A new effort seeks to secure official recognition for the historic significance of Barry Farm, a public housing complex in Southeast D.C.
The neighborhood’s origins date to 1867, when the Freedman’s Bureau established it as a place where freed slaves could own houses and run small businesses. In 1942, public housing was built on the land, and the African American community that developed there played an instrumental role in several successful civil rights efforts, including the movement to desegregate public schools and a youth-led tenant organization project that was a part of the War on Poverty. The neighborhood — called Barry Farms by many locals — was also home to Etta Mae Horn, a co-founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization. The roads surrounding the housing development are named after prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, General Howard, and James Birney.
Over the last decade the D.C. Housing Authority has sought to redevelop Barry Farm. The area was selected for revitalization in 2005 as part of the New Communities Initiative, with plans to convert the dilapidated public housing development into a mixed-use, mixed-income community. The most recent proposal for Barry Farm would add 40,000 square feet for retail; reduce the number of public housing units from 444 to 380; and add more market-rate housing, for a total of 1,100 units.
To preserve the buildings and layout of the historic African American community, a group of displaced residents has joined with Empower D.C. and the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association to ask the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board to grant historic landmark status to a portion of Barry Farm, which is hemmed in by the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus, Suitland Parkway, and the Anacostia Freeway.
Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower D.C., a nonprofit community organizing group, said the nomination is intended to start a conversation around Barry Farm and affordable housing. She also hopes it will change the redevelopment plan to “honor, respect, and preserve some of the really important history of Barry Farms — not just the Civil War–era history, but also the history of the public housing community itself.”
Preserving this rich history, residents believe, should be a top priority throughout the development process. Many residents agree the poor living conditions at Barry Farm must be addressed. The site had become infested with pests, appliances needed repairs, and buildings were dilapidated long before demolition began last year. However, residents want to preserve the style of the historic townhouses and the layout of the street grid, which is the last remaining element from the original Civil War-era community. “The residents of Barry Farms felt like they wanted the new community to have the same feeling as their home, not high-rise stacked apartments that could look like any suburb you’ve ever been to,” Norouzi said.
A year ago, redevelopment was delayed after the Tenants and Allies Association protested that being displaced would cause much more hardship for residents than the New Communities Initiative claimed. The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in the tenants’ favor last April and sent the development plan back to the Zoning Commission, although demolition continued even after the judges’ decision.
As part of the redevelopment plans, households were given the option to either obtain a Housing Choice Voucher to find permanent housing elsewhere on the open market, or to accept an interim placement within the public housing system with a guaranteed right to return to Barry Farm after its completion. Many planned to return in 2020, the expected completion date, but are now unsure when the project will be completed. A common worry among displaced residents is that their community will not be the same when development is finished.
Nicole Odom, an organizing assistant at Empower D.C. and a former resident at Barry Farm, said that community members have had difficulty staying in contact with one another since being displaced. “The move has separated families, it’s separated friends. Right when I was gaining wonderful relationships with my neighbors, we all had to go our separate ways,” she said.
Odom worries that it will be difficult to re-create the sense of community that Barry Farm once had, especially if it is turned into a mixed-income development. She also shares concerns with other residents that those in public housing will face prejudice from their higher-income neighbors.
According to a statement from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, the planning committee for the project organized six meetings and made presentations at nine others to gather community feedback and to share updates on the progress of development.
However, Odom said residents feel their voices were largely ignored by the New Communities Initiative throughout the planning process. “There have been opportunities for residents to say what they want, but I don’t feel like it’s been taken seriously or incorporated in any way,” Odom said. “They have these meetings that are supposed to be engaging, but that’s just for photo ops, in my opinion.”
In a written statement regarding the nomination for historic landmark status, Christine Goodman, supervisory media relations specialist with the D.C. Housing Authority said, “community input and advice is always welcomed and while the land and community hold a lot of local and national history, a historic designation does not come with a monetary commitment to rehabilitate the property.”
Goodman also warned that historic designation would create new hurdles in bringing families back to Barry Farm, given the current state of the housing there. “The physical condition of the buildings at Barry Farm make rehabilitation impossible, this is why DCHA is redeveloping the community so that the families can return to new homes as soon as possible,” Goodman wrote. “A designation that will stop or delay the redevelopment does not solve the conditions of the buildings.”
Renovating buildings at Barry Farm is not viable, according to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development’s statement: “The goal remains to redevelop the entire site. All existing buildings are being demolished.”
Empower D.C. is working with the Tenants and Allies Association on an alternative redevelopment plan that would maintain the historic street grid, townhouse-style buildings, and private yards. Their community development plan also demands the association be included in all decision-making, that all new units be affordable, and that there be no loss of tenant rights.
A public hearing on the historic nomination is expected in June, Norouzi said. “We want to force this conversation about what is the impact when we wipe away communities that are a part of the fabric of the city,” she said. “What are we doing to ensure we’re not just erasing our culture and our history?”
Only five households remain at Barry Farm, and the government has filed applications to demolish eight more buildings in the neighborhood on Stevens Road SE.
This article was co-published with TheDCLine.org