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.