M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 74

The Riots and the Slums: Comparing Public and Private Sector-Led Redevelopment in Washington, D.C.

Stanley J. Marcuss, Victoria Alsina Burgues and Rachael Stephens



Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, and dozens of other American cities were hit by riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King in April of 1968.4 Large parts of Washington, D.C. were looted and burned. The Fourteenth Street corridor from Thomas Circle in the south to Columbia Heights approximately two miles to the north was one of the areas most adversely affected. For the next thirty years or so, much of it was populated by burned-out and boarded up buildings and plagued by drug-dealing, prostitution and other crimes. That changed only when developers in the late 1990s saw opportunities for private sector redevelopment dictated by a market that had not previously existed.

Almost twenty years before, another part of the District of Columbia was devastated too, but not by rioters. The government instead wielded the wrecking ball. In the first significant federally funded urban renewal project in country, the government in the early 1950s acquired almost all existing properties in the southwest quadrant of the city, some 521 acres in all, bulldozed its slums and forced virtually all who lived there to move elsewhere. It did so largely through the exercise of eminent domain, a process by which the government forcibly takes private property for public purposes constrained only by the constitutional requirement to pay just compensation. The redevelopment that ensued was largely a product of government planning supported by government subsidy.

The purpose of this study was to determine whether the essentially public sector-led redevelopment of Southwest and the essentially private sector-led redevelopment of the Fourteenth Street corridor several decades later had significantly different social and economic consequences and, if not, why not. To this end, we reviewed information from a variety of different sources, both primary and secondary, to get as close as possible to a complete and accurate picture of the consequences and their causes.

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