Frederick W. Gooding is an Assistant Professor in Ethnic Studies at Northern Arizona University. As part of AASC's Community Spotlight on Washington, D.C., he contributed the article "African American Federal Government Workers, 1940–1980". Here, he discusses a neighborhood that has helped form the foundation of the black community in the District.
The Gold Coast of Washington, D.C.
Washington's Representative Nature
Washington, D.C. holds a unique place in American social and cultural history. Situated in between the two eastern states of Maryland and Virginia, the nation's capital retains a dual role or two identities. Washington is the seat of the United States of America's federal government and as the nation's political nerve center. But the city is more than just a political hub—instead, Washington has a symbolic function representative of the larger idea of America.
Reflecting this inclusive, melting-pot approach to the different states, their different regions and customs and needs, much of the architecture in Northwest Washington exhibits this unspoken esprit d' corps. Frequently, one can find exhibits, monuments, and artifacts that pay homage to the unity and the individual identity of all fifty states. Whether depicted through the fifty different busts in the National Statuary Hall inside the Capitol building, the commemorative pillars part of the National World War II Memorial outside on the Washington Mall,1 or in the interlacing street sign names knifing diagonally through the city's four-quadrant grid, the Washington's political history is steeped in the concept that it is not just an ordinary city. It is the city that represents all of the nation's cities and small towns. Politicians converge upon D.C. to represent their particular state and conversely, the city reflects the sum total of all states in turn.
Like most American industrial cities on the northeastern seaboard, Washington grew exponentially after the outbreak of World War II. Many Americans hungry for new labor and lifestyle opportunities moved accordingly to improve their lot. African Americans were no different. Besieged with generations of arrested economic development stretching back to the failed Reconstruction period after the era of enslavement, most African Americans within southern enclaves primarily held agricultural and domestic employment jobs.2 Yet with the large, steady influx of numerous African Americans seeking out better jobs and pay during the Great Migration, financial prosperity finally became a reachable, tangible reality. While Washington did not have nearly the same volume of industrialized job opportunities within the private sector, it did have the larger machinery of federal government. Many federal agencies were expanding to accommodate shifting national production demands during WWII and afterwards during the Cold War. Plus, the more transparent federal government was a major factor in attracting more African Americans to the city overall.3 Black population grew to the point whereupon in 1971, it reached a peak of 71% black in population, inspiring its unofficial nickname as the "Chocolate City."4
Thus, a city laden with stone monuments dedicated to dead white men was now loaded with a mostly black population alive in the flesh. The representative or symbolic nature of Washington was at once ironic, seeing how African Americans have always constituted a smaller percentage of the entire United States population. A black population that was only 13% of the total population now was the majority of a city representing a country with a majority white population.
Many working and middle class African Americans in the D.C. area wanted to elevate their profile with respect to a sense of space and location, but faced the dilemma of finding a select few posh neighborhoods that would be accepting of black residents—especially in the midst of the Jim Crow era. While the influx of black residents was steady in the years during and immediately following WWII, many blacks were restricted in where they could move or live throughout the city.5 Blacks thereby became synonymous with substandard, segregated housing, and the ability of an African American to move to a bigger home became an indicator of the forward progress of social relations and economic development.
Gold Coast Discovered
In this context, the Gold Coast became the pinnacle of black success within D.C. As most black Washingtonians were located in slums and ghettoes mostly around the Southwest and Southeast neighborhoods, finding adequate housing was a definite challenge.6 Located off 16th Street going north towards the southern border of Maryland, the Gold Coast offered an upscale alternative.
Washington, it should be noted, is divided into four quadrants, with the U.S. Capitol building serving as the epicenter. The Southwest neighborhood used to be overridden with slums, but has a small residential population in lieu of a heavy concentration of federal buildings. The Southeast quadrant in recent years became home to a new wave of revitalization with the construction of the Nationals Park stadium which is home to the Washington Nationals Major League Baseball Team, but is mostly inhabited by black lower and working class residents. The path of the Anacostia River cutting through a section of Southeast has only exacerbated the sense of social, economic, and political isolation residents from this quadrant often express. For instance, the Nationals Park, while technically located in Southeast D.C., is within the smallest area of Southeast on the side of the river closest to the central city. The Northeast quadrant, while more racially mixed than Southeast, is largely inhabited by working and middle class blacks. Many white residents prefer and inhabit Northwest D.C. Not only is this quadrant more aesthetically pleasing thanks to its national monuments, the National Zoo, the National Cathedral, and top rate universities such as George Washington and Georgetown Universities, but it is also home to Rock Creek Park, another natural resource that enhances the value of the area.
Hence, many African Americans wanted to move to the "Gold Coast" of Washington as proof that they had arrived within the free market economy and were in fact successful individuals. Not only was this a more expensive, coveted, and quiet neighborhood, but the location was close enough for a pleasant commute while still an appreciable distance from the centralized commercial, political, and tourist districts downtown. Until then, the Maryland suburb of Prince George County had offered a neighborhood for more affluent blacks. With the rise of the Gold Coast, African Americans had a neighborhood in the District itself.
The name is not without irony, as Africans were sold as slave chattel off the Gold Coast of West Africa. The name was bequeathed by African Americans who lived in the area and mixed cultural heritage along with the statement of economic success. Many African American joined an exodus of families who wanted to escape neighborhoods affected by urban blight.
The historically black college Howard University played an important role in the development of the Gold Coast. While Howard University was nine blocks away to the east on 7th Street, within the Northwest quadrant, it funneled more black professionals toward the Gold Coast whether it was through the steady employment of intellectuals who lived in the area or the matriculation of graduates who were able to land employment sufficient enough for them to stay in the area.
But low-level tensions developed within the black community. While some viewed the ability to move to the Gold Coast as a symbol of black success, others regarded it as a rejection of historically black neighborhoods in favor of complete and total assimilation of white mores and values—which in effect would directly challenge or contradict the concept of black success. Residents of the Gold Coast were not seen as simply moving locations, but as retreating into new territories laden with privilege as well. The houses themselves provided a vivid reminder of this new world of prosperity. In contrast to many row homes or town homes typical of inner city housing, most homes in the Gold Coast were single family homes with separate lawns, many of Tudor or ranch style.
Shoring Up the Gold Coast
What makes the historic, symbolic significance of the Gold Coast even greater is Washington's little known history as a segregated city. Unlike other northeastern cities associated with more liberal race relations in contrast to southern cities, Washington was technically south of the Mason-Dixon line and indeed behaved like and observed many southern customs when it came to race relations. Thus, blacks living as far west as 16th street by Rock Creek Park was highly significant given the traditional grouping of middle class African Americans in neighborhoods closer to Howard University or Northeast or Southeastern enclaves. Additionally, black Gold Coast residents were afforded the additional luxury of enjoying cultural events at the nearby Carter Barron Amphitheater and could partake in sports traditionally exclusive to middle to upper to middle class whites such as tennis. The local William H. G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center contained several courts providing access to social territory customarily deemed off limits to African Americans.
Today, the nation's capital has decreased in overall population size and also in the proportion of its African American population. Yet, the term Gold Coast still holds political cache. As recently as 1980, Georgetown University alumni banded together to purchase men's basketball coach John Thompson a home in this neighborhood to help entice him to a long-term deal. Currently, the neighborhood is mixed between both blacks and whites and, if anything, a passerby is more likely to see a white neighbor than a black one. For instance, current Gold Coast residents include descendants of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. Gentrification coupled with insufferable commutes from the exurbs have made real estate within the city more attractive and now in many ways, the neighborhood can no longer afford to be solely black. Many middle and upper middle class whites who can afford it wish to live closer to the city in which they work. The decreasing job prospects for all Washingtonians especially impact African Americans given their overrepresentation within the public sector. As a result, not as many working class blacks can afford to move into the same Gold Coast neighborhood today.
Hence, the Gold Coast, among many things, is representative of a window of opportunity for black success when the social, political, and economic conditions were prime for change. During this time, many blacks were able to attain prime real estate as representative of their ability to obtain the American Dream in a progressive society. Only time will tell whether history will repeat itself.
Frederick W. Gooding is an Assistant Professor in Ethnic Studies at Northern Arizona University. His research and teaching focus on African American History, Critical Race Theory as well as Media, Movies & Mainstream Sports. His recent publications include "The Emperor's New Clothes: Identifying Racism in Obama's Post-Racial Society" in the edited volume Re-vitalizing the American Dream: Essays on Barack Obama and You Mean, There's RACE in My Movie? The Complete Guide to Understanding Race in Mainstream Hollywood.
1National Park Service. "World War II Memorial: History and Culture." N.d. http://www.nps.gov/wwii/historyculture/index.htm.
2U.S. Department of Commerce. "The Social and Economic Status of the Black Population in the United States: An Historical View, 1790–1978." Bureau of the Census. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1979.
3Robert H. Zieger. "For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America Since 1865." Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 2007. p. 124 "Although the great majority of these government workers occupied low civil-service positions, federal jobs were free of most of the discriminatory and insecure features of private employment."
4Robert O. Self. "American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland." Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003. P. 211 "The emergence of 'chocolate cities' in places like Newark, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, and Oakland and their 'vanilla suburbs' in the 1960s gave rise to a new language of urban space, race, and opportunity in American political culture."
5Douglas S. Massey. "American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. See p. 46.
6Carla T. Main. "Bulldozed: "Kelo," Eminent Domain and the American Lust for Land." New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2007, p. 129 "Slums in Washington, D.C. were nothing new, but these neighborhoods had lately seen overcrowding because of World War II."