Aaron is a PhD candidate at American University in Washington D.C. whose research focuses on Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), homelessness, public space, and criminalization. In 2020 they co-founded Remora House, a mutual aid collective that helps get supplies and cash to unhoused people across D.C.
They recently wrote an academic journal article titled: The City and the City: Tent Camps and Luxury Development in the NoMA Business Improvement District (BID) in Washington, D.C.
On October 4th, 2021, thirty or more unhoused people were permanently evicted by the government of Washington DC, from the L and M Street NE underpasses within the boundaries of the NoMA Business Improvement District (BID). The evictions of these unhoused spaces were part of DC’s pilot program, the Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments (CARE) Program, which coupled a Housing First approach with the permanent eviction of DC’s largest encampments (Read more here).
Weeks prior to the eviction of the underpasses in the NoMA BID, bright orange “pedestrian passageway” signs were posted stating “This sidewalk must remain clear at all times. Blocking pedestrian passage is a public safety hazard. All property blocking this sidewalk is subject to immediate removal and disposal. Leave property at your own risk” (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Image of the “Pedestrian Passageway” sign just outside of the M Street underpass. A city trash truck and a film crew can be seen in the background. Photo taken by author 10/4/2021.
This was not the first time the DC government used “pedestrian passage” to evict encampments. It was used in January of 2020 to permanently remove all unhoused people from the K Street underpass, also located within the NoMA BID. In what follows I unpack the legacy of the “pedestrian passageway” and the role that the NoMA BID played in its creation.
BID’s are often praised by city leaders as a way to increase property values and spur investment and development within neoliberal urban landscapes. Transforming disinvested, vacant, and undeveloped urban spaces into “playgrounds for the rich and powerful,” BIDs attempt to rebrand an area’s “image” and make it attractive to potential residents and investors. However, this transformation requires new tactics of surveillance and criminalization to keep out poor people, unhoused people, and others that contradict the “image” BIDs are attempting to create. These sanitized spaces respond to the fears of the middle- and upper-class people BIDs are trying to attract. Seeing that BIDs generally form in transitioning urban areas that often have high concentrations of homeless encampments, unhoused people have long been a target of BID’s lobbying power.
The NoMA BID formed in 2007 around Union Station about one mile north of the Capitol Building. Union Station, which was completed in 1907 as part of DC’s City Beautiful Movement, was built on top of a working-class neighborhood, Swampoodle. Following the completion of the massive train station, the Swampoodle area became dominated by light industry and warehouses. In the 1960’s, the area underwent massive changes as part of the Northwest One and Northeast One urban renewal projects that destroyed many so-called “slum dwellings” and replaced it with massive housing projects that did not fit the needs of residents. Following neoliberal economic restructuring, as declines in regional manufacturing reduced the needs for warehouses around Union Station, the NoMA area became dominated by vacant lots and buildings. When the NoMA BID formed in 2007, real estate agencies and developers, many of whom sit on the NoMA BID board of directors, bought the cheap vacant properties. Today the NoMA BID is one of DC’s fastest developing areas
Along with rapid development came drastic changes to the NoMA area’s demographics. While Swampoodle is often remembered as a white-working class neighborhood, from the 1860s until 2007, the area was predominately comprised of Black residents. Census records show that the NoMA area went from having a Black population of 92 percent in 2000 to 52% in 2010. Similarly, data from the Washington DC Economic Partnership shows that the median household income of the NoMA area rose from $42,192 in 2013 to $100,421 in 2020. These demographic shifts are internally related to the stated goal of BIDs across the United States, to transform disinvested areas into white, hip, profitable areas. What BIDs do not share is the fact that these transformations are undercut through the displacement and removal of long-time residents, most of whom are poor and Black.
One issue NoMA’s rapid development of cheap properties created was the fact that they somehow failed to integrate green space into their public space design. In 2012 the NoMA BID founded the NoMA Parks Foundation, a non-profit 501c3, to “establish welcoming, sustainable, beautiful spaces where people can play, refresh and connect in NoMa, now and in the future.” A major focus of the NoMA Parks Foundation was the underpasses, the “vital east/west community connections that can be enhanced by incorporating light and art. These enhancements could support public safety and establish a distinct atmosphere that simultaneously acknowledges NoMA’s history and future” (See the NoMA BID’s 2012 Public Realm Design here).
Then, in 2014, the NoMA Parks Foundation was awarded a $50 million dollar grant to be used for “parks and recreation.” Almost immediately after getting the grant, the NoMA Parks Foundation launched a competition for light art designs for its underpasses. In total, 248 designs were presented and “Rain” by NIO Architects & Thurlow Small Architecture, from Rotterdam, Netherlands and Pawtucket, RI was chosen for the M Street NE Underpass and “Lightweave” by the Future Cities Lab from San Francisco, CA was chosen for L Street.
It wasn’t until 2018 that the construction of “Rain” and “Lightweave” started, and by this time the number of unhoused people living in NoMA’s underpasses started to grow. When construction began on “Rain” in January of 2018, both sides of the sidewalk were closed (Figure 2), displacing several unhoused people, which stirred a good amount of negative media attention (Read more here).
Figure 2: Photo of M Street underpass sidewalk fenced off with a sign promoting “Rain.” Photo taken by author 6/26/2019.
“Rain” was completed in October 2018 and property owners, developers, and government officials came together to praise the public-private partnership that brought this art to the NoMA area. One speaker noted how “This once dark and dank underpass is now coming to life in a most unique way possible.”
Once construction was finished on “Lightweave” in April 2019 (Figure 3), the homeless encampments in NoMA’s underpasses were growing rapidly. In April, there were only about 25 tents set up in NoMA’s underpasses, rising to 45 in May 2019. The NoMA BID attempted a number of events to promote the million-dollar light art, including a silent disco, yoga, banana pancake breakfast, and a beer crawl, all ‘under the Rain.’ However, these events were poorly attended and the dozens of tents created a awkward experience for NoMA’s newcomers, highlighting the barrier homelessness presented to the image NoMA was attempting to manufacture.
Figure 3: Photo of “Lightweave” Lit Up in the L Street Underpass in the NoMA BID. Photo Taken by Author 4/9/2019.
A 2018 Berkeley Law report titled “Homeless Exclusion Districts,” notes how BIDs use money collected from annual assessments to influence and lobby for anti-homeless policy (full report here). On August 21st, 2019, Robin-Eve Jasper, who at the time was the president of the NoMa BID, published an open letter from the NoMA BID to get workers and residents to complain about the encampments to city leaders. The letter (full letter here) begins with:
The NoMa BID wishes to share publicly the sentiment expressed in an increasing volume of complaints we are receiving from neighbors in NoMa: Namely, that conditions are worsening at the encampments in the underpasses and on First Street NE, and that people are worried about their ability to safely traverse these public spaces. Many report that they have been harassed as they walk by the tent encampments, where people frequently engage in aggressive panhandling and occasionally menace passersby. Used and bloody hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia, rotting food, trash, broken glass, public nudity, prostitution, sales of illegal drugs, and human urine and feces are encountered by those whose routes take them by the encampments and pervade the space in which encamped individuals are living (bold emphasis in original).
The letter goes on to conjure old stereotypes of homelessness, noting “after years of engagement with scores of individuals encamped in NoMa and documentation of conditions and incidents associated with encampments, we know that the primary challenges are the result of mental health and substance-abuse disorders.” The letter called on the local government to reduce homelessness in the area by increasing enforcement of current drug laws and enhancing forced medical treatment of unhoused people, noting “Such disorders are often the issues that cause people to choose to live on the street rather than stay in their housing or accept shelter.” By placing the blame on individual failings, rather than on the structural inequality of capitalism, the NoMA BID sidesteps their own complicity in gentrification and displacement while lobbying for increased criminalization. The letter then double downs on its position, noting “Well-intentioned advocacy that conflates the problems experienced by encamped individuals only with housing affordability is misguided.”
The NoMA BID then attempts to justify their position, stating that advocates fighting for the rights of unhoused people to occupy public space overshadow “the views of ordinary residents, workers, and visitors have not been widely heard on these issues. There are many people whose passion for improving the housing situation and protecting what they think should be the legal rights of encamped individuals is a calling or a career. But there is no similar advocacy group devoted to making sure that people can safely pass through public spaces.”
One suggestion the NoMA BID offered was the creation of a “pedestrian safe-passage zone” in NoMA’s busiest areas, noting that some sidewalks were too narrow for people pushing strollers, old women pushing shopping carts, and people in wheelchairs to use the sidewalks where tents were set up. These zones, the NoMA BID argued, would allow for the immediate removal of unhoused people and their property. Weaponizing elderly people, people with disabilities, and children, the NoMA BID used dehumanizing language to lobby the city government to create hyper-criminalized “tent free zones” (read more here).
The open letter ends by calling on NoMA residents and workers to send complaints to their councilmember and other city leaders to support their “tent free zone” policy. Over 30 emails were sent to the councilmember alone and within months, DC’s city leaders responded to the NoMA BID’s request for “pedestrian safe-passage zones,” establishing the K Street NE underpass as a “pedestrian passageway” (read more here).
Bright orange signs notifying the forty plus people who lived in the underpass of the upcoming eviction were posted on January 3rd, 2020 (Figure 4). On January 6th there were 39 tents under the K Street underpass alone (all three underpasses had a total of 77 tents). The eviction was set for January 16th and on the 15th, there were still 29 tents in the K Street underpass, many moving to the already overcrowded L and M Street underpasses. No housing or shelter services were offered to residents of K Street, and mutual aid groups and other advocates helped people move the night before the eviction. By the morning of the eviction, there were only four tents left on K Street and the total number of tents in the underpasses dropped to 67. The L and M Street underpasses were overcrowded with tents and within the days and weeks that followed, many small camps around NoMA formed as people tried to figure out how to move forward with their lives. A month after the permanent eviction of the K Street NE underpass, COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency, intensifying the violence of this enclosure and the sprawl and overcrowded it created.
Figure 4: Notice Sign for the “Pedestrian Passageway” in the K Street Underpass of the NoMA BID. Photo Taken by Author 1/6/2020.
The similarities between the NoMA BID’s call for a “pedestrian safe-passage zone” and the response by DC government to create a “pedestrian passageway” in NoMA, reveals the complex relationships of private-public partnerships and the power that BIDs have to lobby for local anti-homeless laws. While the NoMA BID and city leaders all noted the “pedestrian passageway” created in the K Street underpass would not be replicated elsewhere, in the Fall of 2021 both the M and L Street NE underpass were designated “pedestrian passageways.” Rather than just using bright orange notice signs, huge concrete barriers were erected on the M and L Street NE sidewalks. This both prevented people from setting up tents in the underpasses, while also only providing a few feet for “pedestrian passage” (Figure 5). As of the summer of 2022, at least two other camps in DC have been evicted using the justification of “pedestrian passage.”
Figure 5: Photo of Concrete Barriers in the M Street Underpass in the NoMA BID. Photo Taken by Author 10/5/2021.
The successful lobbying of the NoMA BID, coupled with a nasty complaint campaign, resulted in the permanent eviction of some of DC’s largest camps and has provided a new way for the city to remove encampments throughout the city. The NoMA BID successfully maneuvered old stereotypes of homelessness to prey on the fear and revulsion of its new, wealthier, population. Funded by local assessments from businesses and city funded grants, the NoMA BID was able to almost rid the area of unhoused people, pushing them outside their boundaries. However, the NoMA BID did nothing to end homelessness, or combat high housing prices and low wages. Rather, the hyper-local focus of BIDs simply moves the problem outside of its area (benefiting those from whom the BID collects annual assessments), while covering up larger structural contradictions within capitalism.
The NoMA BID latched onto contradictions of its own development, weaponizing the class differences between longtime residents and wealthy newcomers, to eradicate unhoused people from their boundaries. Rather than simply an advent of “mean urbanism,” or a cruel BID president, the displacement of encampments is internally related to neoliberal economic strategies. As cities once again become prime areas of capital accumulation, BIDs use private and public money to increase the profitability of urban areas. The $2.5 million light art, the pedestrian passageway, and the concrete barriers all represent old tactics being reimagined in new ways to eradicate unhoused people from NoMA’s underpasses and bring the NoMA BID into the flows of global capital.