A Hard Look at Gentrification, Cont.

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In addition to noting that black out-migration isn't particularly new, it's also worth noting that efforts to develop the District--and in all likelihood raise property values--are much older than the H Street trolley. Better people than me have reported this sort of thing out. But because I get a kick out reading things I wrote when I was a kid (mostly) and because I think it applies here, I offer a couple of examples.


The first is a piece I did back in 1996, on frustrated longtime African-American residents of Hillcrest in Washington. I don't know what Hillcrest is like now, but at the time it was a leafy middle class redoubt across the Anacostia River. (It's Ward 7, I believe.) Its residents were struggling mightily to import the kind of retail development which matched their middle class, and frankly upper middle class, status:

Herman Mitchell leads a comfortable life in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Southeast D.C., a grid of quiet, shady streets, neatly kept brick homes, and friendly neighbors who look out for one another. Mitchell, a Treasury Department employee, has a plush $300,000 home with a spacious back yard. The only time Mitchell wishes he lived somewhere else is when he entertains out-of-town guests. When Mitchell hosted two of his closest buddies, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and Seattle Mayor Norman Rice, during the Black Caucus Convention, getting a bite to eat practically required a travel agent. 

"I wanted to offer them a meal. We ended up going all the way down to Houston's, which is in Georgetown, to get a meal, and all the way out to Denny's, which is in Clinton, Md., to get some breakfast. That's a crying shame. That is just horrible." 

Horrible maybe, but par for the course in Hillcrest, a community that has struggled for years to lure businesses--restaurants, bookstores, and mainstream grocery marts--that cater to middle-class folks. Community leaders are disappointed that their latest project--a new shopping center around the corner on Good Hope Road SE--is attracting the same old war-zone businesses. In most other parts of the city, down the block from a prosperous enclave like Hillcrest you'd expect to find a specialty grocery stop, some high-end fashion stores, and a nice little bistro. 

But in Southeast you come upon the Skyland shopping center, a depressed jumble of run-down stores, most of them discount marts hawking gimmicky deals like two-for-one toilet-paper sales. Winos and the homeless panhandle outside a grim Safeway. Other retail nodes near Hillcrest are no better, a mishmash of party stores, check-cashing joints, and more discount marts--just the sort of joints that leach money out of lower-class black communities by offering less for more.
Hillcrest resident Michael Hughes says he tries to patronize area businesses but still can't bring himself to pull into Skyland. "Everything I can get at Skyland I can get somewhere else, and cheaper," he says. Hillcrest residents rejoiced in 1991 when Safeway announced it was shutting down its Skyland store and building a jumbo-size outlet across the street along with a new shopping center. 

According to Paul Savage, president of the Penn-Naylor Coalition of Civic Associations, the community supported Safeway's bid to get the zoning changed because Safeway promised to bring in upscale stores. 

But Safeway has failed Hillcrest, putting together a project that will just update the blight that's already there. The new Good Hope shopping center will host a Rent-America outlet, a Payless shoe store, and a Sportzone, all stalwarts of downscale retailing. The lack of a sit-down restaurant leaves community leaders incensed that they delivered zoning variances for Safeway and got nothing in return. 

 "There's great disappointment on our part because...the goods and services they're offering are just a transfer of some of those things that are already existing," says Savage. To its credit, Safeway has promised to bring in a Chevy Chase bank, a Radio Shack, and a police substation, which the community requested. But that's not good enough, says Savage. "There will have to be a reason to go there besides the Safeway food store," he says. "And that reason to shop, for us, does not start with Payless shoes."

This is a perpetual problem for upper middle class black folks who chose to stay in areas that aren't experiencing a huge influx of whites. I don't know how things in Hillcrest turned out. I don't know if Hillcrest is still what it was. But you can hear the exact same complaint in the tonier sections of Detroit.

Here's another old piece I did on local efforts to get better grocery stores in Southeast. The problem? Too many churches:


At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Alabama Avenues sits the Charity Full Gospel Holiness Church. A sign over the door reads, "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus"-- mantra the avenue has absorbed well. A short ride up Ward 8's main street shows how thoroughly the second estate has colonized Anacostia: No fewer than six churches call the strip between the Anacostia Metro station and St. Elizabeths Hospital home. The rest stops on the highway to heaven include Campbell A.M.E. Church, United House of Prayer For All People, and Bethlehem Baptist Church. 

"Every other building on Martin Luther King Avenue is a church," says local activist Cardell Shelton. "The first thing you see when you cross the bridge is a church." 

Stacked with resources to save the tortured soul, Ward 8 offers very little to save the tortured stomach. With last summer's closing of the Milwaukee Place Safeway, not one major grocery store calls the ward home. And in the entire area east of the Anacostia--which includes a sliver of Ward 6 as well as Wards 7 and 8--there are only two supermarkets. Residents are apparently expected to survive off of cheese-steak subs, shots of Bacardi, and an occasional healing.

[Don] Matthews says it was about 10 years ago that he began to notice businesses exiting crime-ridden Southeast en masse. As check-cashing spots replaced banks and convenience stores replaced supermarkets, storefront churches seemed to spring up on whatever property their pastors could lay their hands on. "I'm a church man," says Matthews. "But I've seen churches swallow  up whole blocks....In Georgetown, how many churches do you see popping up like this?" 

Shelton, one of the more vocal critics of east-of-the-river churches, has a personal ax to grind with the houses of the holy. One day in 1996, Shelton found what he claims was a dream site on which to establish the vocational institute he says he'd been trying for years to organize. At the intersection of Alabama Avenue and Wheeler Road was a small church that was being sold. "They had a 'For Sale' sign, and I thought it would be a good area for a training center or a school," says Shelton. 

But Shelton was told that he couldn't buy the church because the parishioners had agreed to sell the building only to another church group. Shelton comforted himself by noting that at least one church was simply replacing another--it's not as though his institute would have sold meat and potatoes, either. 

But last summer, after the Safeway closed, community leaders clamored for a new store to take over the space. When no developers rushed forth, Rehoboth Baptist Church stepped in. Church leaders are among those now planning to put a charter school in the abandoned supermarket. 

Adding salt to the wound caused by the religious real estate boom, say neighbors, is the fact that many of Southeast's parishioners are suburbanites. "Look at the license plates," says Matthews. "You'll see that a lot of them are from Virginia and Maryland." A Sunday stroll up Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue bears out this assertion: Most of the parked cars feature Maryland tags.

Looking back on this, the thing that strikes is the importance of journalism. I think it's really easy to become the sort of writer who reads reports from Brookings and analyzes charts and graphs, without ever having to talk to the people captured in the numbers. People are scary in a way that think tanks are not.

All of that aside, I'd really love to know how this all worked out. I left the city not too long after writing this.



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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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