Describe your research interests. How have they evolved throughout your career?
I have always been interested in how retail spaces and commercial streets relate to neighborhood identity, and more broadly, the social and cultural functions of place. Places are more than just the setting of “history” but offer an important lens into the dynamics of change over time. More recently, through my work in historic preservation, I have become interested in the implications of place narratives like the contemporary “comeback” story of cities like Buffalo and how it reinforces the rise and decline framework of American cities that other scholars have shown to be partial and tired.
You spent several years working as a lead historian for an architectural preservation firm. How did that work differ from what you were doing as a grad student? And what did you get out of that experience?
It was satisfying to see history “uncovered” in projects and make the case for why buildings – most of which were vacant or in some state of disrepair – are still important to local history. My graduate program centered on using the built environment as a primary source of information, and we frequently grappled with the relationship between local history and “bigger” history. Buildings are inherently local yet they tell larger stories as well. As real estate developers in Western New York see new opportunities in historic buildings, architectural histories are valuable additions not only to their projects but as broader resources for the public, especially when narratives go beyond architectural style and create richer histories of how and why places were created and changed over time.
On a practical level, being part of larger projects with many moving parts forced me to let go of perfectionism for the sake of completing projects on time. Editing and working with others gave me new perspectives on writing process and effective communication. I hope that I am a better writer for it now!
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
Personally, I am starting to conceptualize a project about the historic landscapes of butchery in Buffalo. In January 2018, my husband and I started a whole animal butchery, meaning we source animals from local farmers and Tom breaks them down by hand. Historically, all butchery was done this way but industrial scaling has changed every aspect of the chain. As I learn more about the networks between farmers, our shop, and our customers, I want to better understand how these relationships used and shaped the city in the past. I am particularly interested in the hundreds of small shops and carts that served Buffalo’s neighborhoods and the families who ran them. I’m still working to gather preliminary information and focus the inquiry but am excited to ultimately display the study in our shop.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for careers both inside and outside of academia?
Be open to opportunities and don’t underestimate how “academic” you can be beyond academia. There are tradeoffs in every scenario so ask yourself what matters most.
You now work for your new family business, Moriarty Meats. What parallels do you see between your academic and preservation careers and your new endeavor as an entrepreneur?
The more you learn, the more you know you don’t know!! I am really enjoying learning new things but, just like grad school, being self-directed comes with its freedom and challenges. The confused look you get when you tell people about your doctoral studies is not unsimilar to the one you get when you say you have a butcher shop, ha!
Our shop is actually located on the commercial street that I studied in my dissertation, which is a cool coincidence. I am seeing the history of the retail street, the legacy of mom and pop shops and the relationship between retailers and communities completely differently after a year of operating my own business here. I definitely have a new respect for the business owners I studied!
Editor’s note: Remember that SACRPH 2019, the organization’s 18th conference, is in Northern Virginia (NOVA or NoVa) this October/November from October 31 – November 3. The deadline for the CFP, which you can view here, is March 15. With this in mind, we continue our focus on NoVa as our Metro of the Month. Submit your panels everyone!
By Lindsey Bestebreurtje
Arlington, Virginia, is a small county in northern Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Diverse neighborhoods checker the landscape, each bearing the styles of middle class suburbia as it evolved throughout the twentieth century, from Victorian to Craftsman and Bungalow on to Rambler and multi-family homes. The county has always had a unique relationship with the nation’s capital as work for the federal government has long shaped the life of Arlington’s residents.
Today, the federal government is one of the topemployers of Arlingtonians. This pattern of employment began in the late-nineteenth century. Expansions of federal programs that emerged during the Civil War and Reconstruction continued into the twentieth century, as WWI, the New Deal, WWII, and the Cold War each increased the number, size, and scope of federal agencies. By 1940, more than half of the county’s employed adult residents worked for the federal government. This expansion provided work for Arlington natives and attracted individuals from around the country to the area, making it “the fastest growing county in America.”
The opportunity for federal employment extended to Arlington’s African American population. Since its founding, Arlington has had a small but stable black population. Through reform measures like the Pendleton Civil Service Act (1883) and the Ramspeck Act (1940), which made federal hiring based on merit and dismissal without cause illegal, African Americans in Arlington could rely on good federal jobs. Though not devoid of prejudice nor immune to legislative backsliding, the federal government provided stable, merit-based, well-paying blue- and white-collar employment to black Arlingtonians generations before that could be said throughout the nation. Arlington’s African American residents held diverse employment types ranging from custodial staff and chauffeurs to stenographers, librarians, and section chiefs.
But employment was not the only way that the federal government impacted Arlington. A huge portion of the county is owned by federal institutions, which occupy 18% of the land in the county. The same government expansion that provided more work pushed federal installations such as Arlington National Cemetery, the Department of Agriculture’s Experimental Farm, the Navy Annex, Fort Myer, and the Pentagon into the county beginning in the nineteenth century.
The majority of these institutions were constructed in southern Arlington. Southern Arlington was home to almost all of Arlington’s African American communities, including Green Valley, Queen City, and Johnson’s Hill. Local black resident Vivian Bullock of Hall’s Hill called south side Arlington “the black side.” As a result, the physical encroachment of federal institutions in southern Arlington disproportionately affected Arlington’s black communities.
The story of Queen City highlights how federal expansion into Arlington had an especially negative impact on the county’s black neighborhoods. More than 200 working class families in Queen City lived in modest but well-kept frame houses. Generations of families grew in Queen City after its founding in 1892. Third generation Queen City resident William Vollin described his neighborhood as a “real happy, solid community.”
While Vollin saw a strong working class community, federal authorities surveying the area for a location for the War Department’s new Pentagon building saw something else entirely. Where residents saw a thriving community, outsiders saw the black neighborhood as a ghetto. The neighborhood was described as an “industrial slum” by developers. Federal authorities also looked down on the neighborhood. Construction supervisor Lieutenant Bob Furman said in a 1941 letter to the Civil Aeronautics Administration that the area consisted of “really, really rough shacks.” Queen City resident Gertrude Jeffress pushed back against this categorization. In a 2004 interview with author Steve Vogel, she insisted, “whoever said it was nothing but shacks, well that ain’t true. This was a nice little neighborhood.” But the powers that be believed the homes, churches, community institutions, and businesses within the neighborhood would mar the views from the Pentagon and should be demolished.
And that is exactly what happened. In January of 1942 construction began on the Pentagon’s road networks, which ran through the community. Plans moved forward for construction without anyone informing the people of Queen City. In February of 1942, residents received word that they had to be out of their homes by March 1. Property was seized through a combination of eminent domain laws and modest payments to home owners.
Almost all of those who lost their homes were black. Where Queen City and neighboring East Arlington were demolished to make way for the Pentagon, Navy Annex, and related road construction, the nearby white neighborhood of Columbia Heights, which also bordered the projects, was left largely untouched.
After losing their homes residents were not sure where to go. Lt. Furman admitted that he and his men didn’t “think… much about their welfare” when removing residents from their homes. Relocation was especially onerous because there were so few homes. Arlington was experiencing a severe housing shortage thanks to the flood of wartime workers entering the area. This housing crisis was especially acute in the black community as residents were barred from many of Arlington’s neighborhoods due to residential segregation and restrictive covenants.
After losing their homes with almost no notice, few funds, and a shrinking housing stock, one of the primary options for these individuals was the federal government’s emergency housing. To help displaced residents avoid homelessness, the federal government created a trailer camp on mud flats at the outskirts of Green Valley. These trailer camps were constructed to serve only as temporary housing. Entire families, no matter their size, squeezed into trailers equipped with stoves for heat and cooking, convertible couch-beds meant to sleep four people, and no running water. The tight quarters, lack of proper sanitation, and mud created an unhealthy environment vulnerable to illness. The camp was also prone to flooding and attracted rats. Resident John Henderson remembered rats so large they could shake the floor boards as they passed.
Despite the loss of Queen City, these individuals and families were able to tap into the strong social, religious, and fraternal networks that linked African American Arlingtonians across neighborhoods and, with such a stable African American population, across generations. Henderson recalled that “it was quite a trying time,” but “I think the love and association of people is what kept people together.” After the end of the war the trailers were removed. Many individuals and families moved in with local family, moved into other federal housing, or found homes in one of Arlington’s remaining black communities – Green Valley, Johnson’s Hill, or Hall’s Hill.
Dr. Lindsey Bestebreurtje is a Curatorial Assistant at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She specializes in suburbanization, segregation, and the built environment.
The Official Blog of the Urban History Association