tally’s corner, then and now

The New Deal Carry-out shop is on a corner in downtown Washingon, D.C. It would be within walking distance of the White House, the Smithsonian Institution, and other major public buildings over the nation’s capital, if anyone cared to walk there, but no one ever does. Across the street from the Carry-out is a liquor store. The other two corners of the intersection are occupied by a dry cleaning and shoe repair store and a wholesale plumbing supplies showroom and warehouse.

So begins Elliot Liebow’s famous description of Tally’s Corner. Now — thanks to Liebow’s wife — we now know from where he wrote that description: 11th and M Streets in NW. This was revealed by Washington Post reporter and columnist John Kelly this week. The column includes a brief bio of Liebow and as well as a short description of the book and its importance.

This book is a standard in any class on urban sociology, and likely any methods class on ethnography. There are lessons embedded in just the introductory chapter that are still useful today. He sought to study black men in poverty because so much had been written about poor women and children because “[a]t the purely practical level, the lower-class Negro man is neglected from a research point of view simply because he is more difficult to reach than women, youths, and children” (p. 3). He looked to describe the everyday lives of his informants as “fathers, husbands, lovers, breadwinners,” which simultaneously highlighted their individual worth (and, sometimes, shortcomings) while showing how their lives were structured by the lack of opportunities available to them. This book, more than almost any other, exemplifies what can be learned by setting out to deeply describe the context in which people live their everyday lives.

Liebow’s wife, Harriet, agreed to reveal the location because she “felt free to…because it’s no longer that street corner. The carryout’s gone. That whole world is gone from the street.” How that world disappeared is a lesson in the urban transformations in the past four decades, starting a year after the book was published in 1967. The structural oppression that Liebow described erupted into the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 that decimated the neighborhood surrounding Tally’s Corner (I’m not sure what effect the riots had on that specific block, but the neighborhoods surrounding it were certainly destroyed). Already starkly segregated, the next decade saw the solidification of segregation made immemorial by Parliament’s tribute to Washington as “Chocolate City,” surrounded by the “vanilla suburbs” (which, Ren Farley and colleagues used for their seminal article on racial preferences and segregation).

Racial Composition of Tally's Neighborhood 1970-2005/9

Immigration dramatically changed our ideas of race and diversity in the 1980s, and we find evidence of that change by examining the patterns of racial and ethnic change in Tally’s neighborhood. Looking at one, we see that Tally’s neighborhood transformed from being overwhelmingly black with a few whites to being predominantly black with a multiethnically diverse population: 16% Latino, 21% white, and 60% black.1 The trend of Latino growth continued into the 1990s, just as it did in metropolitan neighborhoods all over the country.

Now, 11th and M is undergoing the next major phase of urban transformation: gentrification. To say that it is no longer the street corner that Liebow observed is an understatement with its luxury condos and trendy restaurants down the street (you can see the corner for yourself by viewing Street View on this map). Condos and trendy restaurants are just the visual manifestations of social trends that dramatically transformed the area in the past four decades.

The gentrification of Tally’s neighborhood can be seen by looking at the rising rents in the neighborhood. In constant 1999 dollars (using the nation-wide CPI adjustment, not the Washington-area adjustment), median rents grew dramatically. For reference, the $839 of median rent in 1999 dollars plotted for the 2005-9 period reflects about $1,081 in 2009 dollars. Housing prices rose steadily from the 1970s and saw a dramatic jump again in the last decade.

Median Rent of Tally's Neighborhood 1970-2005/9

Along with the gentrification of the neighborhood, particularly that which occurred in the past decade, is the growth of the white population. Once at the heart of the African American neighborhood in 1967, the neighborhood surrounding Tally’s Corner is now less than a quarter black!2 Following the Latino growth in the neighborhood during the 1980s and 1990s, the proportion of whites living in the neighborhood jumped dramatically in the past decade during the heating of housing boom, we see that whites followed Latinos into the neighborhood.

This trend mirrors the paths of neighborhood racial change for gentrifying neighborhoods in Chicago that I investigated in my dissertation and emphasizes an important lesson about race and racial integration in light of popular narratives surrounding diversity and gentrification. Whites tend not to move into black neighborhoods — even gentrifying ones — until a substantial proportion of non-black residents move into the neighborhood. Although the whites that moved into Tally’s neighborhood have far higher levels of integration than other whites, the growth of the white population doesn’t occur until blacks are no longer a majority of the population. Then, there is a dramatic shift towards a substantially whiter population that means that the new white residents are becoming less integrated with blacks.

Not only is Tally’s Corner “no longer that street corner,” but it is almost the opposite of the poor black neighborhood that Liebow studied. But in its dramatic transformation the patterns of change surrounding Tally’s Corner highlight the continued importance of race and place in the American metropolis.

  1. * Tally’s Corner fell on the border of two Census tracts. I only show the trends in one for simplicity, but the patterns are largely the same; however, the transformations are more dramatic in the other neighborhood.
  2. Around a third black in the other neighborhood.

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