I’ve written about gentrification here before, it’s a frequent topic on one of the local blogs I read — In Shaw — where I picked up this Washington Post piece on gentrification. I couldn’t help chuckling a little when I read the first part.
Driving back from a Nationals game one night this summer with a friend who grew up in the District but hasn’t lived here for years, I noticed him studying people on the street. Finally, he blurted, “You know, I just can’t get used to seeing white people walking down North Carolina Avenue.”
I knew what he meant. I’ve had moments myself when I marveled at what was happening to my city as I looked around at neighborhood meetings and saw that half the faces were white, or when driving through black working-class neighborhoods I remember from my childhood that seemed to have turned Hispanic overnight.
The reason I laughed is because it reminded me of something I’ve said a few times in the last couple of years, but in a different context. You see, there’s more than one side to the gentrification coin. When I first moved to D.C. ten years ago DuPont Circle was one of the city’s most popular gay neighborhoods. It was the first place I went when I got to the city, and I can’t count the hours I’ve spent there since. But I dropped into the area after the process of gentrification had already begun.
The neighborhood’s fortunes and importance began to decline after World War II, and reached a nadir after the race riots of the late 1960s. Its residential character was threatened by encroachment of commercial development from downtown, and many fine buildings were demolished. Beginning in the 1970s, however, Dupont Circle began to enjoy a resurgence fueled by urban pioneers seeking an alternative lifestyle. The neighborhood took on a bohemian feel and became a gay area. Along with the Castro in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York City, it is considered a historic locale in the development of American gay identity. Gentrification accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, and the area is now a more mainstream and trendy location with coffeehouses, restaurants, bars, and upscale retail stores. Notable stores include a 24-hour bookstore and restaurant, Kramerbooks & Afterwords, and D.C.’s first gay bookstore, Lambda Rising
Alas, DuPont Circle isn’t what it used to be either. As the years have worn on, it’s become increasingly…um…heterosexual. It turns out gays did such a good job making DuPont one of the most popular neighborhoods in D.C. that to some degree they priced themselves right out of the neighborhood, as Keith noted a few years ago about his experience living in Logan Circle.
By the time I left Washington in 2001, Logan Circle had completely changed. In fact, I was the last black person left on the block. After I left, the block became completely white. Many of the new residents were white gay men seeking affordable property after the rise in living costs in trendy Dupont Circle, just to the west of Logan Circle.
Indeed, I knew DuPont Circle had changed forever when an Ann Taylor Loft Lane Bryant store opened just a few doors down from Lambda Rising.
I moved into Logan Circle at about the time that Keith was leaving it. Whole Foods had moved into the neighborhood, thereby “anchoring” it, and neighborhood went on to become a lot more gay, with gay bars and opening along the 14th Street corridor between downtown and U Street. Some gay-own businesses formerly located in DuPont — like Reincarnations, a trendy furniture shop — and several new ones appealing to the neighborhood’ s incoming residents.
Now, DuPont just ain’t what it used to be. But then, neither is Logan Circle. Or the rest of the city. The reporter (who, by the way, reveals in the article that he’s not white) goes on to relate the various reasons that people lost or left their homes in the city, to underscore that gentrification isn’t some sort of conspiracy to depopulate the city of poor and black residents. And the blogger at In Shaw goes on to relate why some black families in her neighborhood moved away.
On my block, the instances that black residents were replaced by white residents:
1- Sold because they could get better housing for their family in the burbs
2- Sold because taxes were too high
3- Sold because house was too big of a burden and beyond owner’s means
4- Sold because property was a rental (investor)
5- Sold because of job/ significant other in another place
Basically the owners sold their property. Those who got really screwed were the renters. But still no solo Man with a plan.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that issues of race and economics don’t factor in. They factor into just about everything else and gentrification is no exception. After all who has the means to gentrify an area? And to what degree do those means depend on privileges related to race and economics (and related factors like education and the likelihood of inherited wealth)?
My point is, the Washington Post reporter may have been a little too quick to brush off a discussion of gentrification around the issues of race and economics. What’s happening in Washington, D.C. as gentrification goes, may not be directly by design, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a discussion to be had about it’s ultimate foundations and effects.