For neighborhoods where it suddenly feels like white people are “everywhere,” the U.S. Census Bureau says the vast majority of residents in LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale (and Petworth, and Brookland) are still black—more than 80 percent of the residents in some gentrifying census tracts in a 2009 estimate.
Perhaps that’s because just as “black people” is a proxy term for poor people in D.C., “white people” is a proxy term for the young professionals who have moved in—and neither term is being accurately used.
The proportion of black folks in my neighborhood of LeDroit Park remains higher than the average black population in the city, around 70 or 80 percent in some census tracts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey three-year estimates, the black population in D.C. dropped from 56.4 percent to 54.2 percent between 2005 and 2009. Despite breathless accounts of D.C.’s changing demographics, that’s actually not all that much of a dip. And maybe concerns about that dip are beside the point.
D.C. has been largely insulated from the recession. The number of families below the poverty line has actually decreased in the last three years. The Washington metro area has less than 6 percent unemployment, compared to the nation’s roughly 9 percent jobless rate, putting it 29th in the Bureau of Labor Statistics list of metropolitan area unemployment rates. (In contrast, my hometown of Stockton, Calif., has 18 percent unemployment, placing it about five slots from the bottom of the list, at 368th.)
Wages have also risen for non-family households—like the group houses many city newcomers share with strangers or friends to save on rent.
Or perhaps it’s a chicken-or-egg situation. The metro area’s high marks on the American Human Development Project’s well-being report are tempered by signs that the rising tide isn’t really lifting all boats. Blacks in D.C. have the shortest life expectancy of black people in any metropolitan area, extraordinarily high infant mortality rates, and some of the lowest rates of education. Unemployment in parts of Ward 7 and Ward 8 is more than 20 percent, as anyone who listened to the constant debate in last year’s mayoral campaign over whether gentrification is actually good for the city may recall.
The well-being report’s co-author, Sarah Burd-Sharps, told The Washington Post that D.C. is “a place that attracts people with high levels of education to high-paying jobs.” What seems like a rising tide is really just a case of averages getting skewed toward the higher end of the scale by those of us who arrived here degreed and prepared to work high-skill, high-paying (well, perhaps not if you’re a journalist) jobs.
Simply put, for some of us, the Washington metro area is one of the best places to move to in the country. For the rest, not so much. Newcomers to D.C. of any race tend to arrive for the same kind of high-powered jobs, the kind of jobs you can’t get without education and social capital. The people who are already struggling to find work when newcomers get here, though, are likely to be black.
It should go without saying, but often doesn’t, that regardless of race, newcomers end up in LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale for the same reasons. Rents are relatively cheap and the neighborhood is close to a Metrorail station and bus lines, and is within walking distance of U Street NW’s commercial corridor and downtown employment.
Monica Potts moved to D.C. from Connecticut in January 2010 for work. “I didn’t think a lot about the character of the neighborhoods or the history, because I didn’t know any of it,” she says. Like most people moving to town, Potts says she was focused on getting a good apartment for a reasonable rate, and that other neighborhoods she looked at—like Columbia Heights—were either too expensive or not as nice as the place she settled on.
Potts, who is white, ended up moving into an English basement, on a quiet, tree-lined block in Bloomingdale. She estimates the homeowners on the block come down in a 50-50 percent black-white split, but that nearly everyone “rents out their basements. There are a lot of black homeowners renting to white people.”
Like Potts, Alicia Williams, a black surgical resident from Virginia, moved to Bloomingdale for the low rent when she started her medical internship, mostly unaware of the neighborhood’s history and dynamics. “I just found a really good Craigslist deal for a top-floor apartment that was brand new,” she says.
If you poll newcomers to Bloomingdale on why they chose the neighborhood, it’s likely you’ll get answers similar to Potts’ and Williams’. Small wonder: It’s one of the last affordable, transit-accessible residential neighborhoods that’s close to employment, entertainment, and amenities that are clustered in Ward 1 and Ward 2.