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.

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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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