Writing out Black History in Washington, DC: How Historical Narratives Support a Performance of Progressiveness in Gentrifying Urban Spaces

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Urban Geography

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In Washington, D.C., an increasingly affluent and White population is drawn to spaces that advertise diversity and multiculturalism, despite ongoing Black cultural and physical displacement. Icall the eager production and consumption of this discursive branding a performance of progressiveness. I argue that its emphasis on esthetics and conspicuous consumption has profound political implications in urban spaces and beyond; it allows a recognition of racialized experience to dominate public discourse without requiring fundamental challenges to structural racism. Using the case of the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Historic District, I demonstrate how performances of progressiveness occur, and I argue they require an obfuscation of historical specificity. Visitors encounter a material and affective sense of history, devoid of the historical reality of Black Washingtonians in these alleys. Newcomers are thus invited to identify with the past, giving credibility to their claims in the present, and making performances of progressiveness all the more insidious.


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