Can a Bridge Fix D.C.’s Unemployment Divide?

DDOT / Flickr

The current 11th Street Bridge will be replaced with three spans.

The divide between communities east and west of the Anacostia River is as tangible as the river itself. So can the way to bridge that divide be as tangible as, well, a bridge?

Enter the 11th Street Bridge Project, a massive $300 million reconstruction effort that will provide a faster connection between Ward 8, where unemployment rates have reached nearly Depression-era levels, and portions of the city with lots of jobs.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised the project, saying it’s an example of how public construction puts Americans to work. (So far, 380 have been employed through the project.) Mayor Vincent Gray said the bridge will help chip away at the city’s high unemployment. The bridge jobs themselves aren’t all going to Ward 8 residents, an issue that’s sparked protests, much like ones at St. Elizabeth’s, another Ward 8 redevelopment project. But even if redevelopment construction jobs go to people in affected neighborhoods, they aren’t a permanent solution to high unemployment.

One way to address high and uneven unemployment is improving transit options. As it stands now, getting across the Anacostia River to where most of the city’s jobs are located can be a long or costly undertaking, and there are some fixes in the works. DC Circulator, a cheap and quick way to get around, will start running buses across the Anacostia in October. Bike advocates are encouraging residents to explore cycling as a low-cost and more reliable way to commute. And despite past low usage, Capital Bikeshare has installed more stations in Wards 7 and 8 to improve access. And then there’s the 11th Street Bridge.

But a bridge alone won’t be enough to cross D.C.’s unemployment divide. Experts say better job training programs and education are also needed. It’s just that improving those things is more complicated and time consuming than building a bridge.

Feeling Grief Over Displacement


karen H. / Flickr

During the 1960s, about 23,000 residents were displaced from Southwest to make room for urban renewal. Old, decaying housing was demolished to make way for new apartments for middle and upper income families, with some public housing units included.

Five years later, researchers asked: what happened to those thousands of poor residents who left? Sociology In My Neighborhood points us to the study, which focused in on 98 families who, unlike the majority of those who were evicted, did receive help relocating. These 98 families reported, five years after they left Southwest, living in housing physically better than where they used to live, but:

For those interviewed, poverty continued… and they then suffered “from another set of problems created by their removal from what was once their homes” because they lost not only their homes but also “a functioning social system.” Some became sick with grief, like that experienced by a death in the family, which was a common reaction to such relocations. Seventy percent of those interviewed had visited SW after redevelopment, and “a significant number..talked about crying and feeling sick” when they visited.

The redevelopment of the 1950s and 1960s was very different than what’s occurring in D.C. today — there is no leveling of entire neighborhoods, which may have contributed to the scale of trauma felt by people displaced by urban renewal decades ago. But D.C. is in flux. Market forces are causing rents and housing prices to increase, and some of those who can’t afford to live here anymore are leaving. Do they feel the same, or differently, as displaced residents felt decades ago?