Gray Defeats Fenty: What Does it Mean for the City?

Like a lot of Washingtonians, I'm disappointed about Mayor Fenty's loss in the Democratic Primary.  When it became clear that Fenty was going to lose, there was a lot of shock going around in the circles I live and work in--which is to say, mostly white professionals who live in DC's gentrified, or gentrifying, precincts.  After all, there's little question that things have gotten much better under Fenty, and not just for white people.  The truly abysmal schools are being reformed, parks are being built, crime is slowly improving, the city is getting streetcars desired by almost everyone except the folks who live directly on the tracks . . . so why did voters just kick him out?


I don't think you can quite explain it by saying that Fenty's modestly corrupt (too-expensive contracts have gone to friends, though those friends seem to have mostly done the work very well).  Marion Barry has remained quite popular here through much more serious violations, and in general, the corruption now pales in comparison to the pervasive corruption that has been uncovered in multiple city agencies, which long predates Fenty's administration.

Most people agree that this is ultimately a proxy battle over gentrification.  It's all rather nebulous, because of course Vincent Gray hasn't campaigned on rolling back gentrification.  He seems to support all the services Fenty has expanded, with the possible exception of the school reforms.  Instead, the theme of his campaign--and the more generalized opposition to Fenty--has centered around respect and process.

But respect and process virtually never become issues by themselves.  Rudy Giuliani was a bruiser who trampled over everyone who got in his way, and people loved him.  Yet thirty years before him, John Lindsay's attempts to shake up city government meant he was vilified over . . . respect to the community.  You can't look at Marion Barry's career and think that Washington is a town which can't stand to have its prim notions about proper legal procedures violated.  

Reading The Ungovernably City, which details Lindsay's rise and fall, I'm struck by how often the issue of respect comes up.  There were very real underlying grievances about the way he handled things like community control of the schools--and very real ethnic conflicts within neighborhoods, as blacks and Puerto Ricans displaced the white ethnics who had previously dominated much of the city.  But these conflicts were often framed in terms of a slight to the community that lost, rather than any tangible harm they suffered.

Something similar seems to be happening in DC.  DC has been "The Chocolate City" for a long time.  Anything that persists long enough comes to seem natural, even as if it's a right; it's not surprising that so many people resent the gentrification that they feel powerless to stop.  And when you are powerless in the face of a force that is making your life worse, it seems as if the last straw is feeling like the guy you voted for doesn't care about your concerns--doesn't think that your people are important enough to have to listen to.

Gentrification represents a real loss to people who can't afford to stay.  They've lived in the city a long time; they have networks of friends and relatives, and institutions like churches, that are built around proximity.  Why should they favor a city that provides more services--and then sees real estate prices spike, so that they can't afford to stay around to enjoy them?  There are probably a number of voters for whom the status quo is vastly preferable to a situation where Fenty manages to improve the schools enough that middle class voters start a bidding war for homes in the district.

Certainly for the teachers and the taxi drivers--both groups huge opponents of Fenty--this is about real economic loss and changes to their jobs that make them less pleasant.

But no one comes right out and talks about the fact that they are now worse off; instead they talk about how Fenty has run roughshod over council process, or that he hasn't respected some group . . the teachers, the council members, "the community".  So our mayoral election has become a debate over which groups in the city are worthy of respect, rather than what concrete improvements can be made in peoples' lives.  Because in a city dysfunctional, there are no changes that make everyone better off.

I don't know whether the voters who selected Vincent Gray understand at some level that as long as the quality of life in the city continues to improve, gentrification will continue apace.  Vincent Gray didn't force them to consciously make that choice; he made vague promises about things like inclusionary zoning which are supposed to keep more affordable housing in the district.  These initiatives will not work, but at least they sound hopeful.  And the people who voted for Gray are willing to hope because they think that he, unlike Fenty, respects their concerns.

I don't know how good a mayor Gray will be--he seems like a nice guy, but nice guys often have a hard time getting things done in fractious cities, and his campaign platform is pretty empty of actual proposals.  I think this is probably a tragedy for the utterly dysfunctional school system, but I doubt that Gray is going to do much to roll back the other changes, like the change in the taxi fare system, that have made the city a better place.  

And for good or ill, I doubt he'll do anything about gentrification.  Inclusionary zoning has, as far as I know, proven an excellent way to subsidize home building in poor neighborhoods, and to provide below-market housing for relatively middle class retirees, but it has not, as far as I am aware, ever succeeded in keeping a neighborhood's economic mix from changing.  The forces altering DC right now are like a runaway freight train.  In 2000, the population of DC was 30% white and 60% black; by 2006-2008, those numbers were 36% and 54%, respectively.  Meanwhile, the percentage living below the poverty level dropped from over 20% to under 18%. On a demographic timescale, that is lightning fast.  If gentrification keeps up at that pace, the lines are going to cross sometime in the next 10 to 15 years.

Vincent Gray could throw his body in front of the freight train and it wouldn't even slow down.  The change in the city may stop on its own; no trend continues forever.  But the city is now good enough that many affluent people who used to flee to the suburbs now want to live here--and their presence is attracting non-government services which make it attractive enough to lure still other people to follow them.  Unless Gray starts an active campaign to make things worse, the core issue that seems to have animated this campaign is largely out of his hands.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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