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Common Reading 2022: A Right to the City by Tony Cohn

A Right to the City — Tony Cohn

This podcast episode covers the gentrification of Anacostia, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., which had been a Black-majority area until recently. The podcast discusses how gentrification and urban renewal projects have displaced Black communities, not only in Washington, D.C. but in other cities across the country. It also describes the work of the Anacostia Community Museum, which documents community change as told by residents. In addition, the podcast includes interviews with residents who describe their complicated feelings about the neighborhood’s changes over time.

Discussion Questions

1. Why is it important to learn about what is going on in other communities, even if it may not directly affect you or people you know directly? 

2. The podcast notes that there are positives and negatives to urban renewal. Do you think that the good outweighs the bad? Why or why not? 

Class Activity

Using the Renewing Inequality website (located under Additional Resources), find your hometown, a town you’re connected to, or one near Susquehanna (such as Danville). Has it been affected by urban renewal? How many people were affected?

Introduction — Aisha Upton

In the case of too many historically Black neighborhoods across the country, the concept of “renewal” isn’t a good thing. Federal policies of “urban renewal” that began in the 1950s and 60s set in motion the process of gentrification. Gentrification is characterized by the displacement of residents from their homes due to raising rent prices and housing costs. Their homes, as well as historic buildings, are demolished to make space for high rise apartment buildings, expensive restaurants, and businesses like Starbucks and Whole Foods. This type of “renewal” also comes along with an influx of new, wealthy—and most often white—residents. Race and racism are very much at the heart of the gentrification process. Quoted in this reading, James Baldwin—a prolific Black writer and activist—described urban renewal, saying that it “means moving Negros out. It means Negro removal. That’s what it means.” 

The piece that you are going to read about the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington D.C. shares this narrative. Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum is “of, for and by the people,” documenting changes in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, these changes and rapid “renewal” of Anacostia have led to a disbursed and disconnected neighborhood. As you read or listen to the firsthand accounts of residents and poems from the neighborhood’s youth, I urge you to reflect on the neighborhood that you call home. What is its history? If it’s changing, whose lives are being affected?

Renewing Equality Interactive Infographic

Click on the image below to access the Renewing Inequality site. Explore the interactive graphics that the site provides, and learn some more about urban renewal across the United States.

An infographic displaying the number of people displaced in areas across the United States due to urban renewal.

About the Podcast

Tony Cohn is the Director of Strategy for the Morgridge Family Foundation. Previously, Tony spent seven years with the Smithsonian Institution where he conceptualized and managed creative projects. He created and hosted Sidedoor, the Smithsonian’s podcast which reached more than 4 million people in 120 countries. Tony has traveled four continents collaborating with cultural and non-profit organizations to build strategic plans, innovative communication campaigns, and brand strategies. He received dual degrees in Public Communication and Theatre Arts from American University in Washington, D.C. 

Additional Resources

For a brief overview of the urban renewal process, check out the Wikipedia article on it by clicking here. Explore the source links provided on the site for more in-depth information, and pay particular attention to urban renewal within the United States.

To get a more general view of urban renewal, check out this article by Planning Tank. It explores the intentions behind urban renewal and some of the negative consequences.


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