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Kevin O'Connor '09 Studies Class, Race, and Urban Renewal in the Nation's Capital

By Laura Bramley
Posted August 14, 2008
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The neighborhoods of Shaw and Anacostia in Washington, D.C., each have a complicated heritage of rich tradition and of adversity. In the midst of desegregation and economic prosperity after World War II, the two neighborhoods watched the disappearance of their previous communities, made up of prosperous black elites in Shaw and predominately white members of the middle class in Anacostia. Each area entered a period of real estate devaluation and poverty. In the later part of the 20th century, the government of the District of Columbia initiated an effort to renew Shaw, and steps are now being taken to revitalize Anacostia, as well.

The consequences of such revitalization efforts, however, often create new problems for the local community while trying to solve the old ones. This summer, Kevin O'Connor '09 (Tulsa, Okla.) is studying the persistence of race and class issues in the Shaw and Anacostia renewal efforts, in collaboration with Assistant Professor of Government Peter Cannavo. The project is part of the Levitt Research Fellows Program, one of 18 collaborative projects this summer funded by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.

O'Connor is dividing his time between New York, where he does some academic research, and Washington, where he does most of his work. He is examining the issue's historical and theoretical context by studying media coverage and academic literature, but he notes that the fieldwork of interviews and personal observations is particularly important to his research. "You want to make sure you're accurately representing what's going on, rather than just framing the cases into the same old story," he says.

In the revitalization effort in Shaw, O'Connor explains, the district government met with the neighborhood's remaining elites to design a renewal plan, recognizing that the departure of most of the black professionals had sent the formerly prosperous community into a decline. Unfortunately, the effort had the result of drawing in new professionals but neglecting the needs of the original, less prosperous residents. The new professionals are mostly white and generally have very little connection to the neighborhood's past, says O'Connor. "If corrective action is not taken in Shaw, we risk losing the legacy of one of America's great success stories."

The Shaw experience should provide a crucial lesson for the developing plans in Anacostia. With one of the highest crime rates and some of the worst poverty in the country, a strategy for revitalizing the neighborhood is urgently needed, O'Connor says, but if renewal efforts are not conducted carefully, they will supplant the current community, rather than helping it. Conway says the message to take away from Shaw is that a development plan should involve the whole community and accurately represent everyone's needs, rather than simply being decided in meetings between the neighborhood and city elites.

This research, O'Connor says, was the perfect way to combine the Hamilton tradition of interdisciplinary research with a critical public policy question. His project involves questions of history, government, business, and geography, areas he has been interested in for a long time. It has also allowed him to get to know a side of Washington that many people never see. "There are some really dedicated people in these communities, who really give you cause for optimism," he says. If the right structures and forums are set up to guide revitalization, he is hopeful that the optimism will be justified. 

-- by Laura Bramley

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