Selling “Authenticity” and Swampoodle

This marks the completion of forty-two days, making six weeks.

Cited briefly this past week, Brandi Thompson Summers’ Black in Place is required reading for anyone seeking to understand basic economics in DC and other places experiencing extreme displacement:

So, what does authenticity mean in a post-Chocolate City neighborhood that claims and aspires to be cool and diverse? Where does the blackness go? …Authenticity here is abstract; it is a representation of a desired social reality. The cosmetic grittiness and danger that Derek Hyra* argues are vital to neighborhoods that have adopted Black branding strategies only operate at a surface level; residents and visitors do want to feel safe. The desire for authenticity is about the look but not the feel of a particular neighborhood….

Authenticity shows up in various ways on H Street–specifically, through a diversity aesthetic that has been mapped upon the neighborhood and the city’s blackness. Drawing on the history and revival of the Apollo building** on H Street [luxury apartments, 600 H Street NE] speaks to a desire for authenticity and purposeful iconographic drift. For example, the Apollo Theatre on H Street was simply a movie house from the early twentieth century that was pulled out of history and drifted to the contemporary imagination of developers represented by words and images….no one wanted to name the building after the car dealership it became after the Apollo was demolished, or the storage facility that inhabited the space before the residential building was erected. Instead, authenticity ends up being a performance and a chosen lifestyle, as well as an instrument of displacement.

Authenticity might be tied to history, but whose history?…Swampoodle was the name of the neighborhood surrounding H Street… later destroyed with the construction of Union Station in 1907.

Local interest in recognizing a neighborhood’s true Irish origins effectively reconfigures the space to be devoid of the blackness that characterized the area in recent memory. Focusing on the neighborhood being previously inhabited by Irish immigrants who sought refuge after the potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century, and who built the Capitol, makes invisible the slaves and freedmen who also toiled alongside them. Saying that the Irish workers built the Capitol ties them to the land. It justifies their lingering presence. This form of past-making recenters whiteness by marking territory. By engaging in an active erasure of the space’s more recent history, going back to a time before Black people “destroyed” the neighborhood during the “riots,” the park can take on a nostalgic meaning and drive decisions about how the space can be developed moving forward. Introducing blackness to the area brings up far too many memories of violence, oppression, and practices of inequality…

…Whiteness not only represents the norm but also is unthreatening, despite characterizations of the neighborhood being “rough.”
— Summers, p.116-118

In addition to the book itself, look for “H Street and the Aesthetics of Cool” in The Sociologist and a number of audio and video presentations by Dr. Summers.

See also photos of Joseph Young ( and his radio series “Gentrification or Displacement” on We Act Radio.

And these mentions from Carl Bernstein’s recent memoir:

I had forty-five dollars in my pocket, saved up from my Saturday job at S.N. McBride’s layaway department store on the edge of Swampoodle, a ramshackle neighborhood the trains passed through as they slowed toward Union Station.

…Selling shoddy merchandise on layaway to poor people from Swampoodle was another reason my father wanted to steer me toward more respectable work.

..I’d wanted to write about both Swampoodle — the impoverished neighborhood just east of Union Station — and its most famous resident for months.

— Bernstein, Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom. NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2022, p.1, 7, 286

According to historic renderings, “Swampoodle,” apparently once a slur against Irish laborers who lived in the puddle/marshland, was situated around North Capitol and K Streets NE/NW (not extending as far as 7th and H Streets, NE, where S.N. McBride’s was located).

*Hyra, Derek.
Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City. (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2017).

**“Built on the site of a legendary DC theatre, The Apollo Apartments effortlessly combines the past with the present.
This H Street apartment building brings you the best in lifestyle design,
paired with a relaxed vibe,
convenient retail partners, exceptional amenities, and all the comforts of home.”
– “The Apollo Apartments” website

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