The Plan to Retake Washington
July 29, 2013
Today we're going to examine a conspiracy so shrouded in mystery that nobody knows who developed it, when it started or if it exists in the first place. It's practically unknown to most people, but gospel truth to those who are convinced it's been impacting their lives for decades. It doesn't even have a name. But it's also so powerful that it's working right now, transforming our nation's capital. What plot could be so steeped in contradiction, showing no compelling evidence that it exists other than doing exactly what it's purported to do? Those who believe in the conspiracy call it simply "The Plan."
The Plan is a conspiracy theory that revolves around the idea of wealthy white people "taking back" historically African-American neighborhoods in Washington DC through gentrification and urban renewal. As the story goes, real estate developers conspire with home-builders to neglect and tear down affordable housing in poorer neighborhoods and replace it with expensive lofts and condos, with high-end shops and hip restaurants to follow. Legislators friendly to the poor are ousted by wealthy white outsiders or kicked out of office thanks to trumped up scandals. Government cronies kick in tax breaks and friendly zoning laws, and soon, less-wealthy African-American families are pushed out and replaced by affluent young whites.
It's hard to tell what exactly The Plan entails, since it doesn't exist anywhere on paper and has no historical record to support it. Believers speak of it not as a codified conspiracy, but more of a nebulous and ever-changing concept, manipulated by power brokers working in dark corners. Also, nobody is quite sure who first came up with the idea and when. There aren't any names or dates attached to The Plan. There are no minutes of meetings, no freely available studies and nobody who has ever admitted having any involvement in it. Most conspiracy theories lack evidence — The Plan doesn't even have enough evidence to support its own existence.
But those who believe in it don't need to see the details, because they can see it in action. The first rumors of The Plan started in the late 60's, when the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., drove young white families from the city and out to the suburbs. The 1968 riots were devastating for the nation's capital. 118,000 residents fled the city in the decade after the riots — almost 16% of the population. And as DC's white population decreased, the black residents were left with a crime-ridden, downtrodden and virtually destroyed city — parts of which weren't rebuilt until the 1990's.
Beyond the blight and poverty, Washington DC has a convoluted history involving its own governance. For most of its existence, the city was run by a three-member Board of Commissioners. It wasn't until 1973 that Home Rule brought Washington an actual elected government, in the form of a mayor and city council.
Despite the obstacles of poverty and difficulty governing, black culture in DC thrived. Vibrant music, restaurants, art, education and literature came from the black community in Washington DC. This was fueled by both the adversity of the surroundings and the unique community that had emerged in response. DC became known as "Chocolate City," a place where African-Americans were the majority and could shape their own destinies their own way.
In turn, this unique culture laid the ground for belief in The Plan. Within a few years of Home Rule, an urban legend started that the whites who left town would come back, take away self-governance (which was leading to the election of a series of African-American mayors) and wrestle back control of the city, pricing them out in the process.
Washington Afro American columnist Lillian Wiggins first articulated the vague, nebulous Plan, writing in the late 1970's of a "master plan" to demonize black leaders, especially then-mayor Marion Berry. Wiggins tapped into the discontent many poorer African-Americans felt toward their crumbling neighborhoods, blighted streets and plummeting property values. And put forth a simple explanation: it was all part of a plot by white elites to keep them down and eventually displace them from their homes.
It's important to point out that most DC residents, no matter their ethnicity, dismissed it as nonsense. But it caught on with some working-class African Americans who looked around at their run-down surroundings — and the expensive lofts that replaced them — and saw something afoot.
Every conspiracy theory needs an evil cabal working in the shadows to carry out their plot, in in the case of The Plan, that role falls to the Federal City Council. The FCC is a group of civic-minded businessmen, active since the Eisenhower administration, which consults on redevelopment, construction projects and acts as a liaison to local communities and leaders. And the leadership of the group is almost entirely white — leading believers in The Plan to accuse them of being a shadow government, plotting in secret to usher in the removal of blacks and the transformation of Washington into something unrecognizable.
For several decades, The Plan was just a conspiracy theory, whispers with no compelling evidence to support them. But around the late 1990's, something happened that was entirely in keeping with The Plan — gentrification came to Chocolate City, and the demographics of Washington DC went off the rails. Developers started buying run-down buildings, left vacant because of crime, poverty and foreclosure, and turned them into condos and lofts. These new homes were too expensive for the historically poor residents of Washington's more poverty-stricken areas, and were instead occupied by upwardly mobile couples. Shops, restaurants and amenities followed, displacing still more lower-income residents.
And these new residents came in droves — to an astonishing degree. Gentrification literally changed the face of Washington. The city's population transformed from 1990 to 2010, with the white population increasing 11% and the black population decreasing by 15%. Many black families moved out of the city, pushing farther into the suburbs, where post-crash real estate prices had dropped.
Within a few years, estimates were that blacks would no longer be the majority in DC, as they had been since the 1960 census. 50 years of history had flipped on its head and indeed, white people had come back to live in the city their grandparents had abandoned to riots and blight. So to the unthinking eye, The Plan seems like it came true — whether it exists or not.
Washington DC was far from the only city in America to experience gentrification. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and many others all saw affluent young couples moving into revitalized, historically poor neighborhoods. Dilapidated SRO motels and crumbling apartments were torn down to make way for gleaming lofts and hip shops, all without The Plan to oversee things. In downtown Los Angeles, you can walk past row after row of gastropub and boutique, take a wrong turn and wind up on Skid Row. This isn't a nefarious conspiracy, it's the free market at work. People want to take advantage of prices in areas that are affordable, and real estate developers are more than happy to help them do so — making a hefty profit in the process.
Even with the remaking of DC repeating itself all over the country, whispers about The Plan still echo through the streets. Residents look around their neighborhoods and see massive change — and they blame The Plan. It's even said to have influenced the city's last mayoral and school superintendent elections. But it's hard to argue that the higher property values and decreased crime of DC's last decade are a bad thing.
So does The Plan exist? I don't know. Does gentrification exist? Most certainly. One is a real process that has taken place across the country, and that has real economic and social forces behind it. The other is a theory. Without compelling evidence, or any kind of paper trail or history, it's hard to look at The Plan as anything other than a rumor — one which happened to have come true.
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