The Answers Issue: Are D.C. residents getting less friendly to each other, or am I just getting old?

Are D.C. residents getting less friendly to each other, or am I just getting old? I hear that new neighbors aren’t as friendly as they used to be across huge swaths of Northwest. Are these anecdotes or is there a way to see if this is real? (I’m talking about people not saying “hi” to each other on the street or acknowledging each other’s presence to full ignorance of neighbors).

Are we becoming less neighborly? You’d have to poll a sampling of District residents to get a sense, although it’s telling that in a recent Washington Post poll, 77 percent of white people described “redevelopment and gentrification”—two separate but often related social conditions in the District—as mostly good, while 53 percent of black residents said they are mostly bad. In the District’s more rapidly upscaling areas, that kind of gulf might lead to some neighborhood friction—a discomfort that plenty of social scientists have observed and tried to explain.

Like American University anthropologist Brett Williams, whose 1988 book Upscaling Downtown—see? This isn’t a new thing—concerns gentrification in Mount Pleasant. While black, lower-income residents tended to “live deeply” in the community, Williams wrote, white, higher-income arrivistes “lived broadly.” Members of the former group, channeling practices carried north from Southern states, would know everyone’s name and socialize on the block; members of the latter, having come from places where, for starters, they drove more often, would not.

Williams was recently interviewed about her book by Johanna Bockman, a George Mason University sociologist who writes a blog about Ward 6. In recording oral histories of D.C., Bockman says she’s observed lower-income people say that walking on H Street NE or Capitol Hill these days has become uncomfortable, as well as high-income people who say the same about poorer neighborhoods that haven’t upscaled. Feeling like part of a neighborhood—and by extension, acting neighborly—depends on a sense of unity in confronting problems. In gentrifying neighborhoods, she says, “there’s a hierarchy,” in which poor people are perceived as being somehow lesser, that can distort a neighborhood’s relationships.

Of course, it goes both ways: Just as older residents may get a cold vibe from newer ones, the reverse can be true. But an insistence on politeness—say, from the churlish teens on your block—can be a kind of smokescreen, the bemoaning of a perceived failing in behavior that justifies the aggrieved’s own (perhaps unpolite!) actions and beliefs.

I’d call that smarm—if you live in a neighborhood experiencing dramatic demographic change, it probably has bigger problems than your neighbor’s failure to greet you.

Then again, if it really bothers you, remember that politeness tends to be reciprocal. If you say hi to your neighbors, they’ll probably say hi back.

Our Readers Say

"...less friendly or ...getting old?" A combination of both for many historic residents. Whereas as late as 30 years ago I could hardly go anywhere in any quadrant of the city and not see at least ONE person I knew from chlldhood, I traverse the city now and see few familiar faces other than in my native Southeast. We wouldn't DARE pass by one another today without a nod or a word. I'm uptown a lot (U Street/Shaw/Adams Morgan). The city's gone cosmopolitan: Nobody knows one another, didn't go to school with a fellow pedestrian, aren't fellow parishioners. To paraphrase the late comedian Richard Pryor, D.C. is not longer composed of "neighborhoods," but has become an amassment of residential districts!
"While black, lower-income residents tended to “live deeply” in the community, Williams wrote, white, higher-income arrivistes “lived broadly.” Members of the former group, channeling practices carried north from Southern states, would know everyone’s name and socialize on the block; members of the latter, having come from places where, for starters, they drove more often, would not."

I really noticed this difference when I moved from west of the park (white neighborhood) to east of the park (African-American neighborhood)about 10 years ago. As a white person, it took me by surprise but I happily adjusted. I had never lived in such a friendly urban neighborhood before and I really treasured the experience. With the advent of gentrification, the neighborhood has changed somewhat. The new younger white residents are nice folks and we say hello, too, but, while it's still pleasant, the warmth of the older African-American long-time residents is noticeably missing. It's a genuine loss.
Thanks, Jonathan and the two commenters. This exchange has been very helpful! I don't agree that white professionals and the African American working class are just two side of the same coin or two equal camps: "Of course, it goes both ways: Just as older residents may get a cold vibe from newer ones, the reverse can be true." Those displacing and those being displaced are not equal sides, but rather are interconnected through relations of power. Gentrification is not friendly.
http://sociologyinmyneighborhood.blogspot.com/2014/02/gentrification-is-not-friendly_2.html

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