If you ask Aisha Moore about gentrification, her first inclination is to scoff.
Moore, a black resident of Congress Heights, says her Ward 8 street is “100 percent black” and that’s not likely to change soon.
“Nobody leaves,” she jokes. “On my block, if new people bought a house, it’s because an old lady died.”
Yet Moore isn’t from D.C. and has only lived in the city since 2002, after she finished an undergraduate degree at the University of California at Berkeley. In 2004, her boyfriend bought a house in Congress Heights and she moved in with him in 2009.
Which, by every metric except one—skin color—makes her as much of a gentrifier as the young white residents unloading moving vans near U Street NW every weekend. As we talk, Moore says she’s frustrated by the dozens of stories that feature handwringing over D.C. becoming “less black,” because they paint an incomplete picture.
“I get it, in terms of numbers, but it’s annoying. The story over here, east of the river, is all about black gentrification,” she says. “Black people are moving back to Anacostia and the Congress Heights area.”
Moore, who grew up in Los Angeles, suggests that since most black Americans were raised in metropolitan areas, perhaps there’s a natural inclination to live in cities. She adds that her neighborhood is seeing a return of young black professionals who were either born in the city or have family in D.C.
“There are different types of people here, but that doesn’t water down the chocolate,” she says, with a laugh.
Just how watered down the District’s chocolate is getting has been a subject of considerable worry over the last decade. The capital city that inspired a Parliament album a generation ago might not do the same now; within the next few years, demographers expect, D.C. won’t be majority black anymore.
When I moved here last summer, all I could see were the changes in my neighborhood. I’d attended Howard University from 2002 to 2006, and while I knew that the city was where I wanted to stay, I got a job in New Jersey and worked there for a few years.
It was pure luck that when I made it back, I found a house for rent in LeDroit Park, right around the corner from my old dorm. The change that had occurred in four short years was stark.
To put it bluntly: There were white people, everywhere. Now, they trek between Bloomingdale and U Street NW by way of the busy intersection of Georgia and Florida avenues, where just nine years prior, it was a place where black college students butted up against unemployed brothers lingering on corners.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise. The shift was happening even when I was in school, and it was quite noticeable then. A college friend noted at some point between freshman and senior year—after 2003, when Magic Johnson opened a Starbucks connected to the Howard University Bookstore on Georgia Avenue as part of a community development program called “Urban Coffee Opportunities”—that there were, as she put it, “just more white people around.”
Johnson sold his shares in the UCO program to Starbucks last year, and company CEO Howard Schultz bragged in a press release: “Together we opened several successful locations, including our Harlem store, which led the redevelopment of that now vibrant neighborhood.” While the Georgia Avenue store may not have helped economic development on that strip—there seem to be as many, if not more, empty storefronts as there were in 2003—it became a pretty reliable place to find white people on an otherwise largely black stretch.
White professionals and hipsters trickled in, slowly, visible even through the bubble of being a black college student, surrounded by 10,000 other black college students, in a largely black neighborhood, in a mostly black city. By 2004, they were regularly spotted making their way to and from the Shaw–Howard University Metrorail station. And by the time I graduated, white people were jogging up 4th Street NW through the campus, and walking their large dogs on the green lawn of Howard’s Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library—something longtime black residents never did.
The change was disconcerting, in a way.
More disconcerting, though, is that five years later, I walk my own large dog on the library’s green lawn.
The story of the black gentrifier, at least from this black gentrifier’s perspective, is often a story about being simultaneously invisible and self-conscious. The conversation about the phenomenon remains a strict narrative of young whites displacing blacks who have lived here for generations. But a young black gentrifier gets lumped in with both groups, often depending on what she’s wearing and where she’s drinking. She is always aware of that fact.