Gentrifying? The stretch of Alabama Avenue SE by the Congress Heights Metro.
Gentrifying? The stretch of Alabama Avenue SE by the Congress Heights Metro.

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Back in June, the Washington Business Journal‘s Michael Neibauer and I had a little disagreement about a study of D.C. neighborhoods. The study identified 18 neighborhoods that were poorer than the citywide average in 2001 and whose median income and property values have risen faster than the city average since then. Neibauer wrote that these neighborhoods were gentrifying. I, noting that they include very poor (in terms of income, retail, and amenities) neighborhoods like Congress Heights and Barry Farm, begged to differ.

Today, Neibauer has a longer piece out on this phenomenon. It’s well worth reading, and it sums up our earlier debate:

The Washington Business Journal reported those numbers in June, and controversy quickly followed. Congress Heights and Barry Farm gentrifying? “No, they’re not,” wrote Aaron Wiener of the Washington City Paper.

“They’re enjoying higher incomes and property values — but they’re a long way from the displacement, racial inversion, retail and construction booms, and skyrocketing prices of the truly gentrifying parts of the city,” Wiener added.

The bar was lower to start east of the river, and the resulting shift between 2001 and 2010 is not nearly as obvious as, say, Columbia Heights or H Street NE, both much further along in the transitioning process. But the results are the same: Younger, single residents. Strong earners. Professionals. Changing faces.

East of the river, these neighborhoods have not yet “gentrified.” But they are undoubtedly in the earliest stages of gentrification.

Most of the story is about Congress Heights, the Ward 8 neighborhood south of Anacostia. Now, it just so happens that I was in Congress Heights this morning. The neighborhood does have potential, but I would argue that gentrification is a long way off.

There’s no official definition of gentrification. It means different things to different people. To some, it means rising incomes; Congress Heights has among the lowest incomes in the city, and the lowest of any Metro-accessible neighborhood. (Neighboring Anacostia is the runner-up, in part, no doubt, due to the poverty at “gentrifying” Barry Farm.) To some, it means the arrival of fancy cafes and pet grooming stores; as Neibauer notes, the neighborhood’s “main intersection, at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Malcolm X Avenue SE, struggles to maintain quality retail of any sort.” To some, it means white faces; there are hardly any of these in Congress Heights.

“Most of these communities east of the river sit on or near Metro,” Neibauer writes of the allegedly gentrifying neighborhoods. “Historically, in Washington, that’s a key element to any neighborhood revitalization (see U Street, Columbia Heights and Petworth on the Green Line).”

But Congress Heights’ main intersection is more than half a mile from the Metro station. The strip of Alabama Avenue near the Metro is filled with two- and three-story low-income apartment buildings. Sure, there are plans for some development there, but U Street and Columbia Heights and Petworth all had ready-made retail corridors right by the Metro, just waiting for quality tenants. The part of Congress Heights by the Metro doesn’t have that.

What the neighborhood does have is St. Elizabeths. The former mental hospital will eventually be converted to a mixed-use campus—-or rather, two: the Department of Homeland Security-occupied West Campus and the privately developed East Campus, closer to the heart of Congress Heights. But there’s legitimate concern that the federal employees won’t have occasion to spend time in Congress Heights and spend their dollars there, instead commuting to and from their suburban homes. Even the Gateway Pavilion—-a temporary structure just across from the West Campus that will feature food trucks and a brick-and-mortar food vendor and is intended to help bring DHS employees into the community—-will literally be connected to the West Campus by an underground tunnel, so that workers won’t have to spend any time on or crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Yes, change is coming to Congress Heights, and to the other locations identified by the study (which did not, by the way, use the word gentrification). But most residents are likely to welcome that change, if it means more retail, an economic boost to local business, better connectivity, and some attention from a city government that’s at times neglected the area. The real, threatening kind of gentrification—-with displacement of longtime residents and a selection of nauseatingly bourgeois shopping and dining options—-is nowhere to be seen.

Image from Google Maps