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The Ward 5 special election, in Tim Craig‘s telling in this morning’s Post, is turning into the same thing virtually every recent D.C. election has become: a referendum on the city’s changing demographics. And I’m sympathetic to most of the concerns longtime residents raise in Craig’s story: development only arrives when wealthy, white residents do, and it’s clustered around specific parts of the ward (or city); the institutions of power in the District lately seem to be more responsive to new residents and their desires than to people who’ve been here longer; everything’s getting too expensive, and jobs that pay enough to afford the new houses are too hard to find.
Plus, some of the younger, newer Ward 5 residents quoted in the story sound like insensitive buffoons—take Dan Monlux, 35, who moved to the ward two years ago, and says of the new construction: “I think, culturally, it’s a good thing.” Which raises awkward questions about whether what was in the area before was, culturally, a bad thing, and why. When new arrivals to D.C. think like that, it only makes the tension over gentrification and development worse.
At the same time, though, the point made by a man quoted at the top of the story about all the new construction is just as silly:
“You can’t raise kids in a condo,” Anthony Davis, 53, said as he looked toward the development from the steps of a rowhouse that his family has owned since 1964. “The message is obvious. They don’t want us here. It’s not even subliminal racism. It’s obvious racism.”
You can’t raise kids in a condo? Several of my friends are raising kids in condos all over the District, and in other cities around the country; my own memories are a little fuzzy on this point, but I spent several formative months as a baby living in either a condo or a rented apartment in Arlington. Besides, Craig doesn’t say whether Davis even has kids. (For that matter, he doesn’t say what race Davis is, or what race anyone else in the piece is.)
But let’s accept the questionable notion that it takes a single-family home to raise a child. Still, how is development that’s not kid-friendly “obvious racism?” In 2009, the last year for which stats are available, the Census Bureau reported that nearly 26 percent of all babies born in the District were non-Hispanic whites; yes, 52 percent of babies born here were non-Hispanic blacks, but regardless, it’s not like parents come in only one color here.
That years of rapid demographic shifts in the District has gotten the city to the point where the construction of a condo is considered obviously racist, for more or less illogical reasons, isn’t really a surprise. But it’s still troubling. The legitimate fears and worries about how D.C. is changing come from serious enough problems; adding on undercurrents that no public policy can possibly address makes the issue even harder to deal with. Whoever wins in Ward 5 will join the rest of the D.C. Council at a time when nearly everything the local government does touches on gentrification and development in some way. We wish ’em all good luck—they’ll need it.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery