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If you ask Aisha Moore about gentrification, her first inclination is to scoff.
Moore, a black resident of Congress Heights, says her Ward 8 street is “100 percent black” and that’s not likely to change soon.
“Nobody leaves,” she jokes. “On my block, if new people bought a house, it’s because an old lady died.”
Yet Moore isn’t from D.C. and has only lived in the city since 2002, after she finished an undergraduate degree at the University of California at Berkeley. In 2004, her boyfriend bought a house in Congress Heights and she moved in with him in 2009.
Which, by every metric except one—skin color—makes her as much of a gentrifier as the young white residents unloading moving vans near U Street NW every weekend. As we talk, Moore says she’s frustrated by the dozens of stories that feature handwringing over D.C. becoming “less black,” because they paint an incomplete picture.
“I get it, in terms of numbers, but it’s annoying. The story over here, east of the river, is all about black gentrification,” she says. “Black people are moving back to Anacostia and the Congress Heights area.”
Moore, who grew up in Los Angeles, suggests that since most black Americans were raised in metropolitan areas, perhaps there’s a natural inclination to live in cities. She adds that her neighborhood is seeing a return of young black professionals who were either born in the city or have family in D.C.
“There are different types of people here, but that doesn’t water down the chocolate,” she says, with a laugh.
Just how watered down the District’s chocolate is getting has been a subject of considerable worry over the last decade. The capital city that inspired a Parliament album a generation ago might not do the same now; within the next few years, demographers expect, D.C. won’t be majority black anymore.
When I moved here last summer, all I could see were the changes in my neighborhood. I’d attended Howard University from 2002 to 2006, and while I knew that the city was where I wanted to stay, I got a job in New Jersey and worked there for a few years.
It was pure luck that when I made it back, I found a house for rent in LeDroit Park, right around the corner from my old dorm. The change that had occurred in four short years was stark.
To put it bluntly: There were white people, everywhere. Now, they trek between Bloomingdale and U Street NW by way of the busy intersection of Georgia and Florida avenues, where just nine years prior, it was a place where black college students butted up against unemployed brothers lingering on corners.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise. The shift was happening even when I was in school, and it was quite noticeable then. A college friend noted at some point between freshman and senior year—after 2003, when Magic Johnson opened a Starbucks connected to the Howard University Bookstore on Georgia Avenue as part of a community development program called “Urban Coffee Opportunities”—that there were, as she put it, “just more white people around.”
Johnson sold his shares in the UCO program to Starbucks last year, and company CEO Howard Schultz bragged in a press release: “Together we opened several successful locations, including our Harlem store, which led the redevelopment of that now vibrant neighborhood.” While the Georgia Avenue store may not have helped economic development on that strip—there seem to be as many, if not more, empty storefronts as there were in 2003—it became a pretty reliable place to find white people on an otherwise largely black stretch.
White professionals and hipsters trickled in, slowly, visible even through the bubble of being a black college student, surrounded by 10,000 other black college students, in a largely black neighborhood, in a mostly black city. By 2004, they were regularly spotted making their way to and from the Shaw–Howard University Metrorail station. And by the time I graduated, white people were jogging up 4th Street NW through the campus, and walking their large dogs on the green lawn of Howard’s Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library—something longtime black residents never did.
The change was disconcerting, in a way.
More disconcerting, though, is that five years later, I walk my own large dog on the library’s green lawn.
The story of the black gentrifier, at least from this black gentrifier’s perspective, is often a story about being simultaneously invisible and self-conscious. The conversation about the phenomenon remains a strict narrative of young whites displacing blacks who have lived here for generations. But a young black gentrifier gets lumped in with both groups, often depending on what she’s wearing and where she’s drinking. She is always aware of that fact.
For neighborhoods where it suddenly feels like white people are “everywhere,” the U.S. Census Bureau says the vast majority of residents in LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale (and Petworth, and Brookland) are still black—more than 80 percent of the residents in some gentrifying census tracts in a 2009 estimate.
Perhaps that’s because just as “black people” is a proxy term for poor people in D.C., “white people” is a proxy term for the young professionals who have moved in—and neither term is being accurately used.
The proportion of black folks in my neighborhood of LeDroit Park remains higher than the average black population in the city, around 70 or 80 percent in some census tracts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey three-year estimates, the black population in D.C. dropped from 56.4 percent to 54.2 percent between 2005 and 2009. Despite breathless accounts of D.C.’s changing demographics, that’s actually not all that much of a dip. And maybe concerns about that dip are beside the point.
D.C. has been largely insulated from the recession. The number of families below the poverty line has actually decreased in the last three years. The Washington metro area has less than 6 percent unemployment, compared to the nation’s roughly 9 percent jobless rate, putting it 29th in the Bureau of Labor Statistics list of metropolitan area unemployment rates. (In contrast, my hometown of Stockton, Calif., has 18 percent unemployment, placing it about five slots from the bottom of the list, at 368th.)
Wages have also risen for non-family households—like the group houses many city newcomers share with strangers or friends to save on rent.
Or perhaps it’s a chicken-or-egg situation. The metro area’s high marks on the American Human Development Project’s well-being report are tempered by signs that the rising tide isn’t really lifting all boats. Blacks in D.C. have the shortest life expectancy of black people in any metropolitan area, extraordinarily high infant mortality rates, and some of the lowest rates of education. Unemployment in parts of Ward 7 and Ward 8 is more than 20 percent, as anyone who listened to the constant debate in last year’s mayoral campaign over whether gentrification is actually good for the city may recall.
The well-being report’s co-author, Sarah Burd-Sharps, told The Washington Post that D.C. is “a place that attracts people with high levels of education to high-paying jobs.” What seems like a rising tide is really just a case of averages getting skewed toward the higher end of the scale by those of us who arrived here degreed and prepared to work high-skill, high-paying (well, perhaps not if you’re a journalist) jobs.
Simply put, for some of us, the Washington metro area is one of the best places to move to in the country. For the rest, not so much. Newcomers to D.C. of any race tend to arrive for the same kind of high-powered jobs, the kind of jobs you can’t get without education and social capital. The people who are already struggling to find work when newcomers get here, though, are likely to be black.
It should go without saying, but often doesn’t, that regardless of race, newcomers end up in LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale for the same reasons. Rents are relatively cheap and the neighborhood is close to a Metrorail station and bus lines, and is within walking distance of U Street NW’s commercial corridor and downtown employment.
Monica Potts moved to D.C. from Connecticut in January 2010 for work. “I didn’t think a lot about the character of the neighborhoods or the history, because I didn’t know any of it,” she says. Like most people moving to town, Potts says she was focused on getting a good apartment for a reasonable rate, and that other neighborhoods she looked at—like Columbia Heights—were either too expensive or not as nice as the place she settled on.
Potts, who is white, ended up moving into an English basement, on a quiet, tree-lined block in Bloomingdale. She estimates the homeowners on the block come down in a 50-50 percent black-white split, but that nearly everyone “rents out their basements. There are a lot of black homeowners renting to white people.”
Like Potts, Alicia Williams, a black surgical resident from Virginia, moved to Bloomingdale for the low rent when she started her medical internship, mostly unaware of the neighborhood’s history and dynamics. “I just found a really good Craigslist deal for a top-floor apartment that was brand new,” she says.
If you poll newcomers to Bloomingdale on why they chose the neighborhood, it’s likely you’ll get answers similar to Potts’ and Williams’. Small wonder: It’s one of the last affordable, transit-accessible residential neighborhoods that’s close to employment, entertainment, and amenities that are clustered in Ward 1 and Ward 2.
Aisha Moore, the Congress Heights resident, previously lived in Mount Pleasant, the U Street NW corridor, and briefly, Bloomingdale. She says she just kept pushing boundaries.
“When I first moved here [to Mount Pleasant],” Moore says, “people told me not to go past Georgia [Avenue]. When I went past Georgia, they told me not to go east of the river.”
But she didn’t listen, noting that none of those neighborhoods were “as bad as people said.” The biggest downside? She says her friends tease her for living so far away.
Decker Ngongang moved to Columbia Heights in 2008 after leaving investment banking to work at a youth-focused non-profit. He says he recognizes what’s happening in the city because he saw it happen when he was growing up in Charlotte, N.C.
“I went to predominately African American schools, in the downtown Charlotte area,” says Ngongang, who is black. “I was able to see gentrification happening there. You saw the neighborhoods and the projects getting re-zoned and bulldozed to build condo towers.”
Still, Ngongang thinks that kind of turnover is to be expected. “You can’t really knock it, because anybody would want to buy something cheap and sell it for more.”
It’s funny that he says “anybody,” since the story that gets told most often is about an influx of whites taking advantage of low rents and high wages, displacing solid black communities that have occupied territory for generations. Yet black people of means—who certainly fit the category of “anybody”—do the same.
While D.C.’s black majority has never controlled the city’s wealth, a strong black middle class developed during the middle of the last century thanks to federal government hiring. Although these positions were rarely high-level ones, they were dependable jobs with benefits—something hard to come by for people who were often the children of sharecroppers—and they’re what some of us still laughingly refer to as “good gub’mint jobs.”
At some point, though, things changed. Crack cocaine hit D.C. and many black people with money—like most people with money would—headed to the suburbs. Those who couldn’t leave, and those who stayed to fight, had a ravaged city to contend with. This is the story we know.
But now, living in the city is cool again, thanks in no small part to development incentivized by government investment. And because we live in a “nation of cowards” (as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder put it) where perhaps the only thing harder to talk about than race is class, it’s unsurprising that worries about gentrification boil down to white versus black, instead of educated and privileged versus uneducated and underserved.
That’s not to say that what we talk about when we talk about gentrification has nothing to do with race. The opposite is clearly true. White people don’t just “happen” to be better off, in general, than blacks. There’s systemic injustice that’s obviously based in racism. But instead of using that knowledge to spark a discussion about larger societal issues, there’s just pearl-clutching aplenty about the color of the new faces in the neighborhood.
“Gentrifier” can’t be equated with “white person.” After all, most poor people in this country are white (though it’s definitely a numbers game; whites are still less likely to be poor than blacks and Latinos—there are just more of them). The gentrifier is a person of privilege, and even if she doesn’t have much money, she’s got an education and a network of friends who are striving like she is, and she has the resources to at least try to get what she wants.
I moved into my home near Howard University, a three-bedroom semi-detached rowhouse that I share with two other journalists, sight-unseen. Google Maps revealed that it was spitting distance from my old dorm, which tickled and worried me at the same time.
A couple of months later, after hearing of an armed robbery at the LeDroit Park Market on 4th Street NW, I joined the local neighborhood e-mail message board. (The market closed for renovations shortly thereafter, but never re-opened.) The list became a reliable source of information about crime in the neighborhood, yet it seemed to be actively used mainly by white residents—though perhaps there were some black lurkers like me.
In November, between the car robberies, a couple of burglaries—including the burglary of the house of a white friend of mine—and a mugging or two, it wasn’t uncommon to see an e-mail fly across the list, copied to Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier: “Residents of Ledroit Park are being terrorized in broad daylight. There has been an increase in car break ins, physical attacks, and robberies. This situation is beyond untenable I implore you and the commander to increase police presence at all hours. Residents are enraged, livid and afraid some solutions must be found starting with arrests and convictions.”
There weren’t many arrests and fewer convictions, but there was an increase in police presence, and the spike in crime dipped shortly after, in December.
That run of crime, however, revealed to me what may be the biggest gift of the black gentrifier: The ability to fly under the radar. While it can be frustrating to be ignored in conversations about neighborhoods in transition, there’s one major upside. Black gentrifiers typically don’t feel unsafe in our neighborhoods, despite reports of muggings and property crime.
It’s hard, though, to decide whether that feeling is born of naïveté or if it’s grounded in something real. That is, being black, when one is new to a black neighborhood, may be emboldening. Perhaps it’s an extension of how Black Men of a Certain Age will often greet one another when passing on the street, whether they know each other or not; perhaps it’s that feeling of being part of a larger black whole, left over from the 1970s, of being in this—what’s quickly becoming a poorly defined space—together.
Williams says that despite having her car broken into once in Bloomingdale, she never felt unsafe. “It was probably just ignorance, but I remember hearing [through the local e-mail message board] about this group of teenagers that was terrorizing people as they walked around, but either I never saw them, or if I did, they didn’t bother me.”
While MPD’s 3rd District, which includes my neighborhood, has the highest rates of robbery in the city, I feel no more wary in LeDroit Park than I do in Georgetown or Foggy Bottom. It’s not possible to get victim stats broken down by race, though the public outrage meter suggests that in LeDroit and Bloomingdale, it’s not black neighbors getting mugged. But what may be equally likely is that fewer of those black neighbors are tweeting about it, or notifying the neighborhood blogs, or posting outraged messages to e-mail boards.
Ngongang says the local kids in Columbia Heights call him “‘Big nigga on a bike,’ because I’m the only black dude riding around on a bike.”
He recently stopped to talk to some of those kids, and they showed a stunning self-awareness. They told him, “[White people] should know we don’t fuck with them. We mess with each other.” Ngongang adds, “The fact that a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old understands the cultural dynamics is pretty amazing. They know the cops will shut down this block if a white girl got shot or killed.”
Ngongang judges gentrification in Columbia Heights by a deceptively simple metric: “You can tell by the willingness certain people have to walk around late at night,” he says.
Describing one night on Sherman Avenue when an intoxicated white woman was walking at 3 a.m. with her iPod earbuds in, Ngongang says he guesses that the line of demarcation between “safe” Columbia Heights and “the ‘hood” had shifted from 11th Street NW to Sherman Avenue during the last two years.
The District has changed fast enough in the last few years that even a short time away can leave a neighborhood looking different. Chris Wallace, who grew up in Upper Northwest and Near Northeast, graduated from high school in 1999 and attended Southern University in Louisiana, and those years away from home opened his eyes to changes.
“I’d come home from school and ask ‘when they build that?’” Wallace says, referring to shiny new luxury condos or stores or restaurants.
He returned to the metro area in 2004, and now lives in Columbia Heights in a house that belonged to a family member who used it as a rental property for years. As she grew older, she became unable to manage the property.
“Her tenants stopped paying rent, and effectively became squatters,” he says. “My family kicked them out, and the house sat empty for about three years.”
In early 2009, Wallace began rehabilitating the house—cleaning out drug paraphernalia, piles of dirty clothes left behind by those who broke into the house, and broken glass in the back yard—and moved into the house with his girlfriend in June of last year. (His family is currently embroiled in a tax battle with the city over the years when the house was unoccupied and subjected to a higher vacant property tax, despite the fact that exceptions can be made for homes undergoing renovation.)
Living in Columbia Heights, Wallace feels conflicted. His reception in the neighborhood varies by what he’s wearing. If he changes out of his suit and into sneakers and jeans after heading home from his job as a mortgage loan officer, getting a drink at a local watering hole, now overrun with young professionals, can feel uncomfortable. But it cuts both ways.
“Even the younger people of color in the neighborhood, how, what, or if they speak to me depends on what I’m wearing,” he says.
When he and his family first kicked out the squatters in 2006, many houses on Sherman Avenue were boarded up. Now they’re almost all occupied. Despite the internal conflict, Wallace is glad the neighborhood has “come back to life.”
Still, he shakes his head as he describes the changes he’s seen come to the city, like dog parks, which he began noticing in 2007. “When dog parks first started popping up in D.C., I thought it was a little weird. I didn’t know what a dog park was. The whole idea of reserving some land for some dogs was kinda weird—not that I don’t use it,” he adds with a smile, mentioning his milk-chocolate colored pit mix, an overgrown puppy named Scooby.
But “gentrification makes people feel like they don’t belong in certain places. Not everyone can regularly afford $15 cocktails at Room 11.” While he’s a patron of the Columbia Heights restaurant, he wishes it and places like it would market themselves to the neighbors, not to people who live farther afield.
“Wonderland is an oasis of whiteness, a place of recreation for people who don’t live in my neighborhood,” Wallace says, referring to the Kenyon Street NW bar. “You see cabs pulling up and think, who needs a cab to go to Wonderland who lives in this neighborhood?”
Being a black gentrifier is, in many ways, just like being a white gentrifier. It means doing the best you can with what you have—even if what you have is often more than what your neighbors have. Everyone I interviewed agreed that the priority is finding a reasonably priced, relatively safe place to live, and it’s a bonus if there are a few local bars and coffee shops nearby.
Yet, being part of that black whole—or a diaspora, if you will—is hard to shake. And maybe we shouldn’t shake it. It isn’t possible to have a real discussion about race and class and systemic injustice without trying to start at the beginning. And the beginning requires an understanding of the set of external circumstances that led us to where we are. For me, that’s being the child of two black people suffering from wanderlust—a Jamaican immigrant and a Virginian who ended up in California—both of whom had an extraordinary thirst for higher education. And because of them, I’m not like most Americans, only 27 percent of whom hold a bachelor’s degree. That number drops to 17 percent for black Americans.
Innumerable tiny incidents have added up to me being where I am now. Precious few of them have anything to do with my own innate specialness. It is important to remember that in order to frame the conversation about why most Americans who look like me aren’t doing as well as I am. Some may say it’s too much of a burden—living Blackness with a capital B all the time—but it has to at least be acknowledged.
“I’m a black male in D.C. and I have never been to jail and I have a job. I can’t help but be present to that,” Ngongang says. He describes a recent outing when he took the day off from work: “I walked to the Starbucks at 14th and Irving and there may have been 100 black males that I passed who were doing nothing in the middle of the day.” It’s frustrating, he adds. “A lot of my black male peers are lost sometimes. What the hell do we do?”
Wallace doesn’t have an answer, either. “I feel like a lot of the rampant unemployment is not due to lack of opportunities, it’s due to lack of education.”
Meanwhile, Moore is sympathetic to the folks who have been living in these neighborhoods for a generation or more: “When we talk about gentrifiers, we talk about someone coming in and making the neighborhood ‘better.’ But a lot of times, people have been fighting, and they’re just tired of fighting.”
Ngongang says it’s even more challenging when figuring out how to give back to your new community. He describes watching the State of the Union address at Meridian Pint with bar full of young white progressives who were outraged that it wasn’t liberal enough; he ruefully notes that these are people who can mobilize for Egypt, but probably don’t know that several students have been involved in shootings at nearby Cardozo Senior High School this school year.
He suggests part of the problem is that unlike people in Egypt or Iran, young black kids in D.C. don’t want the interference, and it shows. “Kids aren’t dumb,” he says. “They know that the game is rigged. They live it. The fact is the only successful black men we can point to are outliers. Random circumstances made them what they were.”
Ngongang deals by finding “little things” he can do, like talking to kids in his neighborhood, and using his seat at a table with other non-profits to help them understand the context underperforming students are living in. And he sees the problem with gentrification as two-fold: One, he says, “We’re building bubbles where people can live and not really understanding the lives of people around them.”
Sure. While walking the neighborhood with one’s greyhound, it’s easy to spend much of the time eagerly peering at apartments up for rent, renovations of rotted-out townhouses, and new commercial projects. It isn’t as easy to learn details about the local public schools or the people who send their kids there.
And those of us walking fancy dogs, gawking at fancier renovations, but who happen to look like most of our neighbors, don’t necessarily have better insight into what’s going on around us than the white folks do. The class differences can yawn almost as wide as racial ones—almost. Soon enough, “D.C. will be majority rich people,” Ngongang says. “The statistics of D.C. will match what corporate America looks like.” It stings for a minute, because I’m not quite sure which side of that statistical warning I want to identify with.