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“Before the Bulldozers: Historic Southwest D.C. Exposed” is a new app-based walking tour from the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum that leads users through the historic Southwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood and the story of its turbulent redevelopment. As part of the museum’s yearlong focus on housing justice, “Before the Bulldozers” recalls the Southwest community—and its displacement—in vivid detail. The free app uses location-based storytelling, augmented reality and immersive audio to examine larger issues of housing inequality through the lens of Southwest.
The “Before the Bulldozers” app is available for download on iPhone and Android devices. Users should bring a pair of headphones for the best experience and start the tour at the Waterfront Metro Station, as the app is GPS activated at the site. A 45-minute video version of the tour is available on the museum’s website for people to join the experience remotely. Students across the Washington region are able to participate in this program thanks to Google, which donated 100 Google Pixel phones for pre-arranged school tours.
Starting in 1950, Southwest became one of the first and largest neighborhoods in the country targeted for “urban renewal,” a process in which the federal government razed schools, houses and places of worship to create space for development by claiming eminent domain. In Southwest, urban renewal aimed to upgrade the neighborhood, but disproportionately displaced over 20,000 African Americans. As a result, the new development leveled the majority of Southwest and destroyed a tight-knit, multi-generational African American community. Similar outcomes from urban renewal became commonplace in U.S. cities following the destruction of the Southwest community.
Today’s Southwest neighborhood is unrecognizable to former residents. As the neighborhood experiences a current economic boom and struggles to keep its affordable community intact, “Before the Bulldozers” offers lessons from the not-so-distant past.
“‘Before the Bulldozers’ gives audiences eyes and ears to the historic stories that shaped Washington, D.C.,” said Melanie Adams, director of the Anacostia Community Museum. “By moving through the Southwest neighborhood, seeing how the area changed and learning at whose cost those changes came to be, audiences better understand the role housing inequity plays out in everyday life—in D.C. and beyond.”
Created in partnership with Walking Cinema, “Before the Bulldozers” revives stories from those who witnessed, documented and even participated in the neighborhood’s evolution. These stories derive from the oral histories of displaced community members and the D.C. Public Library’s Joseph Owen Curtis Photograph Collection.
“‘Before the Bulldozers’ is a story that starts in Southwest but then ripples out to communities across the United States in the 1960s and ’70s,” said Michael Epstein, founder and director of Walking Cinema. “Like all Walking Cinema projects, the story arose from walks and conversations with residents, historians and community groups.”
The walking tour follows three characters: an amateur photographer determined to capture his endangered community on film, an architect whose vision of a gleaming new Southwest captured the imagination of city planners and a current-day resident of the new Southwest grappling with the paradox of gentrification. The route begins at the Waterfront Metro Station and ends at Waterfront Park. As part of the tour, participants are encouraged to enter D.C. Public Library’s Southwest Branch, which contains in-depth resources, a small gallery of photos and a hidden surprise as part of the tour.
Guided tours are available for school groups and adults. To join a tour, the public can go to “Before the Bulldozers” for schedules. Registration is required two weeks in advance.
About “Our Housing, Our Future”
“Before the Bulldozers” is part of the Anacostia Community Museum’s yearlong feature on housing injustice, titled “Our Hosing, Our Future.” In 2022, the museum is examining themes of housing and how racial inequality plays out in the lives of everyday people in Washington. “Our Housing, Our Future” brings the stories of people subjected to housing inequity to light. Visitors are encouraged to think critically about what makes a cohesive community, question how and why communities disappear and envision how people can build a more equitable future. The yearlong focus includes in-person and digital exhibitions, community programs and educational partnerships.
About the Museum
Founded in 1967, the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum shares the untold and often overlooked stories of communities furthest from justice in the greater Washington, D.C., region. In celebrating stories of resiliency, joy and strength, the museum inspires those who visit to translate their ideas into action. The museum will be closed Sept. 18 through Oct. 31 as it prepares for new installations. For more information about the museum, visit anacostia.si.edu or follow the museum on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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