Originally published January 27, 2017 on Blavity
I live in Washington, D.C., formerly known as Chocolate City. To me, it will forever be Chocolate City, because that’s how it was introduced to me. Nonetheless, gentrification is rampant. It’s happening in every quadrant. At first, it seemed like it was just Northwest Washington, then it extended to Northeast and Southeast D.C. I guess Arlington, DuPont Circle, and Woodley Park weren’t enough anymore. Block by block historically black and Latino neighborhoods like U Street, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Petworth, H Street and Brightwood are getting paler and paler.
Black-owned restaurants and bars are being replaced with coffee shops and “bring your dog” brunch spots. “There goes the neighborhood,” is the attitude shared by many of my black millennial counterparts. As one friend put it, “Going uptown after the workday used to feel like an escape, now I feel like it’s an extension of downtown. I miss the old Georgia Avenue.” I miss it too, to an extent. One of the staples of the old Georgia Avenue was the 60-year-old Safeway which was renovated in 2012. Shopping there was an almost always unpleasant experience. Following redevelopment, the Safeway now sits under a five-story residential building and boasts an underground parking garage. I don’t see too many black folks coming from the high-priced residences above, but I cannot lie, the store itself is a huge improvement.
In conversations with millennials transplants and Washingtonians, there seems to be a yearning for the old days, even though some of us were not even there. Or, some of us were too young to remember the old days. We are reinvesting in our communities by owning homes, opening businesses and joining neighborhood associations, but that doesn’t replace the seemingly evaporating culture. Funny thing is, as black millennials we are also contributing to the changing landscape via “youthification.” In fact, D.C. is one of the most youthified cities in America.
The white suburban flight in the 1950s caused Washington, D.C. to become a majority black city. In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, inciting five days of riots that burned businesses and damaged homes. Hordes of the black middle and working class families fled to the suburbs. Popular D.C. neighborhoods like U Street Corridor and Columbia Heights were left untouched and unrepaired for years causing the black population to drop from 538,000 in 1970 to 309,000 in 2010. Meanwhile, the white population steadied and development ensued. In 2010, when I first lived in D.C., 51 percent of the city’s residents identified as African-American or black, now it’s 48.3 percent. Since 2000, 51.9 percent of the city’s low-income areas have become eligible or have experienced gentrification. Washington isn’t the only urban city to experience drastic change. In the country’s 50 largest cities, 20 percent of neighborhoods with lower incomes and home values have experienced gentrification since 2000, contrasted with only 9 percent during the 1990s.
I frequent a corner store around the block. It’s not the fanciest but it has what I need when I don’t feel like waiting in never-ending line at the grocery store. If it were to be replaced with a Walgreens, I would feel some type of way. While Walgreens is a first world convenience, it’s so commonplace, you can visit one anywhere. Chain retailers don’t contribute to culture or community, despite their advertisements. There is something special about talking to the store clerk, chuckling about what the kids are saying after school or joining everyone in rolling their eyes at someone in line who is searching for exact change. Needless to say, a Walgreen’s pop-up would only happen if the demographics dramatically shifted, which isn’t fair. Were we not good enough for Walgreens before?
On the flip side, I recently rode with a 70-year-old, black D.C. cabbie, born and raised in the District. I posed the question, “So what do you think about all the change in the city?” He said, “I think it’s about time.” I was surprised. He said he remembers when the city was dark, dreary and dangerous. “Dope fiends and ladies of the night all up and down these parts. Now, we have something to offer. What’s a neighborhood if you can’t really enjoy it? The development brought value to our city.”
To be clear, I know this man’s opinions are not indicative of other lifelong D.C. residents. Furthermore, I will never try to have the wisdom of a senior citizen. His eyes have surely seen more than mine. Our experiences, upbringings, and views on neighborhood culture are different. He did make a good observation. City living should be easy for everyone, regardless of the neighborhood. Cities should have valued spaces, industry and ongoing development for their residents. Everyone should be able to walk to the store in good lighting and without fear of violence. In many cases improving infrastructure and crime rates doesn’t happen unless a certain population starts moving to a specific area.
Just before dropping me off, we passed my beloved corner store. Outside stood a group of young black men under a dim streetlight. They were boisterous, exchanging jokes and fake jabs. He gave a scornful look. “They are always hanging out, it’s late.” I get it. Old folks just want peace and quiet. No, maybe he associates that image with the D.C., a quarter century ago, when it was a predominately black city known for crack abuse and rampant gun violence.
I see it differently. I don’t see anything wrong. I see young men fellowshipping on their daily stomping grounds. Why should that be replaced with a high-rise building?