It’s a store. It’s a parcel of property. It’s not some kind of magical place. There are no magical places. There’s just dirt. It’s all the same dirt.
-Michael, If I Forget
In If I Forget, the Fischer family grapples with the future of a building they own in Tenleytown, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. about five miles northwest of downtown. The town was named for John Tennally, who owned a tavern in the area in the 1790s. It remained a small, rural community until the American Civil War, when its status as the highest point in the District made it a natural choice for the location of Fort Pennsylvania (later renamed Fort Reno) and Union soldiers sent to protect the city.
After the Civil War, a neighborhood called Reno City developed around the site of Fort Reno. Reno City was a mixed-race, working-class neighborhood. 75% of the population was African- American, and 25% was white. In 1890, a streetcar line connecting the area with downtown Washington began service, and middle-class white families began moving to the areas around Tenleytown. In the 1920s, parts of Reno City were condemned and seized by the government to make way for a new middle school, high school, park, and water tower.
Midcentury, Tenleytown was part of a commercial and residential area with a suburban vibe. Washington’s first Sears and Roebuck department store opened there in 1941. That year, Washington, D.C.’s demographics were about what they’d always been: roughly 70% white, 30% black. But that changed in 1954, when public schools were desegregated. White families moved to the suburbs in response; by 1960, the city was 53% black. In 1970, 71% of D.C. residents were black.
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, riots erupted in Washington, D.C. and several other cities, a result of years of frustration with systemic racism that led to discrimination in employment, education, the criminal justice system, housing, and access to services. The riots destroyed 900 stores and decimated the city’s black business districts.
While Tenleytown wasn’t damaged in the riots, the city as a whole struggled to recover. The total population dropped 15% from 1970 to 1980, and it continued dropping through 2000. Both white and black residents fled the area.
But by 2000-2001, when If I Forget takes place, money and young residents are returning to the nation’s capitol, part of a national shift in residential living patterns. Immigrants and their children, like the Jimenez family, are also settling in American cities and contributing to their revitalization. Between 2000 and 2015, the city gained over 100,000 residents. Today, the population is 43% White, 49% Black, 10% Hispanic or Latino, 4% Asian, 0.6% Native American, and 2.6% other. Tenleytown has had a spike in property values: a building in Tenleytown today is worth 60% more than it was in 2000.
If I Forget is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, If I Forget, Upstage