Between Justice & Beauty: a brief book review

As my reading preferences tend towards fiction (and not of the George Pelecanos brand), book reviews will be infrequent in this space. In fact, this may be the only one you’ll ever see.

But back in February I was bitten by the non-fiction bug and placed a hold on Between Justice & Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C., by Howard Gillette, Jr. A popular book, apparently, as it was only available for me a month ago. (Note: it is still sitting on my desk at work since I went out for margaritas yesterday when I had planned to go to the library. Sorry, whoever is waiting for it.)

I thought the book covered different periods in DC’s history and how the planning goals of each period essentially screwed over the black population of the city (whether intentionally or not) well. I certainly learned a lot about DC history and why being a long-time resident (pre-Home Rule, or even more pre-1968) gives one a certain perspective on neighborhood changes.

What the book didn’t do was talk about lessons learned or actions taken in response or connections between distinct eras. Maybe lessons weren’t learned or actions weren’t taken in response (until 1968) but I wish that the book had spoken to those issues.

The majority of the book was written pre-Control Board; only the prologue or afterword (the book has both, I read only one, I don’t remember which it was, but it was the one that came first) mentions it. It is interesting then to see where we are now in connection with where we were then, especially for me as a recent transplant.* I still have trouble with the ingrained pathology (which I don’t want to mean negatively even though I know I’ve used negative language) that the city is just trying to screw over poor blacks. Part of me wants to say “that period is OVER. No one’s institutionalizing racist/exclusionary policies!” But now I know where that fear comes from. And I know that some of those racist policies weren’t intended to be so. They were intended to be helpful but very much weren’t. And even though 1968 seems ages ago to me, it really wasn’t. (1980? That was just yesterday, wasn’t it?) Things that happened in 1968 and the years before are still in people’s memories, and are probably still fresh for them the way that I think 1980 was just yesterday (even though I was only 3 and don’t really remember anything from then). It’s no wonder that there’s a defensiveness and a guardedness about ideas to increase the population of the city and to close schools and to rebuild housing.

So I recommend you read the book. Especially if you’re a recent transplant like I am and care about District issues. But you’ll have to wait until I get it back to the library.



*Though if you ask anyone I know from a solely social context, by which I mean a religious context :-) the eight and a half years I’ve been here make me a lifer.


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