By Sammie Moshenberg, Alexandria (File photo)
To the editor:
The city of Alexandria has a rich African-American history — rich and replete with the shameful injustices that characterize the history of black communities across the country. The squat, yellow concrete public housing complex in the quickly gentrifying Parker-Gray neighborhood is part of that history.
In the 1940s with the opening of the massive Pentagon complex and the need to house defense workers, the federal government built a number of complexes — segregated “whites only” housing — like Parkfairfax and Fairlington. But for black defense department workers and their families, trailers were set up in Arlington and the cement buildings — Ramsey Homes — were built in a largely run down industrial neighborhood.
We should never forget this history, after all: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
After 74 years, the Ramsay Homes are dilapidated and out of date. Residents rightly complain, but many fixes to the numerous problems are limited by the construction and condition of the buildings themselves. There’s a plan to replace the 15 units of public housing and add 38 more affordable housing units on the same site, now no longer a run-down industrial neighborhood, but a desirable, upscale location with access to public transportation, a state-of-the-art recreation center and other amenities.
This would seem like a win-win situation for Alexandria, which has an ambitious housing plan. And it certainly would be a welcome, albeit tiny, step toward making up for the thousands of units of affordable housing lost over the last 10 to 12 years. But a small minority on city council, in a vote last weekend, effectively killed any chance to move ahead this year.
Ironically, history is standing in the way — not a desire to preserve a symbol of Jim Crow in housing but a move to honor a particular style of “historic” architecture which, let’s remember, was specifically used to house a population denied access to better options.
To paraphrase City Councilor Willie Bailey, we need to prioritize the “warm bodies” who live in these houses above the concrete edifice surrounding them, however historic.