Solar energy is often billed as a “technology of the future” and seen as a new-fangled approach to powering our cities. While the technology itself is pretty cool, the ways in which its being used by citizens isn’t always that revolutionary. This is particularly true in the Deanwood neighborhood in Northeast DC, where owning solar has replaced owning property as an effective means for economic self-determination.
After the Civil War, Deanwood was one of a limited number of places in the area where African Americans could own homes and buy property. Property ownership allowed individuals to have economic self-determination and exert greater control over their future. Deanwood was home to residential properties, a small commercial district and the “Suburban Gardens Amusement Park,” a place where DC’s African American community could host weddings, christenings, graduations and other celebrations. The community thrived and became an agrarian suburb, attracting families who have lived in Deanwood for generations.
This thriving community also supported the emergence of a number of influential individuals: Pittsburgh engineer and architect, H. D. Woodson worked as an architectural engineer and was the architect of many homes in Deanwood and other DC neighborhoods; civil, educational and labor rights champion Nannie Helen Burroughs built her National Training School for Women and Girls in Deanwood in 1910.
The latter half of the 20th century, unfortunately, saw a long economic decline in the neighborhood. Today, there is no longer a bank, pharmacy or homestyle sit-down restaurant in Deanwood. And, while many longtime families still remain, the community has seen an exodus of residents’ children, who have settled elsewhere where they can find jobs and economic opportunities. Deanwood’s rate of vacant and abandoned housing stands at almost 15%, one of the highest in DC and double the city’s average. Like many urban communities, Deanwood was also affected by the crack epidemic of the 1980’s.
Recently, though, Deanwood residents have established a solar coop and are working to grow their reach throughout the ward. The idea for a Ward 7 coop emerged after a few Deanwood residents learned about the success of other solar coops in the District and wanted to bring the benefits of solar to their neighborhood. The group began to host meetings and eventually elected Dr. Daanen Strachan as the group’s president. In June, the coop hosted a big Solar Fair attended by local businesses, organizations, community members and council reps.
While it would seem like solar is an odd match for a struggling community, solar is actually one tool for residents to take control of their energy production. Owning or leasing solar panels means residents are producing their own power, at a rate that is lower than Pepco’s (the local energy supplier). That means money back in their pockets and greater opportunities economic self-determination.
In some ways owning solar today is somewhat like owning land back when Deanwood was established. Solar panels allow residents to have ownership and control over the means for energy production, just as land ownership provided Deanwood residents with the greater opportunity for economic self-determination in the 1870s and beyond.
Solar technology is new and flashy, but it is being used in ways that that aren’t all that unique. Obviously solar coops are not single-handedly going to solve all of Deanwoods economic challenges, but residents have found that generating their own power is one tool in a larger struggle to revive their community.