Ledroit Park, A Portrait In Black And White: A Study Of Historic Districts, Social Change, And The Process Of Neighborhood Placemaking
Henry, Christine Rae
Linebaugh, Donald W.
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This research examines the process of placemaking in LeDroit Park, a residential Washington, DC, neighborhood with a historic district at its core. Unpacking the entwined physical and social evolution of the small community within the context of the Nation’s Capital, this analysis provides insight into the role of urban design and development as well as historic designation on shaping collective identity. Initially planned and designed in 1873 as a gated suburb just beyond the formal L’Enfant-designed city boundary, LeDroit Park was intended as a retreat for middle and upper-class European Americans from the growing density and social diversity of the city. With a mixture of large romantic revival mansions and smaller frame cottages set on grassy plots evocative of an idealized rural village, the physical design was intentionally inwardly-focused. This feeling of refuge was underscored with a physical fence that surrounded the development, intended to prevent African Americans from nearby Howard University and the surrounding neighborhood, from using the community’s private streets to access the City of Washington. Within two decades of its founding, LeDroit Park was incorporated into the District of Columbia, the surrounding fence was demolished, and the neighborhood was racially integrated. Due to increasingly stringent segregation laws and customs in the city, this period of integration lasted less than twenty years, and LeDroit Park developed into an elite African American enclave, using the urban design as a bulwark against the indignities of a segregated city. Throughout the 20th century housing infill and construction increased density, yet the neighborhood never lost the feeling of security derived from the neighborhood plan. Highlighting the architecture and street design, neighbors successfully received historic district designation in 1974 in order to halt campus expansion. After a stalemate that lasted two decades, the neighborhood began another period of transformation, both racial and socio-economic, catalyzed by a multi-pronged investment program led by Howard University. Through interviews with long-term and new community members, this investigation asserts that the 140-year development history, including recent physical interventions, is integral to placemaking, shaping the material character as well as the social identity of residents.