Can the Rise of the Internet Explain D.C. Zoning Fights?

Yesterday's post about the internet challenge to brick-and-mortar retail has triggered a number of really interesting discussions in the comments about things like big box supply chains, the sustainability of Amazon's Prime strategy, and the future of teenaged jobs in a world without physical retail.  I highly recommend reading them.


One of the sub-discussions caused my thoughts to turn--as they so often do--to neighborhood politics in DC.  Yes, those of you who are sick of my DC-centric posts can tune out now.  The rest of you, read on . . . 

Many of the urban planning debates that take place in DC are in fact proxy battles over gentrification.  Almost no one on either side ever actually voices the core conflict, which is that the poorer, mostly black current residents do not want gentrification to force their community out of their affordable and centrally located homes, and the newer, mostly white residents want the sort of services (and property values) that materialize when a neighborhood gentrifies*--and that the presence of one community is an obstacle to the goals of the other.  

Since no one wants to come right out and say this, the debate focuses on procedural issues:  noise, parking, safety, "respect to the community".

Basically, the gentrifiers spend a lot of time arguing in favor of new bars and restaurants; the current residents spend a lot of time arguing that they aren't needed.  Both sides argue--and may even genuinely believe--that this is a purely principled argument over, say, the procedural mechanisms for distributing liquor licenses, but this is pretty transparently not the actual motivation.  In my own neighborhood, many of the people who had argued forcefully in favor of licensing Shaw's Tavern seem to have neatly switched sides when the applicant was Full Yum Carryout, a sort of Chinese-hybrid takeout place that caters almost exclusively to the area's black residents.

(Before you ask, I am against liquor licenses on principle, but if we must have such a regime, I believe that the regime should follow the "shall issue" principle that governs dog tags and fishing licenses.)

If you follow these debates long enough, you end up hearing a lot of the anti-gentrifiers argue that they too, want services--just not bars and restaurants, or so many bars and restaurants.  This has always struck me as a little bit odd because they're sort of vague on what services they do want.  Grocery stores are a big favorite--but my neighborhood, Eckington, now has two large, well stocked supermarkets, and I doubt that the density would support much more than that.  Everyone seems to love dry cleaners, and drugstores (but we have a fair number of those, too).  Beyond that, it's not been clear to me what people had in mind when they complained that all the bars and restaurants would prevent the development of needed retail.

So the discussion about shopping patters suggested something I hadn't quite grasped before.  DC's young gentrifiers are, even as gentrifiers go, disproportionately well-connected to the internet. Indeed, I wonder if Amazon isn't partly responsible for the pace of gentrification here.  In the neighborhoods that are currently gentrifying, the retail corridors were destroyed in the 1968 riots and never really came back; it's no joke living in a neighborhood like that without a car.

. . . unless Amazon delivers bulky stuff to your door.  Most of the affluent "new" people I know in DC are like my husband and I: they order everything they can over the internet.  We don't need much in the way of brick-and-mortar retail; what we need is bars and restaurants, and maybe a salon or two.  If you are not so thoroughly web-ified, you almost certainly want a much more retail-heavy commercial district.  And while many of the "old DC' residents are of course on the internet and social media, many others cannot afford broadband connections, or credit cards--and given their older age skew, many others probably simply aren't that comfortable with, or interested in, shopping online.

I'd been thinking of the bar-and-restaurant complaint as a convenient shorthand, rather than something that is almost literally true: the gentrified districts in DC boast very little other than places for young people to gather and refresh themselves.  Not nothing, but much less than, say, the streets I grew up on in New York.

All of which is another way of saying that your neighbors cause externalities.  Who lives next to you will determine many important things about your life, from how late the music plays, to how far you have to walk in order to buy a radio or a baby carriage.  In aggregate, the people in a neighborhood eventually customize that place to suit their particular wants (unless, of course, those wants are limited by their wallets).

The corollary of that is that it is not irrational to want to control who moves in around you--or even to want to maximize the number of people who are like yourself.  The more people there are like you, the more the neighborhood will suit your needs.

I'm not saying that we should cater to this desire (in either the gentrifiers, or the gentrified).  But we shouldn't act like it's necessarily crazy or evil, either.

* (Note: there's a another sort of argument that takes place when the neighborhood has already gentrified, and the residents band together to prevent new people from coming in to block their views and compete for free street parking spaces.  But these arguments are basically pretty naked displays of self interest, so I've left them out.)
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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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