Sign up for our free newsletter
Donald Morgan runs Morgan Family Fish Fry, a popular carryout joint on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia. He has some concerns about the meager four-story building being built nearby, on the corner of Talbert Street and MLK. The new structure will obscure the view out Morgan’s window, and he’s upset that it may dwarf his modest single-story shop.
Yet those concerns are mild compared to what the construction symbolizes.
“Gentrification is coming,” says Morgan, “and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” The man knows his history.
Gentrification is the oldest, most belabored story in the District—or at least much of the District. Its impact on places like Columbia Heights, Shaw, and Brookland has been documented many times over, often with glee, sometimes with regret, depending on the teller’s perspective and socioeconomic status. It all boils down to one figure: The city’s median home sale price was $167,000 in 1995 and $496,000 in 2007.
The influx of shopping centers, gourmet coffee shops, and young wealthy white folks has sent the cost of living through the roof—scattering residents who couldn’t keep up. Demographics are changing, too. In 2000, 60 percent of the city’s residents were black and 30.8 percent were white. Demographic projections now put D.C. at 52.4 percent black and 37.5 white. The city could lose its black majority as early as 2014.
Gentrification may be approaching a denouement on the west side of the Anacostia, but across the river it’s only just beginning. Many of the battles that were fought a decade ago in Northwest are now ramping up in Wards 7 and 8.
“East of the river is sort of seen as the next frontier for development,” says Gloria Robinson of ONE DC, a community organizing nonprofit that works for housing rights in the city. “First it was the Eastern Market area, and then Shaw, and then you go up to Columbia Heights, Petworth, and Brightwood.” On the near side of the Anacostia, she says, “Everything that could be developed pretty much has been developed.”
On the east side, new and in-the-works condos pepper the area. St. Elizabeths Hospital will soon be home to the Department of Homeland Security, bringing in 14,000 jobs and a surge of local amenities to cater to them.
Retail is burgeoning, too. The newest arrival is Anacostia’s Big Chair Coffee, a joint whose grand opening was attended by Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. Less-new arrivals include an IHOP and Giant in Congress Heights. A Yes! Organic Market is coming to Pennsylvania Avenue SE this year, and the massive Skyland Town Center being built at Good Hope Road and Alabama Avenue will feature 325,000 square feet of retail. According to the Washington, DC Economic Partnership, more than $2 billion worth of development has been completed since 2001 in Wards 7 and 8, which share all D.C. land east of the Anacostia. Projects totaling $1.6 billion are currently under construction, and the Economic Partnership estimates that in the coming years, $12 billion is in the pipeline.
The changes loom over Morgan. “This is a situation that’s been in play for a very long time,” he says. “Everywhere where there’s Metro, a few other things, mass transportation, water in Anacostia’s case, and housing that can be exploited pretty easy, then you’re gonna have gentrification.”
Morgan is 52 and African-American. He eyes me—the 20-year-old white college kid. “We’ll see a lot more people that look like you instead of me, very soon.” Though white influx is an inevitable part of gentrification in Chocolate City, the early battles in wards 7 and 8 break down largely along class and generational lines: a set of ambitious and largely black newcomers versus a black working class that abhors high-priced condos and new urbanist branding schemes.
The residents of Wards 7 and 8 have long used a simple term to describe where they live. “East of the river” is the refrain, a way of explaining one’s position vis-à-vis one of the city’s principal fault lines—the Anacostia River.
These neighborhoods have a lot of great architecture, ever-growing commercial amenities, some fab views of the city, and easy access to downtown.
Yet there’s a constituency of folks who don’t like what “east of the river” connotes, and they’ve created an organization in part to address the matter. Members of “River East Emerging Leaders”—note the lower-case, hipoisie-appeasing acronym “r.e.e.l.”—have a new name for the place they call home. For these people, it’s “River East.” The rationale for the appellation comes straight from r.e.e.l.’s Web site: “Many committee members recalled conversations with friends or news stories characterizing ‘East of the River’ as dirty, dangerous, crime-ridden and poor. ‘River East’ was a new way to rebrand the area and inspire a sense of pride.”
In the District at-large, “River East” may be catching on. The Examiner and the blog “Greater Greater Washington” have both already used the term to refer to the region, as has 2010 mayoral candidate Leo Alexander.
But back in Wards 7 and 8, many residents shudder at the notion of “rebranding.”
“I hate it,” says Bessie Brown, who has lived in the Anacostia neighborhood for 35 years. “It’s east of the river. How would you feel if they changed the name of where you live?” Barbara Dewey, who was born and raised in Ward 8’s Barry Farm, says, “By trying to change the name, everything that happened years and years ago will be forgotten, it will start anew. Why? We don’t want to lose the history of Anacostia.”
More: “They should leave it the way it is,” says 31-year-old Damon Gayles, who works at a convenience store on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. “They should make it better down here, though. Better buildings, streets. It’s fucked up down here. It’s the ghetto down here. Ain’t nothing for the young kids to do.”
R.e.e.l. people insist that “it was never a goal of r.e.e.l. to officially rename the area called ‘East of the Anacostia River,’” according to a statement from the group. For r.e.e.l., the idea is to “reintroduce to the world what is great about living in Ward 7 and Ward 8.”
Susan Kennedy, author of the blog Barry Farm (Re)Mixed, is a fan of “River East” but can live without it as well. “I’d hate for it to be something that created a divide between the community,” she says. “If the majority of residents don’t wanna rebrand, so be it.”
But for most of the recent arrivals, “River East” is important. Why? It’s needed to attract more newcomers like themselves. And while the pioneers don’t believe the region’s troubles are caused by its current residents, they do say that more newcomers like them are the solution.
“We need diversity,” says LaShaun Smith, author of the blog Southeast Socialite. She was born in Southeast, grew up in Prince George’s County, and moved back to the District in 2007. “It’s nothing wrong with it being a predominantly black neighborhood, but we need other people to come in.” If those people take root, she says, so will new businesses. “We could keep it the same, but the whole city is going through this change,” she says.
And for Smith, the change would optimally involve some ordnance detonated on iconic Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. “I would love a bomb to come through and just blow the whole street up, because it looks terrible,” she says. “It looks awful. The whole street, and just rebuild anew. The whole street looks terrible.”
The “River East” dispute, of course, serves as an apt stand-in for a broader struggle afoot in Wards 7 and 8. Darrell Gaston cuts the profile of an ideal r.e.e.l. joiner. At 23 years old, he sits on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8B, representing Woodland Terrace, the Langston Apartments, Maplewood and Hanover Courts, and Garfield Hill. After growing up on Sheridan Road in Ward 8, he attended Coppin State University, then returned home with a degree in political science and got himself elected to a vacant seat in 2008.
But Gaston isn’t as enthusiastic about r.e.e.l., though he has gone to a few r.e.e.l. meetings and is friendly with members. “I respect and appreciate the effort r.e.e.l. is putting into the community,” he says, but when they suggested that Gaston join and become a paying member, he deflected the request.
“I’ve hung out with them on a personal basis, attended some of their networking events,” he says, “but as far as being incorporated or being thrown into their whole mix or an actual member paying membership dues, I haven’t done that and most likely I probably won’t.”
Why? He challenges the group’s inclusiveness. “They’ve only had one meeting in Ward 7, and it was in Hillcrest, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Ward 7. They made no effort to reach out to the more serious neighborhoods.”
Gaston, sitting in ANC 8B’s office, pulls up a photo of r.e.e.l.’s steering committee from its Web site. “Many of the members of the steering committee come from well-established neighborhoods like Historic Anacostia, Hillcrest, Bellevue, the condo version of Barry Farms.”
Wards 7 and 8 have long had a sizable and overlooked middle class, but the community’s working-class base isn’t reflected in r.e.e.l.’s membership or activities, according to Gaston. “They’re educated, college graduates, professionals, and most have moved here in the last five years.”
R.e.e.l.’s members counter Gaston’s charges. “We’re not all college graduates,” says Charles Wilson, a r.e.e.l. co-founder and active member. He says that four of the group’s 11 steering committee members were born or raised in the two wards. He won’t specify the number of college graduates or homeowners on the steering committee. In an e-mail, Wilson writes, “we don’t ask our members if they went to college or if they own a home; we simply ask if they want to serve the community.”
He also points out that the group is new; its first event was a networking session in February of last year. Since then, it has organized park cleanups, a green jobs conference, and social events like speed dating and holiday parties.
Inclusiveness is a question that r.e.e.l. leaders are poised to address. “When I was on the steering committee, we were very, extremely sensitive to that, so many meetings have been held to address that,” says Nikki Peele, a supporter of r.e.e.l. and founding member of the group’s steering committee. Look at photos on the group’s Web site, she says. “You see a cross-section of the Ward 8 community,” encompassing young, old, single, married, rich, poor, black, and white.
In its short history, r.e.e.l. has indeed established itself as a presence east of the river. The group has a spiffy Web site for reaching digitally connected citizens, and many of the area’s bloggers count themselves as members or supporters. It boasts attendance in the hundreds for its networking events. At-large D.C. Councilmember Kwame Brown is an ally, and the group has also gotten attention from Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander and Ward 8’s Barry. But r.e.e.l. doesn’t have this kind of name recognition everywhere.
Barry Farm Dwellings is a public housing project in Ward 8. The 432 homes sandwiched between the Suitland Parkway, Interstate 295, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and St. Elizabeths Hospital have gained notoriety as a pocket of poverty, drugs, and violence. In 2006, the neighborhood’s median household income was $28,000, and half of household heads were unemployed.
Here, in one of the roughest corners of Ward 8, r.e.e.l. is absent.
Linda Miller is secretary of the Barry Farm Resident Council, an elected body of the inhabitants of Barry Farm Dwellings. She also sits as acting chair of the New Communities Initiative in Barry Farm—the local arm of a citywide plan to bulldoze troubled public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income housing. The neighborhood is currently slated to be demolished in 2011.
Has she ever encountered r.e.e.l. in her community or civic engagements? “Not that I know of, no,” she says. Queried on the matter by Washington City Paper, she said that she first learned of the group’s existence when contacted for this article.
Miller’s reaction suggests that r.e.e.l. has some more ground to plow, more residents—demographics, even—to win over. And as it makes its way, it’ll keep running into people who view it as an organizational incarnation of gentrification. “I don’t have any comment regarding River East Emerging Leaders,” says Gaston’s fellow commissioner, Tijwanna Phillips. “I don’t have anything nice to say, so I won’t say anything.”
The property at 523-525 Mellon Street SE was the Wilson Courts Apartments until 2004. Now, it’s vacant, dingy, and drab. Last year, the building was bought by So Others Might Eat—a homeless service provider that plans to turn the building into transitional housing.
“I would rather the building be vacant than for So Others Might Eat to come in,” says LaShaun Smith. “We have a very high proportion of group homes, transitional housing. Our neighborhood should not be the dumping ground for all of D.C.”
“They want it to be condos,” says Gaston. “What’s wrong with using your own money to build transitional housing for people who need help? We don’t need more condos for new people to push people out.”
The debate over SOME is about more than just one property.
“You can’t just concentrate low-income people in one area and expect that area to thrive,” says Susan Kennedy. “I think there needs to be more variety. I think I need to see a better mix, whether it’s single-family homes, or apartment rentals, or condos.”
They may be losing the battle on Mellon Street, but the newcomers are winning the war. Housing standards are increasing. The median home sale price in 2000 was $119,000 in Ward 7 and $124,000 in Ward 8. By 2007, the prices had risen to $281,000 and $295,000 before the recession began to stifle growth. (Recent property assessments showed sharp drops for areas in Wards 7 and 8.) New and, by area standards, expensive market-rate homes are popping up everywhere. They range from the $550,000 homes at Asheford Court to Savoy Court’s $159,000 one-bedroom condos.
And the new arrivals are becoming more well-to-do, as well. The median mortgage borrower income in Ward 8 has gone from $37,894 in 2000 to $70,763 in 2006. In 2005, the median household income was $29,655. In 2008 it was $34,651.
On a tour of the area she gave City Paper, Peele pulled her car up to Grandview Estates. “These are beautiful,” she says. “You have a lot of people here that would’ve maybe lived in Dupont Circle” who instead opted for a “townhouse for $300,000 with a private deck. And they have rooftop decks. They’re stunning. I mean, it’s unbelievable.”
Unbelievable indeed, say those who sneer at the development. “They done put up new houses and stuff like that, but the average person can’t afford them,” says Michael Humphrey. He’s 50 and has lived in the area for 30 years. He relies on Section 8 housing vouchers and Supplemental Security Income checks.
In the District, there are about 26,000 qualified families on the D.C. Housing Authority’s Section 8 waiting list. A quarter of them live in Ward 8. “Each time someone talks about development,” says Phillips, “it’s only to let us know that affordable housing is going to continue to diminish in Ward 8 as well.” In a ward with a median household income of $34,651, the sprouting of $550,000 condos doesn’t spark universal excitement.
“A 230-some-thousand-dollar house? That’s too damn much money,” says Humphrey.
Nikki Peele moved to Congress Heights in 2007, and she quickly became interested in neighborhood activism. She attended a community jazz festival in the summer of 2008, where an acquaintance told her: “Oh, we have an ANC commissioner here, why don’t you go talk to her?”
“I was excited about it,” she says. “And so I approached her and introduced myself and then the conversation went horribly wrong.” She’s referring to ANC 8C chair Mary Cuthbert. “She was mean, she was dismissive, and she was quite frankly suspicious of my motives to want to get involved, just come to a meeting. It was kind of like ‘how dare you as a resident want to come and get involved?’”
“I was baffled, and I was discouraged, and then I got really mad,” says Peele. “I didn’t get a free house here to come live here. I chose to live here. And I live here, and the same things that affect you affect me here.”
Her take is that Cuthbert feels intimidated by her zeal to get involved in the community. “My feeling is, it’s been an issue that the same people have been running everything for so long. And I think what has happened is I think she was threatened, I really do. A small group of people have been used to being the gatekeepers for everything that goes on here.”
If there’s another side to the story, Cuthbert won’t give it. When Peele’s name was mentioned, Cuthbert would only say: “I won’t comment on anything she says. I won’t comment on anything she says.” She says that the River East Emerging Leaders crew “doesn’t want old folks involved in the community.”
The two have had a number of run-ins. At a March 2009 ANC meeting Peele accused Cuthbert of misusing ANC money (a subsequent investigation of ANC 8C by D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols found “an uneconomical and wasteful use of public funds.”) According to Peele’s blog, in September Cuthbert told a friend of Peele’s to “Tell your friend that I am going to whoop her ass and tell her that I said it”; Peele responded with a blog post saying she “will NOT back down.” In November, she called for Cuthbert’s resignation as chair, echoing a letter from Commissioner ANC 8C01 William Ellis. She was joined online by Kennedy and Smith.
Getting Cuthbert out of office may be what’s next. On her blog, Smith wrote in November: “All those that have held a seat with ANC 8C for over 5 years, ya’ll gotta go! MOVE ON! Better yet, JUST MOVE OUT OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD into PG County.” And it’s more than just rhetoric. She says, “We have talked about doing a clean sweep of the ANC,” and that the plan is for her to be a candidate, along with “a few others.”
“It’s going to take a lot of time and effort, because a lot of the original, older residents of the neighborhood are very dedicated to their commissioners, even though their commissioners…may not be doing a good job,” she says. Smith is hesitant to give details, but she says “we have definitely talked about it, and it’s definitely something that is in the works.” She declined to specify who exactly is the “we.”
“We didn’t want to put it out there, because we didn’t want them to know, the older people to know what was brewing. But that is a plan.”
“Plan” may be a sloppy choice of words. In many urban areas threatened by gentrification, people speak of “The Plan”—a sinister plot by the powers-that-be to uproot and then colonize the inner city. The city’s history of displacement may have made Donald Morgan a believer. “I lived at 14th and Irving as a kid,” he says. “So this is something that’s just repeating itself in every segment of the city.”
Morgan doesn’t fear displacement by the development—he owns his building, so he’ll adjust. But he laments the cultural transformation coming to his home: “You have to have money to hold on to culture, in this country.” Resigned to the changes, Morgan has a plan of his own for the fish fry: “More baked, less fried, more salads,” he says.