Aisha Moore, the Congress Heights resident, previously lived in Mount Pleasant, the U Street NW corridor, and briefly, Bloomingdale. She says she just kept pushing boundaries.
“When I first moved here [to Mount Pleasant],” Moore says, “people told me not to go past Georgia [Avenue]. When I went past Georgia, they told me not to go east of the river.”
But she didn’t listen, noting that none of those neighborhoods were “as bad as people said.” The biggest downside? She says her friends tease her for living so far away.
Decker Ngongang moved to Columbia Heights in 2008 after leaving investment banking to work at a youth-focused non-profit. He says he recognizes what’s happening in the city because he saw it happen when he was growing up in Charlotte, N.C.
“I went to predominately African American schools, in the downtown Charlotte area,” says Ngongang, who is black. “I was able to see gentrification happening there. You saw the neighborhoods and the projects getting re-zoned and bulldozed to build condo towers.”
Still, Ngongang thinks that kind of turnover is to be expected. “You can’t really knock it, because anybody would want to buy something cheap and sell it for more.”
It’s funny that he says “anybody,” since the story that gets told most often is about an influx of whites taking advantage of low rents and high wages, displacing solid black communities that have occupied territory for generations. Yet black people of means—who certainly fit the category of “anybody”—do the same.
While D.C.’s black majority has never controlled the city’s wealth, a strong black middle class developed during the middle of the last century thanks to federal government hiring. Although these positions were rarely high-level ones, they were dependable jobs with benefits—something hard to come by for people who were often the children of sharecroppers—and they’re what some of us still laughingly refer to as “good gub’mint jobs.”
At some point, though, things changed. Crack cocaine hit D.C. and many black people with money—like most people with money would—headed to the suburbs. Those who couldn’t leave, and those who stayed to fight, had a ravaged city to contend with. This is the story we know.
But now, living in the city is cool again, thanks in no small part to development incentivized by government investment. And because we live in a “nation of cowards” (as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder put it) where perhaps the only thing harder to talk about than race is class, it’s unsurprising that worries about gentrification boil down to white versus black, instead of educated and privileged versus uneducated and underserved.
That’s not to say that what we talk about when we talk about gentrification has nothing to do with race. The opposite is clearly true. White people don’t just “happen” to be better off, in general, than blacks. There’s systemic injustice that’s obviously based in racism. But instead of using that knowledge to spark a discussion about larger societal issues, there’s just pearl-clutching aplenty about the color of the new faces in the neighborhood.
“Gentrifier” can’t be equated with “white person.” After all, most poor people in this country are white (though it’s definitely a numbers game; whites are still less likely to be poor than blacks and Latinos—there are just more of them). The gentrifier is a person of privilege, and even if she doesn’t have much money, she’s got an education and a network of friends who are striving like she is, and she has the resources to at least try to get what she wants.
I moved into my home near Howard University, a three-bedroom semi-detached rowhouse that I share with two other journalists, sight-unseen. Google Maps revealed that it was spitting distance from my old dorm, which tickled and worried me at the same time.
A couple of months later, after hearing of an armed robbery at the LeDroit Park Market on 4th Street NW, I joined the local neighborhood e-mail message board. (The market closed for renovations shortly thereafter, but never re-opened.) The list became a reliable source of information about crime in the neighborhood, yet it seemed to be actively used mainly by white residents—though perhaps there were some black lurkers like me.
In November, between the car robberies, a couple of burglaries—including the burglary of the house of a white friend of mine—and a mugging or two, it wasn’t uncommon to see an e-mail fly across the list, copied to Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier: “Residents of Ledroit Park are being terrorized in broad daylight. There has been an increase in car break ins, physical attacks, and robberies. This situation is beyond untenable I implore you and the commander to increase police presence at all hours. Residents are enraged, livid and afraid some solutions must be found starting with arrests and convictions.”