The 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?
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
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