Demographics of DC’s Historic Districts

After playing around with the District’s redistricting software last week, I realized that I was not confined to drawing Ward maps. I could assemble any grouping of census blocks and get an immediate calculation of the demographics of the selected geography. I could now answer questions that I had often wondered about: what share of DC’s population lives in historic districts and what is the racial make up of historic district residents?

Click, click, click and I was off looking at historic district maps and trying to recreate them using census blocks. It’s not a perfect match as many historic districts split census blocks. But after an initial effort and several revisions, I came up with some results: 22% of DC’s residents live in a historic district! That strikes me as an incredibly high number and suggests the criteria bar to become a historic district is pretty low.

What was more disturbing was the racial profile of areas that had been protected by preservation law: they are overwhelmingly white. Historic districts are 62% white and 15% black, a disparity of over 4 to 1. Outside of historic districts the population is 49% black and 31% white. There may be many reasons for this, but the disparity alone is eye-popping.

While there are historic district in DC that are majority black, they are few and they are small in size. The largest are Kingman Park, Anacostia and St. Elizabeth’s. Each majority black, but combined are about the same size as the Cleveland Park historic district.

The largest historic districts are Capitol Hill, Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Mount Pleasant, and U Street are all majority white. The whitest historic districts are Kalorama Circle, Cleveland Park, Strivers’ Section (South of AdMo), Washington Heights (AdMo), and Sheridan Kalorama. (These are inexact population numbers since historic districts split many census blocks – but they are close).

Is DC measuring outcomes of its historic preservation decisions? I don’t think it is and it should, and for more than race. We need to be measuring incomes, employment, housing costs, and health outcomes. Are historic districts providing equity or are they preserving privilege?

In places like Cleveland Park that were founded with the intention to exclude blacks, the creation of the historic district cemented the racial composition the founders intended. Places like Portland Oregon are taking steps to address these inequities by amending their historic preservation code. As one housing advocate in Portland said, “many of the historic districts… have at least some policies of exclusion in their pasts. When neighborhoods like that are protected from change, they’re preserving that same exclusion.” Same here. We need to assemble the data and be intentional about addressing it.

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