Throwback Thursday: The Paling of the District

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During my summer break of sophomore year, I received strange looks in my neighborhood for the first time. The same neighborhood that I would ride my bike around on hot summer afternoons and walk my little brother home from kindergarten in, past the always packed McDonald’s and the elderly man sitting on the apartment stoop who was always around like clockwork to say “Good Afternoon” to us on the walk home. For the first time, I felt like a stranger in Brightwood. The signs were pretty obvious, but I still felt the shock of the reality of the newly gentrified DC having a direct impact on my everyday life.

    My dad has been living in the same two-bedroom apartment since I was six months old. After spending my first few months living in Tyler House, an apartment complex most recently known as the site of a drug-related mass shooting, my newly immigrated parents realized that casual crime and drug deals was not the ideal circumstance to raise a young daughter in. At six months, Brightwood became my home. My neighborhood has never been perfect; I’ve heard my share of police sirens and have witnessed a SWAT team raid (although the sheer ridiculousness of this story leaves me with very few people who actually believe it), but I have always loved it because it stood as a place of cultural collision and unity for me. My Salvadorian neighbors could be found partying with my Ethiopian neighbors on any given holiday, and my apartment hallway was always filled with the lingering scents of fried plantain and injera bread. I’ve been privileged to grow up in a life of familiarity. I spent nine years of my life at the same elementary and middle school with the same twenty friends, walking on the same route home everyday after school and taking the same bus routes to and from my mother’s Maryland apartment. So my displeasure with gentrification in DC is admittedly very selfish; I’m finally at a point in my life where I feel discomfort in the same spaces that were always so familiar to me. However, the problem with gentrification in DC goes far beyond my personal displeasure.

    Gentrification on the surface level has single-handedly revamped the District of Columbia. After a series of development projects were introduced by former mayor Adrian Fenty, the district saw a decrease in crime, crucial to the development of the city that was once thought of as one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. The District of Columbia saw an increase of newly developed property and a boom in businesses, ultimately leading to an influx of white residents. While many may champion this as positive buildup of a city once associated with violence and drugs, they fail to see the adverse effects for people of color. Public housing, one of the most critical social welfare structures for lower-class persons, is being destroyed in favor of more appealing and more expensive housing complexes. Given that DC is one of the most expensive U.S. cities to live in, it is clear that the removal of public housing without replacing it with a sustainable alternative harms people of color. Because the District of Columbia, once nicknamed Chocolate City, now has a Black population under fifty percent, many people have taken to oversimplifying the perceived improvements of DC as a result of “all the black folk moving out”. For example, the decrease in crime is almost always connected to the issue of “black-on-black crime” with a refusal to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of a decrease in violence with factors including the ending of the crack era of the 1990s, development of drug rehabilitation programs, development of crime pattern investigation technology, and development of after-school programs to decrease violence among youth. Despite these realities, gentrification is still pushed as an end-all-be-all solution to fixing broken cities by many.

    The reality of the situation is that gentrification does not create a land where white people and persons of color can co-exist. DC serves as the perfect example of how whites find themselves accommodated while minorities are pushed to the margins, both physically and ideologically. There are absolutely benefits to a gentrified city, this cannot be denied. For example, after an almost 30 percent increase in white residents and years of black children biking in unsafe environments, the Shaw neighborhood installed bike lanes that both the white and black residents found useful. However, gentrification works to underscore the very real reality of black voices being ignored until there is a white echo.

    What has been the hardest for me to digest has been what feels like a painful juxtaposition of poverty and wealth. As a young child, I spent every summer at Martha’s Table in Columbia Heights, a neighborhood not too far from Howard University. Martha’s Table was a soup kitchen that provided a summer camp program for residents of DC that could not afford the more expensive options. I recall being completely in love with the grittiness of this area. We would leave for field trips to historically black sites like Ben’s Chili Bowl and would be greeted by homeless people sitting on the block. Our playground was around the corner from an Alcohol Anonymous meeting place. Although it may not sound like the ideal environment to be in, I found so much of myself in Columbia Heights. This was the city that raised me. Ten years later, Martha’s Table is still standing, but its homeless patrons are forced to walk past upscale boutiques and organic shops to reach their free meals. And this, in my opinion, is the sad reality of gentrification.

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