On The Rapid Gentrification of DC

Ben's Next DoorThe New York Times recently published another take on gentrification in DC, focusing on the U and H street corridors:

[R]ace and class issues often overlap, and as the city’s demographics shift — the white population jumped by 31 percent in the past decade, while the black population declined by 11 percent — many less affluent blacks say they are feeling left out of the city’s improving fortunes. In April, the Census Bureau reported that Ward 8, in the city’s mostly poor and black southeast, had the highest jobless rate in the country.

“Change is good, but it kind of kicks some of us to the back of the bus,” said Shirley Parnell, a Department of Motor Vehicles worker who recently inherited her mother’s house near H Street, which came with $11,000 in back taxes. […]

The Rev. Cheryl J. Sanders, the pastor at the Third Street Church of God, in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, argues that race is important, particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods like hers. Her plan to raze buildings on church property to make room for more parking was blocked by her local neighborhood council in a vote that was divided evenly along racial lines. Blacks voted in favor of the church, long the social heart of the black community, and whites, concerned with preservation, opposed it. City preservation authorities later struck a compromise.

At stake, Ms. Sanders said, is the face of the nation’s capital and who gets to shape it. That privilege has special meaning here in Washington, whose black-majority government has given jobs to African-Americans and a way into a middle class that they had long been shut out of.

“It’s a question of who has the power to determine what this community is going to look like,” she said. “I want to have a voice in that. I don’t want to be told to ‘sit down and shut up while we cast the vision for the city.’ ”

Sanders hit the nail on the head. The vision of the city is essentially being dictated to longtime residents from outside interests – or, worse, from the folks who have settled here while Obama is in office, and don’t see DC as home. The newer visions for the city are heavily cosmetic and heavily skewed to a younger, moneyed class – which is causing tensions. As we’ve spoken about gentrification many times before (see the links at the bottom of the article) and that tough bridge dividing long time residents and the new development.

It’s easier to like things like new establishments, nicer streets, rising property values and many lifers understand why it’s important to woo a larger tax base. But it’s hard to like changes that just feel straight up exclusionary.

In my neighborhood, the people who live there are a pretty much even mix of blacks, whites, and Latinos. Slightly heavier on the blacks and Latinos, since those are the populations who have historically lived in the area. Recently, the white population started coming here, from both inside and outside of the city, due to revitalization efforts. Now, my neighborhood is considered trendy and is a hot spot for people from other parts of the city.

Some people have argued all of this represents progress – but it’s a little strange that the mini-entertainment district that has opened up caters to white people from other areas of the city than the people in the neighborhood. We often see our neighbors on the street, walking by all these establishments, while the patios on said establishments are predominantly white. I suppose many of the neighborhood folks are all just walking down to the surrounding areas for our entertainment. And it’s odd how things tipped – like many things in DC, the segregation is quiet. It isn’t as if shopkeepers are putting up whites only signs on the doors. It’s just in the early forumlative days of a new place you see the whole neighborhood giving it a try, but somehow, the main clienteles always segregate in the end. Boyfriend often jokes that if he wants to go to one of the bars up the street, and be treated like other patrons, he has to wear his work clothes, not his casual ones. But its odd to walk past these establishments each and every day and not feel like there’s a great new thing in the neighborhood, but rather, it’s a signal of the type of city that others want to see.

U street is a beautiful kind of case study on this, and I wish I had done that photo project I said I would do three years back. Three years ago, U street was bearing the fruits of its revitalization projects. The place was always popping, and there were a lot of different scenes clustered in the same place. I noticed then, the bars my white friends invited me to (Axis, Stetsons) were not the same as the places I went to hang out (Jin, Tabaq, Creme, Mocha Hut), but there were still places that prompted crossover (Busboys, Marvin) so the demographics on U – and further up and down, were still fairly mixed.

Now, U Street reminds me a lot of Georgetown. It’s changed from being the casual hangout space it once was – most places now desire reservations. The coffee shop politics are interesting – the Starbucks is a hangout space for all, but heavily skews black. The Mocha Hut was sold, and the demographics changed once it became The U Street Cafe. There was a failed coffee shop on 14th and U, taking a page from Tryst’s worn sofas and armchairs, which was popular among whites for a while – could never figure out what appealed about that coffee shop versus Mocha Hut. A lot of the spoken word nights have gone, though Busboys still does theirs – at a higher price, and far more popular than it used to be. And there are more and more establishments that attract white people, so the streets look different. Outside of Patty Boom Boom (and perhaps Masa 14) many of the new establishments have settled into predominantly white clienteles, while African American patrons have gone much further up U street to 9th to eke out space. The burgeoning Ethiopian population – once growing into a powerful political force – has again receded, moving further and further into the suburbs. Ben’s Chilli Bowl, another mixed race hangout spot, opened Ben’s Next Door – and immediately reshuffled into a new black hangout. One of these days, I’ll try to document this in real time – but for now, it’s just a strange part of this ever evolving puzzle.

You can even see some of this tension on Yelp. What kind of experience does one expect at a carryout?

Screengrab calling people ghetto
Screen grab 2
Screen grab 3

The trouble with gentrification is that we are carving out enclaves for ourselves instead of truly integrating. It isn’t about building a community – it’s a turf war, with much higher stakes.

When I walk down Mt. Pleasant Street, I love what I see there. Family owned bakeries, tiny Korean restaurants, long time community spot Haydee’s with their stubborn insistence on live music, the temporary library, street vendors selling chilled fruit, the always packed and popping 7-11 – that whole area just looks like DC. It’s a mix of people and cultures, new and old, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural. Those of us who like seeing that don’t want it to change too much. But already, small changes have happened.

Nana, a boutique I liked on U street, moved to Mount Pleasant Street, probably in search of the lower rent that comes with a non marquee area. And next door to Nana, a chill cafe called Flying Fish has opened where a multiracial group of young digital kids go to get work done. I love both these places – but does their coming signal an end to the way of life that I’ve come to love? It isn’t the fault specifically of small businesses like Flying Fish and Nana, who are just looking to survive in a city whose rents are spiraling out of control, both business and residential. I don’t think the owners of these shops moved to Mt. Pleasant to deliberately change the fabric of the neighborhood. In fact, they probably came for the same reasons I did: slightly cheaper cost of living, diverse area, walkability, convenience. And yet, this is one of the costs of gentrification, to feel like every new first is symbolic of the beginning of the end. So far, most of the businesses on Mt. Pleasant street have managed to cater to most of the neighborhood. I keep wondering if that will stay – or if one day, the change will happen – and it will all start rolling out of control again.

Over the weekend, Boyfriend wanted to go out and walk around the changing waterfront. A new tennis stadium has opened up and he wanted to look at the changes to the Arena stage. We decided to start with dinner at the Wharf, a vestige of old DC. When we pulled in, the lot was packed full of black and brown people starting their Friday night with shrimp, crabs, and chicken. I stood there, looking at the appealing seafood set against a grimy backdrop. A few women waiting in line started bouncing to the go-go tune playing from the fishmonger’s stand. The area was busy, crammed full the way Market Lunch is on Saturday and Sunday. But everyone was polite in that genteel kinda way, comfortable with each other and where we were.

“This feels like old DC,” I said to my Boyfriend.

We paid for the crabs and sat by the predominantly white Yacht Club (roughly 15 yards from where we bought our food) and settled in on the public benches, looking out over the water. The folks on the porch politely leaned over to warn us they were going to fire their canon, as they traditionally do every Friday at Sunset. We warned the other people on the path to cover their ears. The canon exploded into the night. Couples and families of all races strolled by, some on their way to Phillips, some just taking a walk, others seeking benches like ours.

Everything was calm. Everything was easy.

We can all coexist together.

But question that arises with gentrification is a simple, yet painful one: Do we all want to be together?


The Gentrification Shuffle
The Gentrification Shuffle, Redux: Rebranding Anacostia
Gentrification has Nothing to Do with White Hipsters
More Notes on Gentrification
Another Perspective on Gentrification
I Colonize

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  • Jaq281

    As a white flight instigator for the overwhelming lot of my life, I think a fairer and more honest question is do white folks want to live among (a plurality of) black folks and POC?  My experiences (along with empirical data) indicates otherwise.

  • Jaq281

    As a white flight instigator for the overwhelming lot of my life, I think a fairer and more honest question is do white folks want to live among (a plurality of) black folks and POC?  My experiences (along with empirical data) indicates otherwise.

  • Pingback: links for 2011-07-24 « Embololalia()

  • BSK

    I always felt like the police had a major impact on neighborhoods.  I remember hanging out in Adams Morgan, where there was always a mix of patrons (though not necessarily residents) and types of establishments.  There were the black lounges, the white lounges, the black dives, the white dives, and the few bars where everyone mixed.  What always stood out to me, and ultimately made me come to revile the neighborhood, was how the police treated the different groups.  My friends and I (20-something white males) could run rampant, running through traffic, singing really loud, sitting on stoops… basically anything we wanted.  The most we got was a friendly, “Move along, guys.”  Contrast that with the treatment of young black men.  A black guy leaning against a telephone pole eating a jumbo slice was suddenly surrounded by cops and harassed about loitering.  Seriously?

    I don’t know the history of AdMo, but I could see how that type of treatment could make folks of color uncomfortable in and ultimately avoid an area.  And my hunch is the cops are acting at the request of white folks, either directly or indirectly.  I haven’t quite seen this on U Street, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it next.  My friends who have moved there in the past year already complain about the supposedly unsavory parts of the neighborhood.  “I really LOVE U Street but it’s still so dangerous!”  First off, no it’s not.  Second off, you are primarily uncomfortable because you moved into a predominantly (or what was once predominantly) brown neighborhood and you are uncomfortable with brown people; sorry, not much sympathy there.  The ignorance is a huge issue and rather than confront that, they look for protections from the police and government, putting pressure on political leaders to crack down and making the area shift beyond unwelcome to brown folks to downright hostile.

  • Yes

    It’s important to distinguish between ‘outside forces’ and the kind of demographic changes that most big cities in the US are undergoing now.  A whole lot of us young white people grew up in cookie-cutter suburbs and want nothing to do with that.  We’re moving to the cities because we want to be closer to work and closer to nightlife and shopping and the kind of stuff that only cities have. 

    Also, and I’m going to be really really honest here, we white folks were brought up to be scared of black neighborhoods.  Our parents would roll up the windows and tell us to stop staring and be still.  A hangover from the ’68 riots or something, maybe.  At some point we realized that was stupid and we decided not to be afraid of black people and black neighborhoods anymore.  I can remember the first time walking home to Columbia Heights from the 9:30 Club and recognizing that it was pretty safe.  It’s a liberating feeling to know that you can live where you want to live.   I’d be good with everyone feeling like this.

    I don’t mean to be glib, but I did want to let you know how it feels from the other side of the fence.

    • DC Native

      We only hear about it from your side.  Washington City Paper?  DCist?  Come on.

      It’s nice that you now feel safe in the neighborhoods you abandoned.  Funny how you created the completely unsustainable suburbs to get away from us, and now that your generation is on a green kick, you move back.  Admit, though, that whether it is your goal or not, “progress” in DC, as defined by gentrifiers, does not include black people.

      I can tell you, as a DC Native (of Columbia Heights, no less) how devastating it is to know that people view you and your kind as people who need to leave.  Devastating, not liberating.  And I do mean to be glib, because you have no idea how terrible it feels.

      • NCGirl

        i get this, but i also think that it’s kind of unfair to say we as a WHOLE ‘created the completely unsustainable suburbs’. 1st of all, white is not the same as rich. i am not under any delusion… i probably had it easier growing up white in america as opposed to the multitude of alternatives (although my great grandparents did NOT have it easy growing up irish in america, thats a whole ‘nother story). that’s the reality we were faced with and it sucks and we’re all trying to change it.

         i also grew up downtown. my gramma grew up a poor farmer in the great depression, and my other gramma had to feed her kids spam for dinner because she was a teacher and they don’t make much. my dad is a musician for christ sakes. my family was never wealthy and i never lived in the ‘burbs. why should i have to have done so when i moved to DC? because that’s what all the other white people do? i didn’t pick my apartment because it was ‘trendy’, i searched affordable places to live and columbia heights was the neighborhood i came up with. cuz i can’t AFFORD to live anywhere but the neighborhoods that are predominantly black/hispanic, or as i like to call them the places where ‘real people live’. folks. families. natives. and i honestly wouldnt want to. and it sucks for me, too, that they’re becoming more expensive. to say that seeing white faces in the neighborhood is a bad thing is equally as disgusting a comment as people who say (in the context of the immigration discussion) that seeing more hispanic faces in their neighborhood is a bad thing. and yes, equally as disgusting as if the roles were switched and your friends in the suburbs said that seeing more black faces in their neighborhood is a bad thing (i’m not saying that doesn’t happen either). what would be great is if we saw all kinds of faces in all kinds of neighborhoods because on some level it would mean that we have succeeded. to do this we need to find a way for people in downtown dc to not be pushed out— but welcoming new people INTO your neighborhood should be a good thing. where i grew up, in Raleigh NC, we get a lot of people coming in from the northeast USA. they mostly live in outskirts. we presume they don’t like having to interact with many of us dirty southerners in the areas already settled so they build their own isolated subdivisions. lately they’ve been moving into the ‘hip’ areas of the city as well (aka the historic downtown area i grew up in). to say that there haven’t been tensions between natives and ‘yankees’ would be a lie. now that i’m older i realize for all the talk about the damn yanks ruining our city, those are the kids i went to school with and they’re my friends along with the southern ones. they’re the reason i was more exposed to other cultures. My best friends in middle school were from India. My family is baptist and presbyterian but i went to 5 bar and bat mitzvas because of my NYC friends. the more i think about it from this reversed context, the more i realize it’s not an issue of the color of faces you see in a neighborhood. we’re not all like “oh those jews and italians, what’re they doing here why won’t they leave us to our WASPiness”. we ALL need to get over that bullshit, because the makeup of EVERYWHERE changes constantly and if we don’t get used to it we’ll get left behind. the bad guy shouldnt be the changing racial makeup of the city. the bad guys are ALL the people without the neighborhood’s interests at heart. the people just looking to make a buck and forsake everyone who calls those places ‘home’. the white college kids and 20 somethings who maybe have their first kid who move into the neighborhood? they’re just folks, too y’all! its the developers that are dickwads. my mom sold real estate for a time being and said that she never advises people to ‘over improve’ because it raises property values way too much on the houses in the neighborhood and makes it harder for everyone to sell and for the target families to afford to move in. that’s the thought process of someone concerned with a neighborhood. but some developers don’t care about tearing down all kinds of shit and changing the face of a neighborhood on a dime to sell to someone more willing to shell out the big bucks. it does suck that people are being forced out of the place they’ve called home because of unlivable housing costs. i hate it. the way cities can change is a little bit scary to look at if you’re at the shit end of the stick. but RACIALLY segregating ourselves yet again to fight this isnt the right way.  

        • DC Native

          I appreciate the working class white narrative as much as anyone.  Honestly, I think it’s a very important part of US history, and I feel for those of you who are ignored by your educated, coastal elite cousins.

          However.  This isn’t really about “you” as an individual.  This is about the collective “you”.  Yes, you are an Irish NC Native with a wonderful history, but you have moved into my neighborhood, and in regards to gentrification/colonialism, you act as a collective, whether you perceive things that was or not.  Each white individual moving in generally means one more black person moving out.  And I know it’s not as straight forward as that.  I am not suggesting you all come in with small pox blankets and Starbucks and fuck everything up (nor am I suggesting this is genocide).  I’m saying that the end game here is for this city to be less black.  Read DCist and tell me there aren’t people who literally view blacks in DC as a counter to “progress”.  Whatever that means.

          And I bring up progress, because many of the issues in this city have been framed as white-“liberal”-queer vs. black-“conservative”-homophobic.  It’s suggested that blacks deserve to lose the homes they built, the cities they built, because of our monolothic conservativism and homophobia.  And as a black queer who is from NW, I can’t emphasize how racist and outright wrong that perception is.  Perhaps someone with your background can relate to being a white liberal scapegoat.  Maybe.

          What can an individual white person do to ease gentrification?  I don’t know.  I don’t think you can “do” anything.  Why should you not serve your best interest at the expense of others?  All Americans do, after all.  You want to live near the metro.  You want the urban experience.  You want to be able to bike to work, or live near a dive bar, or live in a walkable neighborhood.  You, you, you.  Meanwhile, blacks are being pushed away from these relatively new whims of yours.  So, yeah, I understand, but I am far from sympathetic.  We all make decisions, and you made yours.

          • What should “we”do?

            DC Native – so what do you suggest a younger, white DC native like myself should do when I’m able to afford a home?  Most DC neighborhoods where I wouldn’t be considered a “gentrifier” I will NEVER be able to afford.  Being lower-middle class means that I am priced out of most of the city.   

            You lump all white people in DC together and assume you know their motives for buying homes in certain neighborhoods and yet you missed a big reason – it’s the only areas that some of us can afford.  

            I’m not trying to bring in bike lanes, live near a metro or push anyone else out.  I’m just trying to achieve something that most people try to: becoming a homeowner.  But according to your logic I should feel guilty and do what?  Rent for the rest of my life?  Leave the city where I grew up and where my family lives?  Save up and hope that someday I can pay $500,000 for a 1 bedroom apartment in a neighborhood that is “white enough” for you to feel ok about it?

  • Msalg01

    I think this article is SO true.  I lived in the DC area until 2009 and came back this summer for an internship.  I went to U Street and was shocked at the very obvious difference in the people roaming the streets now vs. in 2009.  I can not believe how quickly the neighborhood has changed.  I met some people living in the area and they raved about a cute sandwich shop that was located in a gas station so I figured I’d give it a try.  The sandwiches were like 15 dollars!! In a gas station!! I immediately thought, U St. has changed for sure, and I am not sure I like it … sorry.

  • Wanderinglady123

    I lived in DC from 1989 to 1996.  I haven’t been back to visit in eight years, but will be going next month.  Something tells me that I will be very surprised…

  • Anonymous

    “It isn’t as if shopkeepers are putting up whites only signs on the doors.”
    When Duffy’s opened on Vermont a couple years ago, they had a sign outside the bar saying “We Welcome Howard students.” Perhaps they were trying to woo apprehensive Howard students and indirectly, Black folk, but my initial thought when I saw the sign was “they don’t welcome us.” After a few months, the sign was taken down. 

    • Cob

      it what way are you not welcomed? i always see howard students in there.

  • Kris

    Spent my Friday night showing off the new H St to old friends (also urrrea natives) who hadn’t been there yet. Our minds were blown. In between all the new faux-dive bars, real dive bars, fusion restaurants, hipster clubs, etc… there was one teeny spot (a holdout from “old DC”) with a sign advertising bean pies in the window. My heart was warmed. That said, there were tons of other young black professionals w/ disposable income in all the places we saw. The change coming to these old established neighborhoods isn’t just from new moneyed white folks. I think this conversation has so many overlapping layers. But that still doesn’t make it any less weird sometimes for those of us who have grown up and lived here our entire lives.

    • Anonymous

      Interesting. I don’t spend lots of time on H, U switched over from an everyone spot to a some people spot really quick. I think the downtown area, near Mt Vernon is also an interesting mix of displacement from a young brown creative class. I haven’t really put together the intradisplacement analysis, in terms of older blue collar workers and younger creative class workers, but I will write on that eventually.

      But yeah it’s so strange. Things just flipped – and flipped fast. This wasn’t like Wheaton’s slow burn in becoming an ethnic enclave for a bunch of different groups. So it’s weird.

      • MJ

        H st. seems even more segregated from the rest of the neighborhood to me than the other nightlife spots in DC  — it seems almost airlifted in, actually.  But in general, I think that DC has more integration in its entertainment districts than I’ve seen in other cities I know (Philly, NYC, SF).  U street may be changing, but it’s always going to be a Howard University zone in addition to whatever else comes.  Adams Morgan will always have a mix.  Up in Columbia Heights, Wonderland is really white, but everyone goes to Target. 

        At the end of the day, I like Mt. Pleasant best, though! 

  • Annie

    Your post sounded just like when old, white people are reminiscing of the good ol’ days.

    • Anonymous

      Good old days, when? Because if these new days are any indication, people of color won’t be welcome in common areas of DC.

      • Annie

        You’re agonizing over the arrival of White people, they were agonizing over the arrival of Brown people.

        • Anonymous

          It’s not as simple as white people, writ large. There are lots of different types of white people in DC. A prime example is Adrian Fenty’s loss – he was widely tipped to have the “new DC” or “young” vote (both of which were code for white new comers) but he didn’t. White people in DC aren’t a monolithic block any more than black people are. I noted that my neighborhood is black, white, and Latino. There are white people that are just as glad for that diverse mix as I am. But, again, there are newcomers, from different parts of the city that don’t like this diversity and would prefer a predominantly white DC. And they’ve made it clear through participation in neighborhood meetings, on Yelp, and on local blogs that they’d be completely fine with an all white city.

          I suggest you read ALL of the articles I linked to below, to get a better sense on what parts of gentrification I object to – it’s the displacement of people (poor and middle class) in favor of a wealthy moneyed class. White people are part of DCs fabric as well.

          Most people aren’t worried that Chocolate City is becoming Rainbow Sprinkle city. They are worried that gentrification is intentionally courting white people from other areas as a way to replace the populations here. (See also the article on the gentrification of Chinatown to see why that is a concern: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/maintaining-culture-in-a-dwindling-chinatown/2011/07/09/gIQAuJye7H_gallery.html)

  • J.D.

    FWIW, I live in Mount Pleasant as well, and find that I get a lot of flack from upper-middle class white neighbors for buying my produce from local grocery stores rather than supporting the farmers markets.

  • Liz

    You make some great points here and you have obviously put a lot of thought into this. I think it makes sense to talk about how you feel and how you perceive this change, because it is very personal and experiential. One question/point- you mention areas that are “longtime” or “historic” black or Hispanic neighborhoods, but I think it’s important to remember that that would probably mean since the ’70’s, in most places (though I don’t know for each particular neighborhood). If you look at DC census data, there’s a shift between the 1950 census (about 518,000 white and 281,000 black) and the 1970 census (about 209,000 white and 538,000 black), presumably due to the desegregation of schools. The city population has shifted in many ways. You seem wistful about the changes in the city- do you see any major positives? Do you think it’s possible for a balance to be achieved between cultures, races, and classes, or does one group always push another group out? Thanks for initiating this kind of conversation about the city.

    • Anonymous

      Post-segregation shifts in population are a little different than the ones we are seeing now, and that would be a whole other post. (Essentially, migration to the suburbs as a haven for whites after segregation ended was that idea, and now city living is considered popular again.)

      I don’t have problems with organic shifts in population – that’s part of life. But a rapid shift, like the three years on U Street? That’s outside forces.

      Positives? Yes and no. It’s nice to have grocery stores here – there was about a 10 year gap where there weren’t. I wish they had handled the bike thing differently, but it’s great to see people opting for greener transit options. Less crime is always welcome, but the curfews and harassment that come with that aren’t. So yes there are positives, but there are a lot of things being sacrificed.

      Can balance be achieved? I think so, but only when it’s intentional. Articles used to remark on the unusual diversity of Silver Spring, but that was by design. The implications of the decisions that people are making aren’t looking at how they will impact demographics, they are just looking at dollar signs. And that’s the problem.

    • sistah

      Do you know that Georgetown and Foggy Bottom used to be “historic” black neighborhoods??  Your comment implies that there were not historically black areas before the 1970’s.. .. My mother grew up in these once segregated neighborhoods.  If you are new to the DC area, you might be ignorant about the demographic shifts and it’s history.  I am sad at the loss of Chocolate City.  DC has been a unique and special place for the African American community.