When he and his family first kicked out the squatters in 2006, many houses on Sherman Avenue were boarded up. Now they’re almost all occupied. Despite the internal conflict, Wallace is glad the neighborhood has “come back to life.”
Still, he shakes his head as he describes the changes he’s seen come to the city, like dog parks, which he began noticing in 2007. “When dog parks first started popping up in D.C., I thought it was a little weird. I didn’t know what a dog park was. The whole idea of reserving some land for some dogs was kinda weird—not that I don’t use it,” he adds with a smile, mentioning his milk-chocolate colored pit mix, an overgrown puppy named Scooby.
But “gentrification makes people feel like they don’t belong in certain places. Not everyone can regularly afford $15 cocktails at Room 11.” While he’s a patron of the Columbia Heights restaurant, he wishes it and places like it would market themselves to the neighbors, not to people who live farther afield.
“Wonderland is an oasis of whiteness, a place of recreation for people who don’t live in my neighborhood,” Wallace says, referring to the Kenyon Street NW bar. “You see cabs pulling up and think, who needs a cab to go to Wonderland who lives in this neighborhood?”
Being a black gentrifier is, in many ways, just like being a white gentrifier. It means doing the best you can with what you have—even if what you have is often more than what your neighbors have. Everyone I interviewed agreed that the priority is finding a reasonably priced, relatively safe place to live, and it’s a bonus if there are a few local bars and coffee shops nearby.
Yet, being part of that black whole—or a diaspora, if you will—is hard to shake. And maybe we shouldn’t shake it. It isn’t possible to have a real discussion about race and class and systemic injustice without trying to start at the beginning. And the beginning requires an understanding of the set of external circumstances that led us to where we are. For me, that’s being the child of two black people suffering from wanderlust—a Jamaican immigrant and a Virginian who ended up in California—both of whom had an extraordinary thirst for higher education. And because of them, I’m not like most Americans, only 27 percent of whom hold a bachelor’s degree. That number drops to 17 percent for black Americans.
Innumerable tiny incidents have added up to me being where I am now. Precious few of them have anything to do with my own innate specialness. It is important to remember that in order to frame the conversation about why most Americans who look like me aren’t doing as well as I am. Some may say it’s too much of a burden—living Blackness with a capital B all the time—but it has to at least be acknowledged.
“I’m a black male in D.C. and I have never been to jail and I have a job. I can’t help but be present to that,” Ngongang says. He describes a recent outing when he took the day off from work: “I walked to the Starbucks at 14th and Irving and there may have been 100 black males that I passed who were doing nothing in the middle of the day.” It’s frustrating, he adds. “A lot of my black male peers are lost sometimes. What the hell do we do?”
Wallace doesn’t have an answer, either. “I feel like a lot of the rampant unemployment is not due to lack of opportunities, it’s due to lack of education.”
Meanwhile, Moore is sympathetic to the folks who have been living in these neighborhoods for a generation or more: “When we talk about gentrifiers, we talk about someone coming in and making the neighborhood ‘better.’ But a lot of times, people have been fighting, and they’re just tired of fighting.”
Ngongang says it’s even more challenging when figuring out how to give back to your new community. He describes watching the State of the Union address at Meridian Pint with bar full of young white progressives who were outraged that it wasn’t liberal enough; he ruefully notes that these are people who can mobilize for Egypt, but probably don’t know that several students have been involved in shootings at nearby Cardozo Senior High School this school year.
He suggests part of the problem is that unlike people in Egypt or Iran, young black kids in D.C. don’t want the interference, and it shows. “Kids aren’t dumb,” he says. “They know that the game is rigged. They live it. The fact is the only successful black men we can point to are outliers. Random circumstances made them what they were.”
Ngongang deals by finding “little things” he can do, like talking to kids in his neighborhood, and using his seat at a table with other non-profits to help them understand the context underperforming students are living in. And he sees the problem with gentrification as two-fold: One, he says, “We’re building bubbles where people can live and not really understanding the lives of people around them.”
Sure. While walking the neighborhood with one’s greyhound, it’s easy to spend much of the time eagerly peering at apartments up for rent, renovations of rotted-out townhouses, and new commercial projects. It isn’t as easy to learn details about the local public schools or the people who send their kids there.
And those of us walking fancy dogs, gawking at fancier renovations, but who happen to look like most of our neighbors, don’t necessarily have better insight into what’s going on around us than the white folks do. The class differences can yawn almost as wide as racial ones—almost. Soon enough, “D.C. will be majority rich people,” Ngongang says. “The statistics of D.C. will match what corporate America looks like.” It stings for a minute, because I’m not quite sure which side of that statistical warning I want to identify with.