Derek Hyra and Kojo Nnamdi at Busboys and Poets
Derek Hyra and Kojo Nnamdi at Busboys and Poets

Kojo Nnamdi and Derek Hyra talked gentrification last night before a packed crowd at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V Streets NW.

A professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs, Hyra has just published a book about the gentrification of U Street and the surrounding neighborhood. Nnamdi, of WAMU, interviewed Hyra about his book, which is the result of a six-year immersive research project.

More than 100 people attended, and the staff of Busboys and Poets were forced to turn several people away at the door before the talk on Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City even began. The conversation was broadcast throughout the café for those who didn’t make it on time, and anyone else who happened to be dining or book shopping.

Early in the program, Nnamdi asked Hyra what the corner just outside the restaurant would have looked like three decades ago. Hyra said that it would have been an open-air drug market. Today, on Saturdays, the same area supports a farmer’s market. U Street was also a majority-black neighborhood 30 years ago whereas today it’s mixed-race but majority white.

Hyra, who is white, said that he used the word “cappuccino” in the book’s title to describe how that racial makeup evolved. The frothy milk of the cappuccino represents the millennials who poured (and are still pouring) into the city. Millennials couldn’t afford to live in the most affluent areas of D.C., but they could afford to be on the edges of U Street and H Street—historically black downtown neighborhoods. As the milk pours in, it displaces the espresso. In real terms: Incoming white people dilute black political power. Furthermore, D.C.’s black leaders accomplished a great deal for U Street. Hyra pointed to their leading role in getting Metro stations at Shaw and U Street. He also noted that black churches—not federal housing programs—secured affordable housing for the neighborhood after the 1968 riots.

He explained that the neighborhood’s black history dates back to before the Civil War, when African-American scholars began studying and teaching at Howard University, and that long before it was a drug market, it was an intellectual stronghold. That history is posted on historic signs throughout the neighborhood.

But the place has visibly changed. Hyra told the story of talking with the owner of a nearby liquor store who had decided to stop selling 40s. Hyra asked him why, speculating that it was because of a recent D.C. law restricting their sale. But the store owner said no, he’d stopped selling 40s a few years before because he was tired of seeing young white men in sunglasses walk into his store, buy 40s, and then say they were on their way to “‘hood parties.”

Chapter one of the book is titled: “Making the Gilded Ghetto: Welcome to 14th Street.” It’s worth a read.