Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City by Brandi Thompson Summers

By: Veronica Brown

Brandi Thompson Summers’s Black in Place: The spatial aesthetics of race in a post-chocolate city draws upon participant observation, interviews, media accounts, and visual analysis to present a detailed case study of the Washington D.C. neighborhood of H Street NE, a commercial corridor patronized by Black locals throughout the twentieth century that has undergone significant gentrification in the past two decades. Thompson argues that the gentrification of H Street involves using Blackness to market an authentic experience while reorganizing the landscape in service of capital. Gentrification activates race through what Summers terms “Black aesthetic emplacement,” a mode of representation that depoliticizes and aestheticizes Blackness in order to make racial markers valuable and consumable (Summers 2019, 3). Summers ultimately provides a richly detailed analysis of a particular place while also developing a useful broader framework for how race operates in the process of gentrification.

Although civil unrest characterized the 1960s across the United States, Washington D.C was widely regarded as “riotproof” before 1968 because of the city’s large Black population and Black mayor. Following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, however, D.C. experienced widespread uprisings. Summers argues that these demonstrations were not the irrational reaction to King’s death that the media depicted but instead reflected simmering tensions about the spatial containment and capitalist exploitation that Black residents had experienced throughout the 1960s. Summers writes, “The uprisings brought into view the notion that struggles against oppression are ultimately that struggles over space” (Summers 2019, 59). This struggle would continue throughout the ensuing decline and redevelopment of H Street, NE.

Although the significant physical damage H Street experienced during the protests was not as severe as some other neighborhoods in the city, the area was slower to redevelop in the following decades. Black business owners, developers, and architects advanced many proposals to redevelop the corridor throughout the 1970s, but the city government declined to support any plans. The construction of the Hopscotch Bridge further isolated the area. By the 1980s, H Street had become an “iconic ghetto” (Summers 2019, 53), frequently activated as a political symbol but receiving little meaningful government support. Businesses, including socially important third places, continued to close.

With the back-to-the-city movement well underway in the early 2000s, developers began to revitalize H Street through significant upscale development. Summers describes a city-funded Retail Priority Area Grant that excluded service businesses, including largely Black-owned barbershops and hair salons, but embraced “entrepreneurial and innovative” ventures, including high-end shops and restaurants (Summers 2019, 74). These development schemes gave H Street a new spatial identity as a post-racial space in which diversity functioned primarily as an aesthetic style. In 2017, a new Whole Foods opened on H Street, and the chain’s press release touted that both Whole Foods and H Street valued diversity and history. When the grocery store opened, the decor included many racialized visual references, including an ill-advised candy display case labeled “Chocolate City.” The neighborhood that had been devalued for its Blackness in the previous decades was now revalued for its multiculturalism.

In addition to the Whole Foods, a proliferation of upscale ethnic fusion restaurants on H Street made race literally palatable and consumable through food. The trendy eateries reflect D.C.’s wider embrace of Richard Florida’s creative class hypothesis (Florida 2014), which prioritizes quality-of-life upgrades to attract young, white professionals. Summers observes that the creative class strategy also absolves the government of responsibility for addressing structural inequalities as it holds that success can be achieved through entrepreneurialism. Although some culinary signifiers of Blackness remain on H Street, their presence is justified on historic grounds. A close reading of a Washington Post story on Horace and Dickie’s, a carryout fried seafood restaurant, illustrates that the newspaper adds historic and cultural value to a building that would otherwise be visually associated with blight by focusing on the historical importance of fried whiting fish to enslaved people.

Retellings of H Street’s history frequently highlight the supposedly harmonious racial history of the area while failing to address the legacy of racial subordination. Summers analyzes a planning document titled the Near NE Historical Study and a heritage tour containing brochures and signs for self-guided pedestrian tourists to show that both overwhelmingly focus on a time at the turn of the twentieth century when H Street was “diverse” before becoming “Black” (Summers 2019, 92). Neither narrative addresses segregation nor structural inequalities. The planning document does not address the 1968 uprising at all, while the heritage tour opts to depict the event as an irrational anomaly in response to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, rather than the culmination of ongoing tensions. These histories create an abstract space in which diversity has always been celebrated, marking the contemporary iteration of H Street as authentic according to the constructed collective memory of the space.

In the final chapter of Black in Place, Summers focuses on the corner of 8th Street and H Street in order to illustrate how blackness and space co-produce one another in the context of gentrification. Summers organizes this analysis around three themes, transit, spatial containment, and “the unseen” (Summers 2019, 148), which provide the basis of a more widely applicable theoretical framework. Transit-oriented development around the corner’s new streetcar appeals to young, white professionals, while the predominantly Black bus ridership constitutes the X2 bus, which stops at the corner, as an ephemeral, racialized microgeography. The corner is also subject to racialized surveillance, including CCTV cameras and an active police presence, and media coverage of crime on the corner creates Black spaces as geographies of fear. This hypervisibility through surveillance is in tension with how black people are unseen on the corner. Summers defines unseeing as a practice that enables different groups to coexist without interaction and without engaging with people’s lives and conditions. While Black bodies are hypervisible on the corner, Black people remain unseen.

Black in Place offers a detailed study of H Street NE that includes a wealth of carefully chosen examples that make up a thoughtful exploration of the racialized process of gentrification. Summers, however, sometimes leans too heavily on densely theoretical jargon, undermining the strength of her own research. For example, although the introduction specifies that she follows Wendy Brown’s definition of neoliberalism as a process of worldmaking, her repeated invocation of neoliberalism sometimes shortcuts a more sustained exploration of the exact issues at play. This choice may temper Black in Place’s appeal to a popular audience or planning practitioners, which is a shame because many of the book’s examples could provide useful lessons for planners and planning students.

Works cited

Florida, Richard L. 2014. Rise of the Creative Class – Revisited. Paperback of the revised edition. New York: Basic Books.

Summers, Brandi Thompson. 2019. Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Featured Image courtesy of The University of North Carolina Press

Purchase Black in Place here.

Veronica Brown is a second-year student in the Master’s of City and Regional Planning program. She received her undergraduate degree from Smith College, where she studied the psychology of contemporary visual culture. Before coming to UNC, Veronica worked in communications at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Edited by Jo Kwon