The Suburb and the Sword: Wartime Housing, Integration, and Suburbanization in Alexandria, VA, 1942-1968

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Workers building Cameron Valley in Alexandria circa early 1940s. Cameron was one of three wartime housing projects completed in Alexandria during WWII

For much of the post-WWII period, the tendency to describe housing as the provision of the private sector and as an inherent example of the value of free, unregulated markets  has proven pervasive. Writers like David Freund have compellingly deconstructed such arguments noting that in reality state and federal governments intervened into housing regularly.  “Postwar development politics helped convince a generation of whites that homeownership and neighborhood control rose above issues of class or party affiliation or even personal preference,” reflects Freund. Indeed in an era of “metropolitan fragmentation, restrictive zoning, and federal credit policy” that resegregated communities by race and wealth, white suburbanites engaged in local politics and public discourse that identified this “racial and socioeconomic segregation” as little more than the “impersonal” forces of the free market.[1]

Freund’s observations hold particular salience for WWII era metropolitan communities, which under the provisions of the Lanham Act, witnessed the construction of wartime government housing. Cities like San Diego added over 15,000 new units, Los Angeles nearly 9,000.  Metropolitan Washington proved no exception, adding vast numbers of wartime housing units.  Ultimately, though the units it created often lacked the durability and quality of longer-term quarters, the Lanham Act added 650,000 new units of housing.  Local municipalities and real estate interests often opposed or accepted the housing grudgingly.  Though intended to be eliminated after hostilities ceased, due to a national housing crunch and the Cold War, which necessitated further housing for America’s then largest-ever peacetime force, these projects often persisted either as Navy housing, municipal public housing, or a combination of both: it might operate under municipal authorities and provide low income housing for veterans and civilians, but also reserve a certain proportion of vacancies for local service families.

Often, the lifespan of these complexes revealed a great deal about the locales in which they were constructed. The collision of wartime and Cold War necessities and a postwar era that favored racialized suburbanization serve as a useful window into the persistence of race and class segregation.[2]  Today, Washington D.C. suburb Alexandria, VA – really an “independent city” of over 100,000 – might have a tony downtown area complete with the Torpedo Factory Art Center, but in the early 1940s it was little more than a small southern town. The original Torpedo Factory employed hundreds of war workers who required housing.  Chinquapin Village provided shelter for the families of war workers and service personnel and despite the efforts of new residents, native Alexandrians didn’t exactly welcome them.  Moreover, the Chinquapin Village’s history and eventual demise tells us a great deal about the influence of wartime housing and its relationship to postwar suburbanization.

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Chinquapin Village – between two grey areas, literally and figuratively

Alexandria, VA – Chinquapin Village 1945 – 1966

In 1940, the population of Alexandria, VA amounted to 33,523.  By the end of the decade it had nearly doubled to 61,787.  In Alexandria, the federal government created whole communities with its new housing. Between 1941 and 1943, the federal government constructed three separate housing projects: the Ramsey Homes (20 units), Chinquapin Village (300 units), and Cameron Valley (341 units).  Completed in 1943, Cameron Valley consisted of 341 units, making it the largest of the three. Unlike Ramsey and Chinquapin, residents working or serving at Fort Belvoir lived in Cameron.  Moreover, Cameron and Chinquapin were segregated for whites while Ramsey provided African American war workers quarters.[3]

For the next thirty years, Alexandria’s population grew. In many ways the WWII boom and the housing that Cameron Valley and Chinquapin Village brought to the town symbolized this change. “This was just a little Southern town, not terribly clean and exceptionally segregated,” remembered one former tenant and longtime Alexandria resident, “I think Chinquapin and probably Cameron Valley… helped Alexandria escape its ‘Southern Doldrums.’”[4]  Together, Cameron, Chinquapin, and the Ramsey Homes brought significant geographic and economic diversity to the southern town as residents hailed from all over the United States.  Moreover, far from ne’er-do-wells, residents, argued former Chinquapin resident Warthen Brice, exhibited a pervasive social mobility: “Remember, all the people that come here, as I said, were members of the working class. They come here to improve themselves . . . when you look back and then see the number who went on to college and graduated, and there are some out there with Ph.D.s now.”[5]  Yet, despite this up-by-the-bootstraps narrative, native Alexandrians did not always view the village so benignly, remembered former tenant Jerry Sare. “I guess they kinda thought we were not quite as good as the people who lived here—we weren’t from here,” he reflected years later. “[W]e were from every place else, but we weren’t from here. And that’s kinda what Alexandria was then. If you’re not—if you weren’t born here, you didn’t belong here. You could travel through, but don’t stay!”[6]

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City leaders expressed a marked reticence regarding the project, frequently reiterating the federal government’s promise to demolish the complex as soon as hostilities ceased. As early as late 1944, the Alexandria Planning Commission (APC) declared the town saturated with apartment buildings, notably in its northwest section where Chinquapin Valley was situated. As a result the commission submitted a new master plan that zoned away from apartments like Chinquapin Valley toward larger homes.  The commission and city manager maintained that children residing in row houses like those at Chinquapin proved more expensive to educate since tax revenues from these properties lagged behind larger homes. Instead, the commission suggested that older, larger homes be reclassified and converted into two family houses, which they argued service families preferred because it allowed for “greater privacy while keeping down expenses.”[7]  In promoting the new plan to Alexandrians, the APC openly admitted that it employed new zoning regulations to increase revenues, create more open space, and build a community with more residents like those of the city’s well-off Chapel Hill section. “The occupants are people who bring excellent tax returns to the city,” remarked APC member Edward Holland, who also noted that such homeowners also required “little service of the public welfare, and police type.”[8]  Real estate interests expressed a clear support for the new zoning initiatives, as did three of the city’s citizens’ associations.[9]  When the PHA looked to sell Chinquapin Village, Cameron Valley, and the Ramsey Homes as part of the required disposition of wartime housing, Mayor William T. Wilkins argued that none of the homes conformed with building codes and remained substandard.  Wilkins dismissed the idea of maintaining any of the wartime housing within Alexandria.[10] Still, rather than sell Chinquapin Village to the city outright, Navy officials and local leaders handed over management duties to Alexandria Housing Authority (AHA) but the property remained under PHA ownership.

Under the AHA, Chinquapin Village remained segregated but continued to house service families, defense workers, and veterans.  However, by the mid-1950s the PHA looked to unload such properties either to local authorities or to the Navy. In the case of Chinquapin, the PHA favored handing over the project to the Navy, which, as in San Diego and Hampton Roads, struggled to deliver quality housing to service families.

Unfortunately for the Navy, Alexandria officials, claiming such action would prove “detrimental to the community,” expressed a vociferous opposition to such development.   Despite the city’s clear reservations regarding Chinquapin Village in the 1940s, when threatened with losing the complex in 1955, Alexandria officials launched a campaign to keep it. In early June 1955, the city council, at the behest of the AHA, held an emergency closed session to discuss the crisis.[11]

The Alexandria Gazette, local officials and residents presented the conflict as one that threatened the well-being of Alexandria’s veterans, who along with service families made up the majority of tenants. City Councilman Frank Mann promised to fight the Navy’s attempt to take away the homes “of men who fought for their country and who have earned the right for a place in which to live.” Moreover, he argued, handing these units over to Navy families meant displacing “valuable workers” living in Chinquapin. Mann encouraged veteran groups to mount a protest and pointed out that the government owned too much property in Alexandria already.[12]

Officials enlisted the help of Senators Harry F. Byrd (D-VA) and A. Willis Robertson (D-VA) and Representative Broyhill (R-VA), all of whom joined in support of Alexandria’s efforts to retain Chinquapin Village.[13] At the same time, local veteran’s groups entered the debate arguing in favor of the city. Commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 609, J.J. Campbell advised the government to stop acting like a government executive board and cooperate with stockholders, meaning, presumably local Alexandrians. They argued that Chinquapin Village provided veterans with a decent home that otherwise would be out of financial reach.[14] Some struggled with disability, as one wife of a veteran noted that renting a one room unit for $40.50 in the private market “would be difficult.”[15]

Alexandria_map

Yet, while the city did need more affordable multi-family units and many veterans and service families in the area benefitted from Chinquapin, segregation remained the central issue. After all in 1952, the city doubled in size when it annexed over 7.6 square miles of Fairfax County.[16]  As it expanded, Alexandria sought to eliminate any possibility of housing projects like Chinquapin. The APC banned row houses, promoted single-family residences, and allowed for apartments in “strips along main highways.”[17] Thus it would seem that Chinquapin Village served as a reminder of the very housing the city hoped to eliminate or at least marginalize and limit. Though the Alexandria Gazette never mentioned the issue of race, throughout, the Washington Post drew readers’ attention to the issue. The paper ended a June 3, 1955 article noting that council members refused to discuss the debate that occurred at their closed door meeting, but the Post reported that “other informed sources” identified the “biracial use of the housing which the navy undoubtedly would follow” as the primary source of dispute.[18]

chinquapinunderaha

Nearly ten years later, Chinquapin still had not integrated but found itself at the heart of a new local controversy. “No community is more painfully conscious of social class than a suburban subdivision in the process of development,” commented the Washington Post in April 1964. “Each newcomer regards with suspicion the next house under construction down the block.  He finds himself regarding every quiver of change in the neighborhood as a threat to his investment . . .”[19] The Post editorial advised Alexandria’s leaders to dismantle “the class barrier” the city council had ordered built earlier that month.  The barrier, a line of telephone poles, separated Chinquapin from nearby new middle class housing developments. The paper argued that Chinquapin demonstrated that segregation did not end with race and rejected the council’s claims that the barrier operated as protection “against drag racing, littering, and ‘promiscuous parking.’” [20] “It is an invitation to mischief, it is an insult to people so visibly excluded from the good life, and it is bad for the people who hide behind it,” concluded the Post.[21] When vandals tore down the poles in early May, the city quickly replaced the barrier. While some Alexandrians came forward to support the council’s argument that the poles served as a safety measure, one year after the controversy, the city had begun relocating the 300 families residing in Chinquapin Village in order to make way for a park.[22] Though attempts were made to secure part of the Village for elderly public housing, the APC rejected the required zoning request after local citizen associations from Seminary Hills and Taylor Run protested.  A Seminary Hills spokesperson suggested the housing threatened to “destroy ‘the fine residential areas surrounding Chinquapin.’” The APC agreed, pointing out in its decision that the new project failed to align with the “residential, middle class neighborhood surrounding the site.”[23]

In the end, postwar growth doomed Chinquapin Village.  Though wartime industry and housing transformed Alexandria, municipal leaders and residents didn’t necessarily want to continue the relationship, especially in the face of a desegregated military. Cold War suburbia may have been built on a foreign policy of containment but in Alexandria few leaders wanted to house the very people who defended new subdivisions from Soviet invasion.


[1] David Freund, Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial  Politics in Suburban America, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pg 41.

[2] Particularly due to FHA rating tools employed in the 1930s to evaluate the value of housing in various neighborhoods, predictably any kind of minority or interracial presence led to diminished valuations.  Moreover, zoning laws and private covenants continued this practice at the state and local leve.

[3] “Alexandria Eyes Purchase of U.S. Housing Projects”, Washington Post, December 5, 1946.

[4] Jerry Sare, Interview with Jennifer Hembree and Pam Cressey, November 29, 2001.  Transcribed Jennifer Hembree. City of Alexandria Office of Historic Alexandria : Alexandria Legacies Oral History Program

[5] Warthen Brice, Interview with Jennifer Hembree,  8 November, 2001.  Transcribed Jennifer Hembree. Alexandria Legacies Oral History Program, City of Alexandria Office of Historic Alexandria, Alexandria, VA.

[6] Jerry Sare, Interview with Jennifer Hembree and Pam Cressey, 29 November, 2001.  Transcribed Jennifer Hembree. Alexandria Legacies Oral History Program, City of Alexandria Office of Historic Alexandria, Alexandria, VA.

[7] “Alexandria at Saturation in Apartments”, Washington Post, December 22, 1944, 3.

[8] “Alexandria’s Zoning Plan Well Received”, Washington Post, January 4, 1945, M4.

[9] Ibid, Holland presented his report to enthusiastic members of the North Ridge Citizen’s Association, the West End Citizens Association, and the Sixth Ward Citizens Association.

[10] “War Housing Units for Sale in Alexandria”, Washington Post, October 5, 1946, 5.

[11] “City Heads Refuse to Comment on Report about Chinquapin”, Alexandria Gazzette, June 3, 1955, 2; “Alexandria Gets Deadline on Housing”, Washington Post, June 3, 1955, 38.

[12] Ibid. “It has … been reported that Alexandria has lost much harbor business to Baltimore and Norfolk because of federal control of properties here,” Mann told the Alexandria Gazette.

[13]“City Heads Meet with Senator Byrd”,  Alexandria Gazette, June 6, 1955, 1; “Broyhill Says Chinquapin Deal Delayed”, Washington Post, June 25, 1955, 37.

[14] “Alexandria Sets Meetings on Housing”, Washington Post,  June 4, 1955, 19.

[15] “City Heads Refuse to Comment on Report about Chinquapin”, Alexandria Gazzette, June 3, 1955, 2; “City Heads Meet with Senator Byrd”, Alexandria Gazette, June 6, 1955, 1

[16] “Alexandria Takes over Area Won in Annexation”, Washington Post, January 1, 1952, B1.

[17] “Alexandria Tells Zoning for New Area”, Washington Post, B1;

[18] “Alexandria Gets Deadline on Housing”, Washington Post, June 3, 1955, 3.

[19] “Class Struggle”, Washington Post, April 28, 1964, A14.

[20] “Community Barrier Cut in Alexandria”, Washington Post,  May 10, 1964, B1.

[21] “Class Struggle”, Washington Post, April 28, 1964, A14

[22] “Group Asks Council to Probe Street Barrier in Alexandria”, Washington Post, May 25, 1964, B1; “Chinquapin Relocation Starts July 1”, Washington Post,  May 4, 1965, C2

[23] “Bid Denied on Project for Elderly”, Washington Post, May 17, 1969, D1;  “Alexandria Negro Quits Housing Agency Board”, Washington Post, October 14, 1969.

Comments

  1. Lisa Proffitt says:

    Is This The Only Picture That You Have Of These Houses Being Built…I Grew up here and the one picture that is posted my house is on the other end of the white house in your photo…Just wanted to see my old house….

    • Hello Lisa,
      Thanks for checking out the piece. Unfortunately, I don’t have any other pictures. I believe I pulled that photo from a local Alexandria newspaper. Though perhaps if you went down to the Alexandria library to special collections they might. Good luck

      rr

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