There weren’t many arrests and fewer convictions, but there was an increase in police presence, and the spike in crime dipped shortly after, in December.
That run of crime, however, revealed to me what may be the biggest gift of the black gentrifier: The ability to fly under the radar. While it can be frustrating to be ignored in conversations about neighborhoods in transition, there’s one major upside. Black gentrifiers typically don’t feel unsafe in our neighborhoods, despite reports of muggings and property crime.
It’s hard, though, to decide whether that feeling is born of naïveté or if it’s grounded in something real. That is, being black, when one is new to a black neighborhood, may be emboldening. Perhaps it’s an extension of how Black Men of a Certain Age will often greet one another when passing on the street, whether they know each other or not; perhaps it’s that feeling of being part of a larger black whole, left over from the 1970s, of being in this—what’s quickly becoming a poorly defined space—together.
Williams says that despite having her car broken into once in Bloomingdale, she never felt unsafe. “It was probably just ignorance, but I remember hearing [through the local e-mail message board] about this group of teenagers that was terrorizing people as they walked around, but either I never saw them, or if I did, they didn’t bother me.”
While MPD’s 3rd District, which includes my neighborhood, has the highest rates of robbery in the city, I feel no more wary in LeDroit Park than I do in Georgetown or Foggy Bottom. It’s not possible to get victim stats broken down by race, though the public outrage meter suggests that in LeDroit and Bloomingdale, it’s not black neighbors getting mugged. But what may be equally likely is that fewer of those black neighbors are tweeting about it, or notifying the neighborhood blogs, or posting outraged messages to e-mail boards.
Ngongang says the local kids in Columbia Heights call him “‘Big nigga on a bike,’ because I’m the only black dude riding around on a bike.”
He recently stopped to talk to some of those kids, and they showed a stunning self-awareness. They told him, “[White people] should know we don’t fuck with them. We mess with each other.” Ngongang adds, “The fact that a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old understands the cultural dynamics is pretty amazing. They know the cops will shut down this block if a white girl got shot or killed.”
Ngongang judges gentrification in Columbia Heights by a deceptively simple metric: “You can tell by the willingness certain people have to walk around late at night,” he says.
Describing one night on Sherman Avenue when an intoxicated white woman was walking at 3 a.m. with her iPod earbuds in, Ngongang says he guesses that the line of demarcation between “safe” Columbia Heights and “the ‘hood” had shifted from 11th Street NW to Sherman Avenue during the last two years.
The District has changed fast enough in the last few years that even a short time away can leave a neighborhood looking different. Chris Wallace, who grew up in Upper Northwest and Near Northeast, graduated from high school in 1999 and attended Southern University in Louisiana, and those years away from home opened his eyes to changes.
“I’d come home from school and ask ‘when they build that?’” Wallace says, referring to shiny new luxury condos or stores or restaurants.
He returned to the metro area in 2004, and now lives in Columbia Heights in a house that belonged to a family member who used it as a rental property for years. As she grew older, she became unable to manage the property.
“Her tenants stopped paying rent, and effectively became squatters,” he says. “My family kicked them out, and the house sat empty for about three years.”
In early 2009, Wallace began rehabilitating the house—cleaning out drug paraphernalia, piles of dirty clothes left behind by those who broke into the house, and broken glass in the back yard—and moved into the house with his girlfriend in June of last year. (His family is currently embroiled in a tax battle with the city over the years when the house was unoccupied and subjected to a higher vacant property tax, despite the fact that exceptions can be made for homes undergoing renovation.)
Living in Columbia Heights, Wallace feels conflicted. His reception in the neighborhood varies by what he’s wearing. If he changes out of his suit and into sneakers and jeans after heading home from his job as a mortgage loan officer, getting a drink at a local watering hole, now overrun with young professionals, can feel uncomfortable. But it cuts both ways.
“Even the younger people of color in the neighborhood, how, what, or if they speak to me depends on what I’m wearing,” he says.