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So, I wasn’t going to puncture the warm bubble of approval that surrounded the release of A City Divided, a project by American University journalism school students that looks at gentrification across the city. Why snipe at such a well-intentioned effort? Good for them for taking on such a big subject.
But then, my colleague Alex Baca—who just recently defended her thesis on gentrification and displacement in Anacostia—went ahead and did it anyway, which gives me cover to snipe just a little bit.
Alex’s beef is basically that by rehashing these tropes that we all know to be true, and grapple with every day—Columbia Heights has both modern retail and poor folks! Gays hang out on U Street now! Sometimes people can’t afford to live where they used to!—the project further divides the city instead of illuminating how we often face similar problems and need to think about city-wide solutions. I agree.
But what bothers me most isn’t the potential effect on how people think about the city. Mostly, it’s journalistic practice. The writers start out with this idea of Gentrification (“the G-word”) and use it as a shoebox to hold all their stories, like this one about a church in Anacostia, where the pastor’s fairly standard message of personal uplift is characterized as “fighting gentrification through faith”—without going into whether “gentrification” is even happening around them, and if so, what it looks like. Does it mean the mixed-use megaproject at Sheridan Terrace that will replace dilapidated public housing? Or efforts by local businessowners to fix up their storefronts and attract customers from across the city? Are these really things to be feared and fought against?
I don’t want to be discouraging, but it’s depressing how much this looks like a precursor to the sort of pieces that annoy me most—emotion-heavy, substance-lite reiterations of the conventional wisdom, all wrapped up in new media without the innovation (this roundtable looks all ready for CSPAN).
I’d really love to see journalism school students digging into these issues on a daily basis, instead of with one fluffy package that they can show off to potential employers. This city needs more reporters who follow development issues, because God knows there are dozens every day I can’t get to, and TBD won’t be interested in. It doesn’t need journalists who start out with an preconception of what’s going on and find talking heads to paint it over with a broad brush.