When I first moved to the District a year ago, from Fort Worth, Texas, I knew it was going to be costly. That’s just the price you pay, I thought, for the excitement of Big City lifemuseums, swank bars, independent theaters. Looking for housing in Northwest, I found my options to be overpriced shoeboxes in “hip” areas or affordable apartments much farther out.
I knew I wanted to be in the middle of things, so the trick was to discover a shoebox that wasn’t too expensive. I found a suitable place near 14th and N Streets, within biking distance of everything I needed. My friends back home gasped when I told them the rent, but I thought I had lucked out.
When I shared my find with co-workers, some got nervous looks on their faces. “That area is kind of sketchy,” they said. “But don’t worryit’s being gentrified.”
I shrugged it off. It was a diverse neighborhood, and many of the tenants in my building spoke no English. Groups of kids hung out on stoops listening to go-go. Men played dominoes on the corner. Some buildings had boarded windows, covered in graffiti. My colleagues must be pretty damn pampered, I thought, if they consider this “sketchy.”
It did seem strange, though, to hear “gentrification” used in a positive sense. My friends weren’t describing it as a threat to the community, but as an antiseptic that could sterilize the neighborhood and make it livable. I chalked it up as part of my awkward transition from cowtown to downtown (like learning that folks here don’t say hello to strangers on the street).
“Gentrification,” I figured, must have become a fancy East Coast way of saying that people are cleaning up the place. Otherwise, that meant I was a gentrifier. Sure, young white people were the minority in the area, but I never felt like an outsider. Like everyone else, I struggled to pay the bills. Gentrifiers are people enforcing a kind of urban manifest destiny, rolling up in Mini Coopers and kicking working families to the curb. That’s not me, I thought. I just need an affordable place to live.
But before long, the effects of gentrification started becoming clearer. Step by step, my neighborhood started to look like the neighborhoods that had been too expensive for me. A boarded-up building around the corner turned into a sparkling fitness center. Down the road, an anonymous gray storefront became a Thai restaurant with a magenta neon sign. Like giant, upwardly mobile chameleons, sections of 14th Street turned shiny purples, teals, and lime greens.
I had moved to D.C. with only my backpack and my bike, so I eventually decided to buy some things for my apartment. I walked into one of the new home-furnishing stores in the neighborhoodand turned around at the sight of an $80 throw pillow. Maybe I’ll hold off on furniture, I thought. I went a few stores down for a cutting board. The employees there were friendly and the store was beautiful, but I knew something was amiss when I saw $100 trash cans. I asked people on the street where they went to get spice racks and spatulas cheap. The suburbs, they said.
The brushed-metal signs could have read “WARNING” and I wouldn’t have noticed. I can’t afford any of these places, I thought. But the neighborhood did look nicer. Maybe I had given gentrification a bad rap. The neighborhood was still diverse, now even more so, with a new range of income levels in the mix. I welcomed the changes.
Soon enough, the changes knocked on my door. My landlord told me someone had paid a few million dollarscashfor the building, and that everyone had to get out. The apartments would be gutted. Trendy improvements like brushed-steel appliances, exposed piping, and beech floors could double the rent. The whole neighborhood was “going that way,” he said. We walked outside, and he pointed to buildings, rattling off when they were sold and when renovations would be complete. I had been the gentrifier. Now I was being gentrified.
Where could I go? I could stay in the neighborhood, clinging by my fingernails. I was already paying nearly half of my take-home pay in rent. What was a little more? I could probably swing it, for a while. But eventually, someone would decide his Art Deco furniture would look great in my next apartment. “That area is kind of sketchy,” people like my co-workers would probably say. “But don’t worrythose low-income white kids will be out soon enough.”
Or I could move away. I bet there’s somebody, somewhere, that I can outprice, I thought. I could force them out, hiding from the pack of gentrifying wolves for a while. Then what?
A friend moved here from Austin during all of this. He searched relentlessly for apartments and came back to me discouraged. Everyone knows the neighborhoods for those with money to burn, he said. And everyone knows the neighborhoods where you don’t feel safe at night. But there is no middle ground. If there were a neighborhood for low-income 20-somethings, Whole Foods would probably set up shop and bring in a better clientele.
Like many people I know, he sucked it up and signed a lease for exorbitant rent. He ruled out the more affordable places because he didn’t want to be an outsider in someone’s neighborhood. I pointed out that Adams Morgan was once someone else’s neighborhood, but that gentrification had already swept through. He said that this way he could at least feel that his own hands were clean.
Now I’m in Columbia Heights, still paying too much for rent. This time, I knew from the move-in that I was part of gentrification. And re-gentrification is creeping after me: I see the Vespas on the street. A few blocks west are highbrow condominiums. A few blocks north and east are dilapidated buildings and public housing. Not far south is the booming U Street corridor.
I just got here, but I can’t hold out much longer. At the end of the year, I’ll probably head back to Texas. I’m not looking forward to the steakhouses, belt buckles, and G.W. Bush bumper stickers. But at least I’ll be able to find a one-bedroom. And keep it. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.