The Politics of the Urban Comeback: Gentrification and Culture in D.C.

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The rebirth of Washington, D.C., and especially its U Street neighborhood, didn't happen by chance.

obama bensPresident-elect Obama and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty had lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street on Jan. 10, 2009. (Reuters)

Is bemoaning the gentrification of Washington, D.C., a genre past its prime? I mean, there's considering the meaning of the transformation of the city from a majority-black metropolis to one that is no longer so, and there's reflecting on what it means to see all-black, working-class cultural communities replaced by middle-class, multi-ethnic, multi-racial ones that nonetheless have the kind of homogenized cultural aesthetic characteristic of the college-educated. And then there's just writing an ahistoric rant that ignores the successful decades-long effort by black political leaders and real estate developers and businesspeople of multiple races to rebuild a neighborhood decimated by the 1968 riots, drugs, and the flight of the black middle class, while also downplaying the significance of black American artists in the cultural life of not just white America but the entire world.

I speak, of course, of Stephen A. Crockett Jr.'s piece, "The Brixton: It's new, happening and another example of African-American historical 'swagger-jacking'", which set off lively Facebook and blog comment threads in my corner of D.C. and was among the Washington Post's most read local stories when published last week. Writes Crockett:

Look. I get it. The Chocolate City has changed. It isn't what it used to be, and I don't know what's worse: the fact that D.C. was once so marred by murder that it was nicknamed Dodge City or that there is now a hipster bar on U St. that holds the same name. Point is, there is a certain cultural vulturalism, an African American historical "swagger-jacking," going on on U Street. It's an inappropriate tradition of sorts that has rent increasing, black folks moving further out -- sometimes by choice, sometimes not -- while a faux black ethos remains.

In a six-block stretch, we have Brixton, Busboys and Poets, Eatonville, Patty Boom Boom, Blackbyrd and Marvin. All are based on some facet of black history, some memory of blackness that feels artificially done and palatable. Does it matter that the owners aren't black? Maybe. Does it matter that these places slid in around the time that black folks slid out? Maybe. Indeed, some might argue that these hip spots are actually preserving black culture, not stealing it.

But as a native of a then Chocolate City, I can remember when a Horace & Dickie's fish sandwich always felt like a warm hug, because they were cheap, and we were broke. It felt like the owner knew we were struggling, so he lowered the prices for us. It felt like home. ...

Maybe I want to sit at the doors of D.C.'s black culture and check IDs, making sure you deserve to appreciate what Marvin Gaye and Donald Byrd meant to a city that really didn't have much to be proud of when these cats came up.

Maybe there should be a quiz at Brixton about the neighborhood's cultural significance. Maybe there should be a box set sold behind the bar at Marvin. Or maybe these places should just be called something else...

This article rehearses the by now tired tropes of the anti-gentrification genre, harkening back to a mythic, culturally perfect moment that was somehow destroyed by white middle-class professionals and successful new businesses that -- entirely on their own -- made the decision to move into historically black neighborhoods. But the reality of the transformation of D.C. is that that is not what actually happened. And it's definitely not the story of the transformation of the U Street neighborhood.

It's very clear from the data on D.C.'s Census Tract 44 -- the heart of the U Street neighborhood, where I've lived since 2006 -- that the black population dropped dramatically long before any of the so-called "culture vulture" venues came in. More than 1,100 people left the neighborhood between 1980 and 2000 -- a third of the population. That is a profound population loss, and coincided with a time when just about the only new major development in the area was Marion Barry's Frank D. Reeves Center project, a government building that's had something of a troubled history. Again: the bulk of the black U Street population loss happened by 2000, more than a decade before the Brixton came onto the scene. That's doubtless why the property that now houses the Brixton was standing empty (excuse, me, was an "eyesore") and why it was available to become something new.

Brixton-9th-and-U-Street-NW-2009.jpg

A close look at the Census data shows that black population loss in the neighborhood actually slowed as gentrification picked up, dropping almost in half from the previous decade's rate as whites and Asians flocked to the neighborhood in the first years of the new century, and as new amenities moved in. And the biggest reason so many people were able to move in was because there was a city-run effort to develop the parcels of land over the Metro, condemn nuisance properties, increase taxes on buildings left vacant for years, and push for new construction on the plethora of empty lots that peppered the neighborhood, the 1968 riots' ancient scabbed over scars. The result was that, starting with the opening the Harrison Square Townhomes in 2002 and continuing with the Ellington apartments in 2004, there began to be a lot of new housing for people to move into. The explosion of new places for people to live intensified as new projects planned early in the new century opened their doors.

What was it like to begin the redevelopment of the U Street area? It went in fits and starts, and there were a lot of failures along the way, like the late-'90s effort to attract a Fresh Fields (what Whole Foods used to be called), which floundered after "a group of African-American women" told the company "they wouldn't feel safe shopping at 13th and V." And if you listen to Harrison Square land development manager Billy Smith, they weren't so wrong in their assessment: "While most of the block was filled with abandoned buildings, there were three row houses across the street that were the epicenter of a very active drug market [in 2000]....The violence was pretty bad back then. At least once a week there would be gunfire, and our construction crew would dive into the trenches that were being built as a water inlet for the project. The gunfire was so frequent that diving into the trenches became a weekly routine. To shield ourselves from the bullets, we built a large mountain of dirt between the project and the street and an armed security guard was hired to patrol the site 24 hours a day."

Eventually the drug dealing across the street became such a problem that the properties were condemned. "After the third bust in the winter of 2001, bulldozers were called in by the city the very next day and the houses were demolished. The day after that the street filled with residents and neighbors, some of whom had lived in the area for 50 years but had been afraid to come outside," recalled Smith.

Encouraging new construction and trying to entice middle-class people to move into the District of Columbia has been the official policy of the city under at least its last four mayors -- Marion Barry (on his second go-round), Anthony Williams, Adrian Fenty, and Vincent Gray -- because of the city's desperate need to broaden its tax base and stop population outflow. These black political leaders -- each with distinctive views, constituencies and alliances -- have supported the federal First Time Home Buyer Tax Credit Bill Clinton first signed into law as part of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, an idea that came straight out of the District of Columbia Economic Recovery Act proposed by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. The tax credit had a dramatic impact in encouraging moderate and middle-income people to put down roots in D.C., especially younger, college-educated white people, and invest their sweat equity in fixing up rundown housing stock. Indeed, a 2005 study by the Fannie Mae Foundation found that a third of the run-up in housing prices in D.C. between 1997 and 2001 could be attributed directly to the new tax policy.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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