Between Justice and Beauty
From The Mason Historiographiki
Howard Gillette, Jr. Between Justice & Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2006 (1995). pp. 320. $24.95. Paper: ISBN 0812219589
Between Justice and Beauty tells the story of the federal governments unique role in trying to become the caretaker and manager of Washington, D.C. From the onset, questions of race in general and Blacks in particular presented themselves within an urban context. Whether as slaves, freed people or as taxpayers , the federal and later city government set out on a program to use policy and legislation to cure the city of its ills, while Washington was not unique in its problems, it had great symbolic meaning for the rest of the country. Infrastructure and housing became concerns early on and much of what was done was to try to address basic sanitation and hygiene and later to create geography and purpose, especially in laying out the National Mall and its environs.
Gillette divides his work chronologically by choosing the Early Republic, Gilded age and modern state as broad divisions to show how race played out in housing and political power. Then, as now, Blacks formed a majority of residents but were not represented in Congress and without statehood, D.C. eventually became a corruption plagued failure on the parts of both the federal and local governments. While segregation in the Nations capital was a long standing and fixed part of the landscape, attempts to overcome it were hampered until the Supreme Court stepped in, while attempts to remedy sub standard housing were not well received. Unlike other cities, Congressional oversight resulted in even more red tape and complexity. This manifested itself in the issue surrounding freeway construction and neighborhood use as well, as existing inner city residents eventually ended up in primarily Black wards across the Anacostia River. The Shaw project and its ilk were well intentioned and designed, however, D.C. was never able to articulate a fully developed vision for its goals and changing federal administrations also hampered improvements.
After the civil unrest and the 1968 riots, Washington, D.C. was a city in crisis and by the end of the twentieth century, D.C. mayors were using race and city services along with housing, education and home rule as campaign issues. From Fauntroy to Marion Barry, local D.C administrations seemed to be plagued by corruption and mismanagement. In the end, the Black citizens of D.C were being condemned to the same poor services and lack of planning that had always endangered them. Gillette’s assertion is that the story of D.C. is not just illustrative of the interaction between the federal government and the city but also between the nation and its cities. He is in fact very prescient in his assertion and despite the fact that many federal programs were created in D.C., they were not successfully implemented in the Capital. This is an excellent resource for understanding Washington, D.C. as a place in need of reform and also a place where race becomes the primary factor in creating policy and practices.
Commentary Alan S. Brody, Fall, 2011
Between Justice and Beauty is really an examination of the question of Washington’s exceptionalism and the way in which the federal government has oversight and the unique constraints that applied to the city and its residents. Beyond that, this is a well written narrative that goes beyond traditional history to focus on race and its role in public policy, clearly this is a meta-narrative of failure and one with many culprits, however, while it uses some individuals as examples, it does not scapegoat. What it does do extremely well is show how various factions were at odds with each other and how the Black people of D.C., especially the poor, were used as pawns. I suggest that Gillette wants us to see that a federal or government mindset focuses on programs and policy not on people and that, in turn, becomes the war cry in D.C. – that the programs designed to help people are a failure in the backyard of Congress. If the D.C. government and Congress were not so closely coupled, than the story of D.C., might have been more triumphal or perhaps more tragic and Gillette seems adamant in his retelling that race was the major factor in his research. He seems to have a very good handle on both the the grassroots and media portrayals of the city as well as on the major players and events of the time periods he covers. His thesis is really that D.C. had multiple points of failure and race is the best way to see the impact and pain this has caused.
Missing in his argument about race is the mention of other races and immigrants, his dichotomy is Black versus white and liberal versus conservative, there were and have been many ethnic groups in the D.C. area and the gay and lesbian community underwent similar struggles as did the working class whites that eventually fled to Virgina and Maryland suburbs. Gillette also toys with some ideas about class, but seems reluctant to engage too much in the Black class arguments, although he condemns nearby majority Black Prince Georges County as another site of mismanaged and failed policy. He does credit various liberal and religious groups with helping to rebuild after the riots, for example, or for supporting the anti discrimination movements or rallying for fair housing. These White liberals never gain enough agency to affect more than local neighborhood reforms or city council seats.
In the end, Gillette is succinct in his message, in D.C., the struggle for beauty of a beaux arts or city beautiful is where the National Mall won out over justice for its citizens. While Barak Obama sits in the White House and despite many gains, D.C. still continues to be a spatially and economically divided city. A recent Washington Post article outlined the city as a place attracting young professionals, however, their city is not the city of the poor nor is the recipient of federal aid and policies, rather it is place where the privileged have access to leisure activities aimed at their demographic. The story of D.C. is neither random nor chaotic, it seems instead, according to Gillette, to be the end result of inertia and grandstanding rather than real reform.