GM was invited Tuesday night to come watch Woolly Mammoth’s newest production, Clybourne Park, and answer the question: is this Georgetown?
Clybourne Park is a wonderful new play by Bruce Norris that serves as an updated companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry’s legendary play A Raisin in the Sun. The new play explores two critical moments in the life of a house and a neighborhood: the first at the dawn of White flight and the second in the heart of the gentrification fight of today’s “post-racial” world.
The quick answer to Woolly Mammoth’s provocative question is: No, at least superficially, Georgetown is not Clybourne Park.
Georgetown had a significant African-American population from its very beginning. Originally a mix of slaves and free Blacks, after emancipation, the African-American population grew rapidly. By the early 20th century, almost half the overall neighborhood’s population was African-American. However, once Roosevelt’s New Dealers discovered the charm of Georgetown’s preserved architectural character, those numbers began a steady and unending decline. As with any debate over neighborhood invasion-succession, the distinction between correlation and causation is often hard to determine.
In a way, those New Dealers were the city’s first gentrifiers. Unlike Clybourne Park though, Georgetown skipped the White flight, financial disinvestment, and decades of governmental disregard. That’s not to say Georgetown didn’t experience economic hard times. In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much of Georgetown was a dirty, smelly, run-down place. It’s because of this that the homes remained preserved; nobody wanted to waste their money building something new here.
While GM loved the play throughout, it wasn’t until a few minutes into the second act that it finally struck a chord of familiarity with Georgetown. In the play, a newly arrived White couple is negotiating with the neighborhood association (represented by a Black couple) over a planned addition to the bungalow. As their lawyer starts arguing with the association over elevations, massing, and the historical importance of the housing vernacular, GM flashed to just about every single ANC meeting he’s ever attended.
And it’s on this point that GM recognized a common thread: historical preservation.
Some have argued that the Old Georgetown Act was the death knell of Georgetown’s Black population. Keeping buildings up to historical standards isn’t cheap. It costs more just to get approval and that’s not to mention the higher cost of materials. And just generally speaking, preservation laws tend to increase the desirability and, in turn, the price of a neighborhood. It’s very difficult for a neighborhood to be historically protected yet remain a working class neighborhood.
It is somewhat ironic that the African-American characters are seeking to preserve the historical form of Clybourne Park. As in Georgetown, the historical preservation of Clybourne Park may very well be seeding the end of its working-class character.
So in a way, Clybourne Park is Georgetown, but of another era. And like Georgetown, the changes are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. And its these ambiguities that make for a fascinating and thought-provoking play.