all of them, anyway. If we are in the Nation's Capitol, we do not shut down the Federal government or the Smithsonian museums. We continue evolving and existing, and those stable jobs and grand institutions and typical pieces of urbanism become the territory of our lives.
We, as a democracy, are now facing an extreme form of White Flight (so extreme that I'm capitalizing it from here on out to distinguish from the urban scale phenomenon). Those of us who work in the built environment or in activism or watch Portlandia are beyond familiar with the 21st century terminology of gentrification. Twentieth century white flight is unwinding and, often, simply reversing. In some circles this demographic phenomenon is termed white infill. I find the overlay of the term gentry implied in gentrification to be a bit unproductive. It is difficult to bemoan the capital flight from American cities post-World War II and assume, at the same time, that capital influx automatically means displacement. I would prefer to work on the ways that development in cities can mean development for the diverse people who have been already living and working in cities, developing social worlds and institutions and economies for decades, often despite the absence of organized capital.
But the White Flight that we are experiencing in this country now is at the level of American democracy, itself. Not at the level of any one city. There is a flight from the symbolism of Washington DC - its dignity and its monumentality -- as well as the mechanics of the institutions that have made democracy in America real and globally important since the 18th century. This round of White Flight is fleeing the most basic democratic institutions, such as the accessible polling place, public education, and the free press. This is the core of the post-truth era. It is not an erasure of truth categorically, but a flight from the political ramification of fact, as well as the civic institutions that make democracy tick.
The selection of a real estate mogul as the charismatic figure heralding this White Flight from American democracy might be over-determined, ie less than an insignificant accident. In the figure of a real estate developer, this White Flight seeks a continuation of Jefferson as architect-president. The hope implied is that, instead of designing the physical forms of a symbolic social dimension, this figure will somehow *build* symbols that escape the known social dimension. The translation that Tafuri chartered in the Jefferson collaboration with L'Enfant can now run in reverse -- from the capital of our institutions toward absolutism, in the form of nostalgia for a European wealth and greatness associated with the figure of the monarch and globality of empire.
The Washington DC plan of L'Enfant that Tafuri explicates -- as one of a symbolic figure-ground in plan serving to rationalize symbols adopted from European cities-- can now be read through a lens of late twentieth century symbolism. The next President's family will not be residing in the White House because the White House has been marked by Blackness, demoted from abstract symbol to urban real estate. The axes of legislative authority and executive power must be extended dramatically -- to connect through Trump Tower in Manhattan and the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. The resulting plan is not read through a figure of landscape that it demarcates, but through the procession of motorcades and private jets. It starts to reconfigure a private real estate empire into a nodal map of American political power.
If you were surprised and unprepared for this election result, it is not because you live in a bubble. It is because you have been fled. Those of us who have been fled -- those of us who believe in the imperfect institutions that make up American democracy-- It is our job to chart the lines of this flight, as intensely as researchers of urbanism and the built environment have mapped red-lining and slum clearance and the racialized planning of highways of the 20th century. Where are the homogenous ex-urban zones feeding this flight? What economies support it? What are the existing interfaces between these racially homogenous ex-urban areas and democratic institutions? What is the landscape that spreads between these sprawling zones and racially integrated urbanism, and what are the lines of infrastructure and investment that connect them?
This work will likely be wonky, disciplinary and local. We need software programmers, GIS whizzes, economists, planners, anthropologists, architects, graphic designers and more working up a storm to understand, expose, and resist this threat to democracy as we know it.
This blog started with research, theory topics, travel and architecture discoveries during my fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. It continues, somewhat sporadically, with my relocation to Detroit as an Assistant Professor at University of Michigan. The blog spans architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these.