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So, you’re gentrifying the nation’s capital! Congratulations.
In moving into Washington at this juncture of history, you’ve joined a long, proud tradition. New Deal liberals, Great Society dreamers, and Clinton-era wonks all helped transform the various District neighborhoods they called home.
But here in the Obama era, your generation of gentrifiers has become a force far stronger than any prior class of arriviste. In the most recent 18-month period cited by the U.S. Census Bureau, pokey old D.C. has grown more than any state, adding 2.7 percent to a population that not so long ago was shrinking reliably. That population bump is equal to half of the total growth in the previous ten years.
And, according to Uncle Sam, some three-quarters of the newcomers were in what vendors of up-market dessert products, vintage furniture, and digitally-enabled transportation services know as the demographically attractive 18-to-34 year old range.
Or, as the crankier of your new neighbors might put it: myopic little twits.
Perhaps you didn’t know this before you plunked down some actuarially unsound multiple of your household income on that gorgeous-but-tattered rowhouse in the middle of some forlorn-but-improving block, but in buying into Washington, you’ve bought into the single greatest divide in local politics.
On one side: enthusiastic residents who know that an influx of comparatively affluent newbies adds up to the critical mass required to support the kinds of commercial amenities—little restaurants in Petworth, big Whole Foods stores in Logan Circle—for which they used to have to travel to the suburbs, or entirely different cities. On the other: wary residents who worry that you’ll either price them out of their homes or reshape D.C. around a lifestyle they never signed up for.
In the middle: the leadership of a local government that went bust two decades ago and knows that growing the tax base is the key to avoiding a repeat—but also has to answer to voters freaked out by the prospect of losing their beloved old D.C. Adding to the confusion, those voters hardly see eye to eye on what constitutes a gentrifier, or on which specific changes they oppose. The contradictors list includes higher prices, more bars, nocturnal noise, architectural density, too many bikes, too little parking, dogs, excessively whiny newcomers, insufficiently community-spirited newcomers, and snowball fights.
Oh, and because this is the District of Columbia, there’s also race. In a town that has known slavery and legal segregation as well as block-busting and political disenfranchisement, it lies just beneath the surface of any conversation.
But here’s the thing: While some politicians may demagogue demographic change—and others refuse to acknowledge it for fear of offending either their new constituents or their old ones—it’s actually pretty hard to blame or credit individual residents for the city’s transformations. You don’t have to be a hardcore Marxist to know that people’s residential choices are a function of vast economic forces like interest rates, incomes, suburban commute times, gasoline prices, and so on. The desire of some experimentally bearded liberal-arts grad to bicycle out in search of a late-night local beer is a pretty puny factor by comparison.
Local government, currently, isn’t all that much more powerful. Sure, there are public policy fixes that could reduce the real estate pressure on some residents—or incentives to pull even more people into the city. But absent significant interventions that carry their own consequences, most of the things elected officialdom could do to slow gentrification is stuff no one wants: Crime could soar again, or schools could get even worse. Those changes, of course, would hurt existing residents way more than up-market house-hunters.
Still, just because we’re all being blown about by the hot breath of global capitalism doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of interpersonal agita along the way. The minor collisions that coincide with the city’s ongoing evolution represent a master narrative of 21st-century Washington. Did you hear about the clueless guy who offered to pay his new neighbors when they helped push his car out of the snow? Did you read about the short-sighted Advisory Neighborhood Commission NIMBYs who rejected the liquor-license application of a nice new café that had taken over a space once occupied by a bullet-proofed liquor store? Have you heard proponents of raising the city’s building height limit dismissed as people who hate D.C.—or opponents of the idea lampooned as oldsters stuck in the District’s sleepy southern past?
Of course you have.
Is there any way to avoid all this unpleasantness? Most real people, in fact, want about the same thing from their neighborhoods: affordability, safety, cleanliness, some stuff to buy and eat, and an easy way to get around. Our definitions of these things may vary. But one question that comes up repeatedly in Washington is what ethical onus lies with you, the newcomer. Must you defer regularly to prevailing neighborhood norms? Given that you’re now just as much of a resident as the old-timer next door, can you push back without guilt? It’s complicated! Below, some efforts to answer the question.
About a year before DCUSA opened in Columbia Heights, I was a sociology undergrad dispatched to D.C. to conduct an ethnography on gentrifiers in wards 1 and 2. I had recently wrapped up several months of research on Washington’s history of race and class segregation, and I came to D.C. with an armload of dense, seething books on social stratification, half-expecting to encounter people dancing on the grave of Marion Barry’s D.C.
That’s not what I got. I interviewed educated, middle-class residents—black, white, and Latino—who were hip to skyrocketing rents. They knew that D.C.’s poorest residents were being tossed over the District line with startling alacrity; they nodded empathetically. Violent crime was down, but racial tensions were high; pawn shops were out, boutiques in. They got that.
They just didn’t think it was their responsibility.
There’s an old joke that in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the gentrifier is the guy who moves in two weeks after you. In 2007, nearly every resident I spoke to expressed a variant on that idea: That gentrifiers were, specifically, “suburban” types who looked, thought, and consumed a particular way. Describing the gentrifiers of Shaw and Lincoln Park, two participants independently referred to blonde women pushing strollers. It made me wonder who the stroller-pushing blonde women thought the real gentrifiers were. Erecting straw men—wealthy, powerful people who could turn D.C. into one big Pier 1 Imports with the flip of a Rolodex—seemed to reassure recent transplants that they weren’t unwelcome in their new neighborhoods. There was always someone richer or whiter on the horizon.
Some folks thought that “belongingness” could be purchased or earned, like stamps on a frequent-buyer card. One new Columbia Heights homeowner told me he sometimes dined at the “dirty little” Chinese restaurant near his home because it was his way of “keep[ing] the old Columbia Heights alive.” Others thought they had to get jumped first. A longtime Shaw homeowner said that, back in the early ‘80s, he earned his stripes when he was mugged by a group of teens in Thomas Circle. “I deserved to lose my gold watch,” he said. “I wasn’t street smart… But I wisened up. I haven’t been jumped since 1982.” To him, that terrifying night doubled as a kind of hazing ceremony.
One young, white, anarchist type said he was frustrated that other people didn’t understand him: He didn’t mean to be a gentrifier, but his whiteness was confusing people. “It’s really hard to exist in a city and convince people of color, though I have friends of color, that you’re not, or at least aspire…to not be a gentrifier,” he said.
Does anyone aspire to be a gentrifier, or does it just happen? Would gentrification be so fraught if white, middle-class newcomers could only prove their good intentions to black and Latino people? Do good intentions matter at all?
Probably not. All comments seemed to miss the point: that gentrification is a systemic and complex process in which they played a minor part. Some gentrifiers were more proactive than others—they volunteered, blogged, petitioned, organized, and made friends with their neighbors. But they were hung up on the politics of belonging. Then, just like now, talk of Big-Picture Things, like public policy or the overall health and stability of neighborhoods, is too often reduced to chatter about blonde women, strollers, and Chinese takeout.
Anacostia: (noun) Small neighborhood in the Southeast quadrant, roughly bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Good Hope Road, 16th Street, and Maple View Place. Not to be used to refer to the two wards and dozens of neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, no matter how many people who live west of the river think they’re all the same.
Bamma: (noun) One who is tacky, tasteless, and poorly yet flashily dressed. A show-off and a clown. See also: Trifling, ratchet. (adj. Bammafied)
Black Broadway, the: (noun) U Street NW when Duke Ellington used to perform—but before his name adorned a pricey condo building.
Lunchin’: (verb) Spaced out, lacking presence of mind, sometimes due to a drug induced state.
Native Washingtonian: (noun) One who was born and raised in the District, preferably with several generations of native-Washingtonian forebears. Other uses: As a cudgel against newcomers to community meetings and fora.
Plan, the: A belief held by many long-time residents that there is a structural plan to move blacks out of D.C. and replace them with whites. You’re part of it.
Twit, myopic little: (noun) Socially networked Adrian Fenty supporter new to D.C. who spends more time on Twitter than talking to their veteran neighbors. Also: Someone who Courtland Milloy has not interviewed.
Saditty: (adj.) Stuck up.
Sleepy Southern Town: (noun) What Washington was at some time prior to when the person using the term first arrived.
Streetcars: (1) Overpriced way to work for people who don’t have cars; (2) A sign of progress in walkability and urban sustainability; (3) (alt.) a way to implement the Plan.
Ward 9: (noun) Prince George’s County. Referred to as Ward 9 because of the large numbers of native Washingtonians who relocate there from the District.
What do residents actually want out of their neighbors? Believe it or not, the pesky newcomers and stubborn long-timers have fairly similar requirements for the people they’d like to live around.
We talked to residents of the 100 block of Bates Street NW in Truxton Circle, and those hanging out a few blocks away at Bloomingdale’s Big Bear Café.
MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS
Name: Sharon Manning
In neighborhood for: “Several years”
“They should mind their own business—noise, parties, music, they call the cops. Maybe they need a man or something so they can mind their own business.” But Manning adds that she’d like neighbors that look out for each other, too.
Name: “Tricky” Rick Reid
In neighborhood for: “All my life”
“I’m a bad neighbor gone good. Growth and patience taught me to be a good neighbor.” Reid, who claims to be the self-appointed mayor of Bates Street, relays this advice: “Be yourself. If you’re jerk, you get jerked off.”
Name: Laura Westman
In neighborhood for: Three years
“My neighbors are super-friendly. I went to [George Washington University], where people are always going to work, and it took awhile to understand people here are being genuinely nice and don’t have an ulterior motive.” Westman relays that her next-door neighbor passed along some leftovers after she lauded his cooking skills.
Name: Hellen Papavizas
In neighborhood for: Nearly a year
“A couple of things: Respect for your neighbors, awareness, appreciation, sense of community….I love the neighborhood. [My neighbors] seem to look out for one another too. If they notice things, they give us a heads-up.” Papavizas adds that when she moved in last summer, she “was practically met by a welcoming committee.”
Name: Christina Samuels
In neighborhood for: Four years
“Quiet and clean. That’s about it: clean and quiet, and courteous and mindful; someone that can watch the house when you’re out of town.” Samuels’ immaculate front garden apparently inspired some friendly competition: “I started cleaning up the yard and all of a sudden they did it, and they did it, and now it’s like a battle on the block!”
Name: Ronald Herring
In neighborhood for: “Grew up here”
“I speak to everyone…there’s different lifestyles but you’ve got to respect people. I miss the block parties. Now people sit on their stoops but the whole street doesn’t get together.” Herring adds that it bothers him when neighbors don’t say hello in passing.
KEEP TO YOURSELF
Name: Janice Kyle
In neighborhood for: 16 years
“I don’t know any of my neighbors. I don’t want to…I go to work and go home.” Though Kyle’s been in the neighborhood for some time, she prefers to keep to herself.
Name: Amanda Johnson
In neighborhood for: Two years
“I’m not friends with the people next door, but I see my second-floor neighbor often. We’re working on a garden together. I think general friendliness and the willing to make shared spaces more awesome are important.” Johnson doesn’t see many of her other neighbors out and about, but if she did, she’d “definitely say hello.”
Name: Michael Snook
In neighborhood for: “I haven’t been there too long.”
“I don’t generally end up forming bonds with people because we’re not the same age or into the same things, but it’s nice to be able to say hello.” Though Snook doesn’t necessarily hang out with his neighbors, he feels welcome on his Petworth street.
What ANC do I live in?
There are eight wards in D.C. Each one is represented by a councilmember and broken down into Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, which are further subdivided into single-member districts. To find out in which you’re located, go to D.C. Citizen Atlas. Type in your address. Click on the generated report. Under the “Administrative” tab, there’s a line item called “ANC.” (The number preceding the letter indicates what ward you live in.)
What’s an ANC, anyway?
As the city’s website says, “The Advisory Neighborhood Commissions consider a wide range of policies and programs affecting their neighborhoods, including traffic, parking, recreation, street improvements, liquor licenses, zoning, economic development, police protection, sanitation and trash collection, and the District’s annual budget….The ANCs are the body of government with the closest official ties to the people in a neighborhood.” So monthly ANC meetings are basically a clearinghouse for all those nitpicky little annoyances that come up in your immediate surroundings—like that nightclub whose bass is thumping too loudly into the night, or the overzealous ticketing by the city’s parking enforcement.
Do I have a neighborhood association?
Maybe. There’s no recently updated central listing of neighborhood associations, so your best bet is to Google “[your neighborhood] + neighborhood association.” Many neighborhood associations have strong online presences; some put on events to raise money, like the Logan Circle Community Association’s annual holiday house tour.
Why is a neighborhood association not an ANC?
ANCs were created as part of the Home Rule charter, so they’re required by law to exist (and, generally, to meet monthly). They’re also funded in part by the D.C. government and staffed by elected officials; candidates for ANC office run for election, just like councilmembers. Neighborhood associations are less formal bodies, which is why not every neighborhood may have one. However, some have membership requirements, like applications and dues.
How to I show my support—or disgust!—for a new business?
Show up to a meeting and tell the people there to represent you how you feel (or send an email, or make a phone call). ANCs can make recommendations to city departments like the Office of Planning or the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration that carry “great weight”—that is, an ANC doesn’t get to say “yes” or “no” to the new restaurant with locally sourced arugula and sidewalk seating, but it can influence the agencies that do. Neighborhood associations don’t have the same kind of clout because they’re not government bodies, but they can still issue statements that might influence people at the top.
There’s trash in my alley. What do I do?
If it’s in your alley, then it’s most likely the responsibility of the Department of Public Works (which “collects trash once or twice per week from single-family residences and residential buildings with three or fewer living units”). Information on all kinds of trash collection can be found on DPW’s website, under the “Sanitation Services” tab on the left. For big items—like the potentially bedbug-ridden mattress your neighbor wants to junk—call 311 to schedule an appointment for bulk trash pickup. Appointments are typically available within seven to 10 days.
What do I need to do to plan a block party?
Permits, alas, once needed to go through the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency—a regulatory maze. But effective this past Monday, block-party permissions will be available through the city transportation department’s Online Permit System, just like every other public-space permit in the city. Applicants still need to obtain consent of 51 percent of the households on the block; the party can’t exceed two intersecting streets, among other things.
The situation: You are a white newcomer on a block that’s been majority-black. One snowy morning, you see a neighbor is shoveling the sidewalk in front of the house across the street from his own. You’d like to have your own sidewalk shoveled, too.
A) Ask him how much he would charge to shovel your sidewalk
B) Shovel your own sidewalk
The Gentricist says: Use your eyes! According to a piece the man in question subsequently published in the Washington Post, he was wearing a $500 Polo jacket—something that doesn’t suggest he was looking to earn a few extra bucks via shoveling. Also, if you’d gotten to know your block in the first place, you might have learned that the sidewalk belonged to a “little old lady” the man was helping out.
Verdict: Newbie, be neighborly!
The situation: You are a prominent political consultant currently working on a citywide election campaign. You have been asked by a newspaper reporter to describe the electorate’s changing demographics.
A) Mouth some platitude about unity and diversity
B) Deride the newcomers as people who only care about “doggie parks and bike lanes.”
The Gentricist says: Do the math! It’s going to be hard for any politician to not fire someone for conspicuously dissing a large chunk of potential voters. Besides, it’s a stupid statement, anyway: With a few minutes’ worth of conversation with your new fellow Washingtonians, you’d learn that most newcomers want the same thing as most native-born residents: Safe streets, a decent government, and basic amenities.
Verdict: Oldster, get real!
The situation: You are a real estate developer building an upscale apartment building in the U Street NW corridor, an area once known as America’s Black Broadway due to the prevalence of African-American cultural venues. Though you know most of the residents are likely to be whites, this heritage is the area’s strongest selling point.
A) Go ahead and name your building after a leading light of jazz
B) Give it some bland, culturally nondescript name.
The Gentricist says: It depends! Calling your building The Ellington, like the one at 1301 U Street, sounds kinda classy, and represents a respectful—if Cosby Show-esque—embrace of tradition. On the other hand, naming the planned structure at the corner of 14th Street The Louis (and offering a too-cute explanation that its namesakes include both Louis Armstrong and Louis XIV) is kinda douchey.
Verdict: Developer, be careful!
Title: A Neighborhood That Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity
By: Japonica Brown-Saracino
Gentrification is…: “…An economic and social process whereby private capital (real estate firms, developers) and individual homeowners and renters reinvest in fiscally neglected neighborhoods (or towns) through housing rehabilitation, loft conversion, and the construction of new housing.”
Review: How some cities realized their process of transition was not identical to that of others.
Title: From Despair to Hope: HOPE VI and the New Promise of Public Housing in America’s Cities
By: Henry G. Cisneros and Lora Engdahl, editors
Gentrification is…: “Implicit in the notion of moving from segregated, dysfunctional public housing projects to mixed-income neighborhoods was the hope—not the fear—of an improved environment, neighborhoods that were safer and richer in social capital. Some displacement was inevitable…”
Review: How cities in transition learned to stop worrying and love federal government subsidies.
Title: House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America’s Urban Neighborhoods
By: Alexander von Hoffman
Gentrification is…: “…Nothing new; middle-class newcomers have been elevating the tone of old neighborhoods since the early twentieth century….Starting in the 1960s, young single people and couples, many of whom were homosexual, began occupying and painstakingly restoring historic buildings, often nineteenth-century row houses, with stoops and bow fronts, high ceilings, and elegantly crafted woodwork….By the end of the century, the new urban gentry had all but taken over the old neighborhoods, and any remaining poor blacks or Latinos held on in small pockets and subsidized housing projects.”
Review: How cities in transition learned to stop worrying and love community-based revitalization efforts.
Title: The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City
By: Neil Smith
Gentrification is…: “…The process, I would begin, by which poor and working-class neighborhoods in the inner city are refurbished via an influx of private capital and middle-class homebuyers and renters—neighborhoods that had previously experienced disinvestment and a middle-class exodus.”
Review: How cities in transition realized the Plan is an international truth.
Title: There Goes the ’Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up
By: Lance Freeman
Gentrification is…: “Gentrification has been depicted as the manifestation of changing cultural, demographic, and economic circumstances among the new middle class, and elsewhere it has been described as representing the bourgeoisie’s revenge on the underclass of the inner city.”
Review: How Harlem realized that its long-term residents were more than mere victims of a city in transition.
Title: Turf Wars: Discourse, Diversity, and the Politics of Place
Author: Gabriella Gahlia Modan
Gentrification is…: “Briefly put…the ‘upscaling’ of a neighborhood. It is a process whereby poor neighborhoods with well-built but generally rundown housing stock gain new, comparatively more well-off residents. This results in individual and commercial housing rehabilitation and investment, which drives up real estate prices and displaces the original, poorer residents who cannot afford increased rent or property taxes.” Correction: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misquoted this definition.
Review: How Mount Pleasant realized that language barriers in neighborhoods in transition are more complicated than bars hawking craft brews.