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This was not the Prince of Petworth’s crowd. An hour into the “Humanitini” gentrification panel at U Street’s Tabaq Bistro Thursday night, blogger Dan Silverman was having trouble even being accepted as a resident of his own neighborhood. “It’s not your Petworth, Dan,” said one woman. “It’s mine.”
Silverman corrected her: “It’s really our Petworth.”
The rest of the Humanities Council of Washington D.C.-sponsored gentrification talk went like that, with some trying to assure the audience that if newcomers and native Washingtonians just looked each other in the eye and hung out sometimes, the economic and racial changes convulsing the District would be smoothed over. Not everyone was having it, though.
“One thing that I have come to understand is that white people don’t understand black people,” said Dianne Dale, the author of a book about Anacostia.
Almost everyone on the panel already had a gentrification mini-controversy to their name. Author Natalie Hopkinson clashed with Chevy Chase’s Politics & Prose in July after they briefly turned off her go-go mix CD at a reading, and writer Stephen A. Crockett Jr. caused an Internet flap in August after he accused U Street restaurants of “swagger-jacking” black culture. Moderator and Express local news editor Clinton Yates writes fiery articles on the topic for the Post (today, he’s on Union Market’s renovation). The Prince of Petworth is the Prince of Petworth.
The only ones without a claim to button-pushing fame were National Journal reporter Elahe Izadi (who used to write WAMU’s DCentric blog) and Dale (but give her time!).
“[U Street] feels like it’s been invaded,” Dale said. “I don’t mean that to be insulting.” Hopkinson was more conciliatory, describing the feeling that newcomers to Washington were just waiting people like her to die off.
With the exception of some attention from Izadi and Crockett, though, there was little talk about the elephant in the room: money. Newcomers aren’t able to live in D.C. because of The Plan or some ever-increasing quota for non-black residents; they can live in an increasingly expensive Washington because they have an economic advantage over the people being pushed out. There’s a racial connection to that, but that’s not all there is. Ignoring comparative wealth left the discussion stuck on who can really call themselves a Washingtonian, like an argument over whether champagne not made in Champagne is really sparkling wine.
But the reluctance to discuss money and class created some interesting dissonances. An announcement that former Mayor Anthony Williams would be on a future panel was met with approval from the audience, until Dale reminded us that Williams is no more a native Washingtonian than your average Hill intern.
“I don’t know a busboy or a poet that could eat at Busboys & Poets,” Crockett said at one point. But at the end of the panel, Hopkinson urged audience members to walk the block to the restaurant and buy her book. So is Busboys & Poets a beachhead for gentrification’s moneyed shock troops, or is it a cultural jump-off for Washingtonians native and not? Maddeningly, it’s both.
“Gentrifiers, you got it, you won,” said Crockett, who moved to Maryland from U Street after the area became too expensive.
But what did the newcomers win? Two of them—-Silverman and Izadi—-were trying to keep ahead of the same tide of change that drove other Washingtonians into Prince George’s County. When Yates asked the panelists where in the District they would choose to live the rest of their lives, Silverman declined to say he’d stay in Petworth. And Izadi chose Southeast, or maybe Northwest, but only if it stayed the same.
Photo by Daquella manera