Lost in the City: An Exploration of Edward P. Jones's Short Fiction

Section 1: Washington, DC & Shifting Landscapes

By John Clayton Bryant & Michael Riojas

Edward P. Jones’s short stories create a parallel history situated throughout time by immersing his readers within numerous specific locales and communities across DC. Jones's work focuses on the people within the city, rather than the specific, general history. The range of his stories covers a period in DC when many changes were occurring within its Black communities: shifts in neighborhoods, identities, and the cultural landscape. Readers of Jones's works must understand that geography matters in these short stories because it reveals the temporal-spatial importance tied to the people in the stories. Many of the actual historical spaces in and around DC have changed, but Jones's geography remains locked within his short stories. A brief overview of DC's history will broaden the scope of the detail within Jones's DC. Since Jones focuses on Black communities and experiences in his short stories, this brief history follows the same scope from the 1900s onward.

In 1901, the Federal Government approved the McMillan Plan, adding spaces for the expansion and development of DC's parks and the National Mall. The detrimental effect of this plan revealed itself in the destruction of public housing that forced many residents out of their homes. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson reintroduced segregation within federal jobs like the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Post Office. Separate bathrooms, cafeterias, and offices outraged people of color throughout the United States and reignited national discussions about Jim Crow laws and civil rights. In the mid-twentieth century, major Supreme Court decisions like Bolling v. Sharpe and Brown v. Board of Education broke down the barrier of segregation in public schools. Bolling v. Sharpe began with a petition from a community of parents in Anacostia (SE Quadrant) and pushed DC's Board of Education to open John Phillip Sousa Junior High as an integrated school.

These cases led to the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This time period in DC saw the Black population grow to a majority. After the Civil Rights Movement, the Home Rule Act called for the election of a city council and a mayor. DC's first elected mayor Walter Washington, an African American man, pushed for an increase in the city's public transportation and housing authority budgets. Public transportation projects included the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which completed an underground subway system in 1976. DC's history and Jones's history exist in the same space; however, the differences lie in the storytelling.

With a difficult topic like gentrification, conversations end up including words like “revitalization,” “development,” and “poverty.” Jones's work participates in those conversations through a retelling of DC's past, although he does not mention gentrification at all in his short stories. In a 2003 interview with the Washington Post, Jones shared his vision for the DC he describes Lost in the City. “[P]eople have a very narrow idea of what Washington is like,” he says, “[t]hey don't know that it's a place of neighborhoods...and I set out to give a better picture of what the city is like—the other city.” The focus of Jones's works is the DC that exists to the people. Neighborhoods change frequently, and Jones's work is proof of the fluidity of the collective Black community.
Gentrification has changed many of DC's neighborhoods, introducing new problems for long-time residents. Anacostia and a small portion of the NE Quadrant are the only areas not yet feeling the full effects of gentrification. The effects include the following: population decrease among the Black majority from 72% to just under 50%; concentration of poverty in the SE and parts of the NE Quadrants; and finally, long time DC residents suffering from tax increases and other cost-of-living expenses that force them to move elsewhere. Gentrification is not the product of an imbalance between demographics (i.e., an increase in white population); it is the product of an imbalance in priorities shared by those in power.

Jones's works stand as a collective identity described in neighborhoods, in families, and in individuals. When a community disappears from sight, it is likely reformed elsewhere. Jones's work implies the fluidity of the collective Black identity through the experiences of the characters. Whether dislocated or relocated, the characters still end up in DC. Chapters 4 and 5 will illustrate the meaning that certain characters' experiences hold for the formation (and re-formation) of the collective Black identity.
Through time, DC stands as the center for historic changes, both socially and geographically. Exploring the works of other African American writers, the details contained within the stories are social, cultural, and geographical. Jones's works are no different. Both Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children include detailed locations and addresses that assist the reader in immersing themselves within the communities of that time period. 

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