Our Technocratic Overlords

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This piece in the Times on the ever popular subject of the gentrification of Washington D.C. got a lot of attention. This section caught Matt's eye:


On H Street, Pamela Johnson, an African-American who owns a small storefront building, said her property tax bill had more than tripled in the three and a half years since the city began building a streetcar system that she said she never wanted. She said that she could not afford to pay and that she was one of several dozen owners in danger of losing their properties in a tax sale. 

"This process was imposed on us, and now it's driving us out of here," said Ms. Johnson, sitting in a Jamaican restaurant on H Street, which now has new sidewalks, stylized street lamps and shiny streetcar tracks. "We see this as the city's way of gentrifying these corridors."

Matt responds:

Gentrifying" is a loaded word, but clearly, yes, what the city is trying to do here is to improve the infrastructure and make it a more desirable place to live. And the strategy appears to be working. The public expenditures on improved conditions are leading to higher land values, which is leading to higher property tax assessments. The investment, in other words, pays off. But Johnson is upset. The question is why, exactly, is she upset? According to the article she's upset because her property tax bill has tripled, which is putting her at risk of losing the building she owns in a tax sale. But doesn't this mean her building has tripled in value? Ceteris paribus, I'd rather pay less property tax than more. 

But having your investment in a building appreciate is better than having it decline in value and then you get a tax break. At the same time, it seems like we should take Johnson at her word that some feature of this situation is making her worse off. But I wonder what it is, exactly. If you buy low and then wind up needing to sell high because you can't cover the property tax out of your income, it seems to me that you're still coming out ahead. At a minimum, it's hard to see how she could have been better off had the city not invested in improved infrastructure adjacent to property she owns.

I actually think it's fairly easy to understand Johnson's beef. She likes her neighborhood as it is. She may well be able to "sell high," but the fact is she doesn't want to sell at all. She probably would love to see her property values rise, but the neighborhood isn't simply, for her, a financial instrument--it's an emotional one.  In that sense, Johnson isn't very different than millions of other humans who invest in neighborhoods.

Her contention that the city is "driving us out of here." is very much debatable. But it's worth noting that a class of owners with a commitment to something more than a naked financial return is a good thing. When Matt asserts that the city is trying to make H Street a "desirable place to live," I am compelled to ask "desirable for whom?" I'm not being obtuse here--I understand, in the aggregate, his larger point. But very often people find a kind of value in their living condition that eludes socioeconomic data.

You could look at the stats of black people in this country and conclude that it absolutely sucks to be black. But very few black people I know actually feel that way. They don't wake up thinking about the HIV rate, or go to bed thinking about the incarceration rate. They process their lives with those greater realities, but more so in terms of details, in terms of specific places, specific people, and specific experiences that hold emotional value for them. They form a narrative that connects all of these various bits, and sometimes that narrative centers around their place of residence. And sometimes that narrative means just as much, or even more, than property values. 
 
I grew up in West Baltimore at the height of the Crack Age. I spent more time negotiating violence than I did negotiating my studies. I got jumped by some project kids when I was nine, and until I my senior year I either got jumped or fought every year. But I loved West Baltimore -- so much so that when I went off to college, I was intent on coming back. My old middle school was shut down a couple of years ago, after a student was stabbed to death. The school likely needed to be shut down -- but I was still sad. The point isn't that violence is a good thing. It simply means that every day, normal human beings develop feelings for people and places that go beyond the work of economists, sociologists and self-styled reformers.

We easily recognize those feelings in other people -- I don't think we'd much debate the notion that neighborhoods usually hold some emotional value. But we often fail to see that value in African-Americans because, from a socioeconomic perspective, black people represent a class that is too often murdered, too often impoverished, too often uneducated, and too often diseased. Put differently, statistically, black people are a problem. Fix the problem and black people will thank us, right? Maybe.

The bugbear of reformers has long been an inability to see humanity in the actual humans they would have reformed. This is the blindness which finds education reformers looking at Washington and asking, "Michelle Rhee improved schools for black kids, why were black parents so upset?" And it's that same blindness that, I'd argue, prevents Matt from understanding why Johnson is upset, even as her property values rise.

The ranks of progressive reformers could really use more novelists.

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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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