Saturday, January 29, 2011

Notes on eminent domain and urban renewal

I was re-reading Berman v. Parker, the landmark 1954 eminent domain abuse case that paved the way for the infamous Kelo v. New London, just this week. I got distracted trying to find photos of the condemned property on Google Maps; in lieu of the condemned department store, it appears that there is a little-used baseball diamond and some hideous 1950s apartment buildings. So I was intrigued to see these photos showing the extent of the destruction... er, "urban renewal."

View Larger Map

If you're unfamiliar with the history of eminent domain and urban renewal, the NAACP/AARP amicus brief in Kelo is an excellent short introduction. To summarize: eminent domain power has historically often been abused to target racial and ethnic minorities. For a particularly chilling example, see the quotations from the Minnesota AG at p. 8 of it. While it's unclear if the Southwest D.C. condemnations at issue in Berman were as clearly motivated by racial animus, they nonetheless fell disproportionately on racial and ethnic minorities.

And with what result? Well... nobody I know seems to like the revitalized Southwest; mostly, people seem to work in the socialist realist government office buildings that exist there and then go home as soon as possible. Well, I did take two Russian classes at the USDA grad school facility in that area. The classes were cheap and relatively useful, but again, L'Enfant Plaza was just dispiriting. There's not much in the way of food and drink aside from a good French sandwich place in the basement of the building. Also, it was all too easy to find myself getting out of the Metro at the wrong stop and find myself wandering around some barren windswept plaza that the 1950s urban planners fancied clean and modern, a full seven blocks away from where I was supposed to be. I am glad that I never actually wandered onto a clean and efficient highway ramp into oncoming traffic, although I may have come close once or twice.

Someone should write a long article comparing and contrasting the failure of SW with the revitalized areas of D.C. where people actually like living. Take the U Street Corridor, which was probably a far more blighted slum at its nadir in the 1970s and 80s than Southwest ever was. Yet it's become a place where people do actually want to live again, and all that accomplished without any use whatsoever of eminent domain. In fact, the 19th century architecture is often cited as an important element of the area's charm. So, too, do some of the less-than-super-upscale businesses that have been there forever, like the iconic Ben's Chili Bowl. And the density of the buildings is actually a feature, not a bug; it's easy to find a place to grab a cup of coffee or a sandwich.

(Yes, OK, I concede various pompous Yuppie and Yuppie-hipster affectations afflict U Street. In spite of them, I maintain it's a vastly more interesting place to live than Southwest. Nor do I mean to minimize some of the conflicts that inevitably arise following waves of gentrification. Again, though, the gradual change associated with gentrification seems preferable to the shock and displacement associated with having one's property taken directly.)

((Does anyone know the name of the department store that was taken in Berman? It doesn't appear in either the SCOTUS case or in the opinion of the lower court. It would require digging through microfiche copies of WaPo, I suppose, but I don't really have that kind of time or inclination...)


  1. I did a lot of research on the Berman department store for my book Constitutional Places, Constitutional Faces. Ill email you some info