Reviews | DC Should Help Preserve Adams Morgan Square
More than 50 community members gathered to honor Gonzales on April 30, creating a spontaneous memorial where he died. A few days later, the memorial left by friends and neighbors of photos, notes and memories was removed.
To understand, you have to un-erase part of the story.
In 1917 the city’s largest theatre, the Knickerbocker, was built on the site of the square, but in 1922 heavy snowfall caved in its roof on a full house, killing 98 people. Attempting to erase the tragedy, the theater owner ignored calls for a memorial and instead rebuilt and renamed it the Ambassador Theatre.
In 1954, while DC was still separate, the all-white John Quincy Adams School and the all-black Thomas P. Morgan School integrated, coining the name of our neighborhood.
By the late 1960s, the Ambassador Theater had become a multicultural center, hosting artists such as Jimi Hendrix. At this time, Adams Morgan was one-third black, Latino, and white, and its real estate was becoming desirable, but redlining still prevented minority residents from obtaining financing to own or improve homes. In 1969, a developer razed the Ambassador, leaving the site open to the sky, which housed a beloved farmers’ market. Residents successfully blocked plans for a gas station, and in 1976 the Perpetual Savings Bank purchased the site.
The community raised concerns and lengthy negotiations ensued. An early victory came when Perpetual’s president promised in a letter to 3,000 Adams Morgan residents to build the branch with open space for public use, but given Perpetual’s history of racist redlining, community leaders were unhappy. They painstakingly exposed his patterns of discrimination, eventually also securing a commitment to fair lending and bilingual banking services in the branch’s new charter.
Adams Morgan’s innovative approach—using racial equity financial research to compel a bank to respond to specific community needs—became the basis of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which addressed redlining at national scale. It became law eight weeks after the perpetual branch obtained its federal charter. The new branch was built with an open-air amphitheater style nod to the Knickerbocker and with a Latin American affairs police substation, which opened in early 1979. In September, the first Adams Morgan Festival Day with the square as the central stage attracted thousands of people.
Despite these successes, in the 1980s Reagan administration policies destroyed many local banks, including Perpetual, triggering a more historic wipeout: in 1991, Perpetual’s assets were sold to Crestar, known for its redlining . In 1998, Crestar was acquired by SunTrust, which between 2012 and 2014 paid $1.3 billion to settle three federal cases of discriminatory and abusive home lending practices against black and Latino borrowers.
In 2016, SunTrust announced plans to build luxury condos on the plaza, ignoring community objections. Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development filed a lawsuit to stop it, and SunTrust went to extraordinary legal lengths to avoid letting a jury decide.
In 2019, SunTrust merged with BB&T, and the new megabank rebranded itself as Truist, while pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into re-election campaigns for Trump supporters. Politically, he chose white power over black lives.
The Community Reinvestment Act helped the mother of Miguel Gonzales, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, access credit to buy her own Adams Morgan condo, where she lived with her son for nearly 50 years. Undocumented and without social security benefits, at age 80 she was lured into a predatory reverse mortgage. After his death in 2016, Gonzales lost the condo and began living there. Although the case regarding the public’s right to the plaza is still before the DC Court of Appeals, Truist has pushed the city over the past year to support its quest to erase our history and close the site, precipitating Gonzalez’s death.
City officials should now condemn Truist for his practices. Like Adams Morgan did in 1977, we must require banks to be community-minded to do business in our city. If Truist continues to disregard our needs, we should ask federal regulators to revoke its banking charter. Rather than erasing black and Latino lives and historic racial progress for luxury condos, the city should work with Truist to purchase the site, using eminent domain if necessary, so that we can honor those who died – both under the rubble of the Knickerbocker and under the weight of recent corporate violence. DC Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) supports the effort, saying Thursday, “The community is a place of shared spaces and the plaza is a popular and vital community hub. I look forward to fostering a resolution that preserves the square in some form.
To invigorate the heart of our community, the site could become an enhanced and actively programmed outdoor amphitheater with a Knickerbocker memorial, library, and resource center so that victims of economic violence can have their needs met, as Gonzales deserved. To create our future, rather than erasing our unique history, we must elevate it.