City Paper is not for tourists
Yesterday’s Census report detailing the past decade’s demographic changes gets major play across the city’s media today. The Washington Post disptatches reporters to three District neighborhoods in search of anecdotes to confirm what the new data tells us: The city’s white population has grown by a third, while its African American population has plummeted.
With fresh memories of last year’s racially polarized election, reporters also go looking for comment from longtime residents, many of whom the Post says find the change “alarming.” Leading the alarm: Marion Barry. “We’re going to stop this trend—gentrification,” he says. “We can’t displace old-time Washingtonians.”
But Barry, who served as mayor for 16 years, ought to know better than most that the changes reported yesterday have been a long time coming—and that, in fact, they began at the political peak of his mayorality. And since that time, the District has responded in the same way to each Census. Big-city demographics may be perpetually in flux, but Washington’s decennial amazement and agita over its own changes is a rock-solid constant. A sampling:
Preliminary findings of the 1980 census indicate that innercity neighborhoods where young, affluent, mostly white, so-called urban pioneers have displaced the poor and assumed an active political role are likely to play an increasingly important part in city politics.
The incomplete but substantially conclusive data provide the first statistical indication here of what urban experts believe is a national trend accelerated in Washington by the extraordinary rate at which neighborhoods in the nation’s capital have been transformed.
–Washington Post, Feb. 2, 1981
An exodus of blacks drained thousands of people from five of the District’s six predominantly black wards east of Rock Creek Park in the last decade, but a gain in white population increased the size of the other three wards, according to 1990 Census figures released yesterday….
The numbers raised new concerns about the District’s becoming a city only for the poor and the rich, as middle-class blacks leave. Increasingly, observers said, the District’s politics will be influenced by the white and well-off, who vote at higher rates than other groups.
“As the white population grows in terms of political influence, you’re going to have the possibility of more racial tension,” said Howard University political scientist Ron Walters.
–Washington Post, Feb. 23, 1991
The increasing population downtown and in upper Northwest can be explained in part by a rush of development, including new apartment buildings in the business district, as well as town houses and single-family homes popping up on long-vacant lots.
Driving the city’s loss was a decline in the black population for the third decade in a row.
Many of those leaving are middle-class families headed for the suburbs, but some say the recent exodus also stems from rising housing prices.
D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D) said that in the past, many of the city’s middle-class African Americans moved out of the city by choice, seeking a better life in the suburbs.
“Now, 10 years later, I think it’s quite different,” Fenty said, saying many longtime residents are being priced out. “The prosperity of the city is great; we just have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to create affordable housing.”
–Washington Post, March 31, 2001