by Latoya Peterson
“Gentrification is coming,” says Morgan, “and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
What’s the difference between East of the River and River East? According to a March 3rd article in the Washington City Paper, it depends on who you are.
Anacostia is located in South East, DC, made notorious for high levels of crime in violence in the 1990s. The area, currently 92% black and one of the most impoverished areas in DC, is often referred to by its residents as “East of the River.” This stands in contrast to the area of North West referred to as “West of the Park,” which holds a high concentration of wealth. Longtime residents often use those two descriptors to explain the flow of class and politics around DC. Those East of the River tend to get the short end of the stick, with horrible support from the city government. Those West of the Park receive all the benefits privilege can afford.
So, when new residents began to flock to the promise of cheap housing and convenient access to downtown Washington, they decided that the old image of Anacostia was ultimately detrimental to the neighborhood:
[T]here’s a constituency of folks who don’t like what “east of the river” connotes, and they’ve created an organization in part to address the matter. Members of “River East Emerging Leaders”—note the lower-case, hipoisie-appeasing acronym “r.e.e.l.”—have a new name for the place they call home. For these people, it’s “River East.” The rationale for the appellation comes straight from r.e.e.l.’s Web site: “Many committee members recalled conversations with friends or news stories characterizing ‘East of the River’ as dirty, dangerous, crime-ridden and poor. ‘River East’ was a new way to rebrand the area and inspire a sense of pride.”
Older residents fear that being “rebranded” is a way to remove them from the neighborhood. And their fears are well founded – often, projects to improve older neighborhoods tend to displace the lifelong residents there, in favor of wealthier entrants. And those who have stood with the neighborhood throughout the tumultuous history of DC find themselves pushed out, often to the increasingly abandoned suburbs and exburbs, or forced to live with the few relatives who managed to maintain their housing. And one resident quoted in the City Paper explains that the name serves a very distinct purpose:
Barbara Dewey, who was born and raised in Ward 8’s Barry Farm, says, “By trying to change the name, everything that happened years and years ago will be forgotten, it will start anew. Why? We don’t want to lose the history of Anacostia.”
Using the terms “East of the River” and “West of the Park” have become a form of social commentary, with each utterance calling attention to the disparities present in the capitol city of the United States. These geographic boundaries are also demographic boundaries and they symbolize the long legacy of segregation and neglect in DC. However, those trying to lend a new type of cache to South East believe the renaming will attract more new residents and eventually turn into the neighborhood they desire.
“We need diversity,” says LaShaun Smith, author of the blog Southeast Socialite. She was born in Southeast, grew up in Prince George’s County, and moved back to the District in 2007. “It’s nothing wrong with it being a predominantly black neighborhood, but we need other people to come in.” If those people take root, she says, so will new businesses. “We could keep it the same, but the whole city is going through this change,” she says.
And for Smith, the change would optimally involve some ordnance detonated on iconic Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. “I would love a bomb to come through and just blow the whole street up, because it looks terrible,” she says. “It looks awful. The whole street, and just rebuild anew. The whole street looks terrible.”
LaShaun Smith is African-American. While a lot of gentrification stories in Washington DC fall along color lines, the story of Wards 7 and 8 are ones of class and expectations. While Smith vocalizes many of the shared hopes of Anacostia residents about revitalizing the area, she is also a proponent of gentrification.
The property at 523-525 Mellon Street SE was the Wilson Courts Apartments until 2004. Now, it’s vacant, dingy, and drab. Last year, the building was bought by So Others Might Eat—a homeless service provider that plans to turn the building into transitional housing.
“I would rather the building be vacant than for So Others Might Eat to come in,” says LaShaun Smith. “We have a very high proportion of group homes, transitional housing. Our neighborhood should not be the dumping ground for all of D.C.”
“They want it to be condos,” says [Darrell Gaston, community organizer.] “What’s wrong with using your own money to build transitional housing for people who need help? We don’t need more condos for new people to push people out.”
The debate over SOME is about more than just one property.
“You can’t just concentrate low-income people in one area and expect that area to thrive,” says Susan Kennedy. “I think there needs to be more variety. I think I need to see a better mix, whether it’s single-family homes, or apartment rentals, or condos.”
Commissioner and organizer Tijwanna Phillips looks at these claims skeptically. As she tells the WCP:
“Each time someone talks about development,” says Phillips, “it’s only to let us know that affordable housing is going to continue to diminish in Ward 8 as well.” In a ward with a median household income of $34,651, the sprouting of $550,000 condos doesn’t spark universal excitement.
Affordable housing and rising property taxes are a major issue to DC residents, who find themselves more and more constrained each year. In areas of heavy gentrification (like Columbia Heights) many residents who own their homes are struggling to keep up with tax payments to the city, and newly enforced ordinance codes. Washington DC is changing, quickly and violently. And while the backdrop of the fight for Anacostia is a story of class, both class and race continue to loom prominently as the city transitions.