City Desk

The Post’s Renaissance Man

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Nothing seems to make our local paper happier than spotting a neighborhood in the midst of a renaissance, a rebirth, or just sort of coming back. Today, we get the happy headline: "A Rapid Renaissance in Columbia Heights" under the byline of Paul Schwartzman.

Let's forget the bad crime rate, the recent conversions of condos to rentals (or the real estate market just tanking in Columbia Heights), the traffic problems, and the displacement of people as the neighborhood's median income skyrockets. Schwartzman doesn't see those things. He sees the big stuff: the big numbers and the big, big box stores set to open on 14th Street NW.

Schwartzman sees "a new world created at whiplash speed."

It's not the first time, Schwartzman has seen a "new world." Schwartzman is the Post's Renaissance Man. He can spot a renaissance from just about any street corner. He can quote residents wishing for it. And he can see a neighborhood teetering on becoming a Ren Zone.

Since 2004, "renaissance" has popped up 15 times in stories Schwartzman has either authored or co-authored. Here's a short compilation of the reporter's renaissance usage:

  • In a December 8, 2007 story on the Giant supermarket opening up in Ward 8, Schwartzman used the occasion to declare: "District leaders celebrated yesterday's christening of a Giant in Ward 8 as fresh evidence of a renaissance unfolding east of the Anacostia River."
  • In a September 25, 2007 story on a hotel moving into Shaw, Schwartzman wrote of a coffee shop owner who considered himself an "urban pioneer, tapping in early to a neighborhood on the brink of a renaissance."
  • In a February 19, 2007 story on the 9th Street Corridor, Schwartzman wrote: "When the convention center opened, politicians and neighborhood leaders hoped it would ignite another renaissance."
  • In a July 11, 2006 story on an activist's murder around 9th Street, Schwartzman wrote: "The Mount Vernon neighborhood has undergone a renaissance in recent years with the opening of the convention center and new condominium buildings. Yet, police and neighborhood leaders said, violence persists."
  • In an April 26, 2006 piece marking the return of the Big Chair in Ward 8, Schwartzman used the moment to lead with this graph: "A minister offered prayers. Politicians and civic leaders doled out testimonials. And there were more than a few attempts to use the occasion to declare that a long-blighted part of Southeast Washington was inching toward a renaissance."
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  • Jim

    I thought it was a good story. You mention the crime rate, so can you please do a little reporting about what the crime rate is in that neighborhood now compared with, say, two years ago? Five years ago? Maybe 10 years ago? Also, if you have any kind of stats on the traffic problems and displacement you mentioned, I and other D.C. residents, and especially Columbia Heights residents, would love to read them.

  • Jim

    I just re-read your post and, as a Columbia Heights resident, I wonder if you are actually suggesting that the neighborhood is NOT going through a very major rebirth/revival/renaissance?

  • Jason Cherkis

    I think calling it a revival is a little much. I think the story of Columbia Heights is a more complicated tale. No matter how many big box stores and luxury condos you throw at a neighborhood, it doesn't necessarily mean the neighborhood is having a revival.There are plenty of urban planners that would argue the opposite. These stores could actually just turn Columbia Heights into a parking lot--not the mixed-use blah-blah-blah utopia you suggest. What makes a community vibrant? Is it a Target? Or is it a user friendly arts space or community gathering post? [I'm not talking about the space filled in with gravel in front of the T-Mobile store nor the coffee shops that close either at 9 p.m. or earlier).

    I think its obvious that there is much displacement going on in Columbia Heights. The median income--as the Post story points out--has gone through the roof. That can only mean one thing: low income and middle class residents are being squeezed out. So the question to you Jim: If you think it's going through a revival then who is benefiting from this revival? Who is it really for?

    Here's my answer: The revival is for: a) people that love airport food (see Cinnabon, Ruby Tuesdays); b) people that can afford bullshit luxury condos; c) people who buy big TVs and video games (ok that's everybody).

    One does not need statistics to point out the traffic problems in Columbia Heights. Just go on 14th Street any time of the day and watch.

    As for the crime issue, go here:

    http://crimemap.dc.gov/presentation/query.asp

    Then type in 1400 Irving Street. And within a 1000 feet of that corner, you will see spikes in various crimes.

  • Jim

    You’re absolutely right about it being a more complicated tale, but doesn’t the Post story reflect that? Can it be complicated and still be going through a revival? Is a user-friendly arts space or a community gathering post the only thing that makes a community vibrant? As you suggest, I think it’s more complicated than that.

    Also, I’ve looked back over my responses to your original post and can’t seem to find where I mention any kind of utopia, mixed-use or otherwise. Nor am I suggesting that a Target makes a community vibrant.

    Of course all the new development could turn the neighborhood into a parking lot, but isn’t that better than what it was a few short years ago? It could do a lot of things, not all of them bad. As a resident of the neighborhood, I am thrilled with the development going on. How much of the traffic problems do you think stem from all the construction going on? Obviously things will be bad for a while once all these stores open, but isn’t a big selling point of this development that so many people can walk to it and take public transportation? As a neighborhood resident that doesn’t own a car, I plan on walking there. Probably most of the neighborhood will do the same. It’s really not fair to judge by what you can observe right now, and it won’t be fair a week from now. You’re the reporter criticizing the story, so you really should find some hard evidence. Same goes for the crime statistics—and not just going back one year (honestly, just posting a web site kinda lazy).

    I think if all the development means lower crime, higher property values, a more diverse neighborhood, more tax revenue and, of course, a Lane Bryant (really, can’t we all benefit from a Lane Bryant?), then everyone in the neighborhood benefits. And if you think airport food is the only available fare in the neighborhood, you truly are not qualified to be criticizing the Post’s story. You can look at any neighborhood in the city and pick a couple of shitty chain restaurants, but to paint the whole neighborhood with the same brush is, again, quite lazy on your part. Ask some of your co-workers. I’m sure they’ll also tell you how off base you are on that point.

    However, if you truly think this is a story the Post missed the boat on, perhaps you should write it instead of simply being snippy about a reporter who actually did the legwork (yet relies far too heavily on the word “renaissance”). A good start would be to find someone who has actually been “squeezed out” of the neighborhood.

    Time will tell whether this constitutes a revival, but your lazy writing (I won’t call it reporting) about the Post story reeks of sour grapes at your paper having missed an opportunity to tell an interesting story about a vibrant neighborhood that a lot of people of many ages, ethnicities and incomes truly love.

    I look forward to reading your story.

  • Jason Cherkis

    The problem with your suggestion is that its an old story. Pick any neighborhood in this city and we've done that gentrification story whether its my cover story(!) last week or our coverage of Arthur Capper, Adams Morgan, etc.

    Here's some helpful links:

    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/cover/2006/cover0113.html

    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/cover/2005/cover0520.html

    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/display.php?id=34646

    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/special/2005/target1223.html

    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/districtline/2006/anacostia1117.html?navCenterTopImg?navCenterTop

    I'd be able to find more if our archives weren't currently under construction. As to the crime rate, sorry but I'm just gonna stick with the link. No time! I'm on a story!

  • sara.h

    if Jim thinks that the traffic is going to get better when the construction is finished, he should take a ride out to the Target at Potomac Yard... (see: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2008/03/04/thank-you-for-visiting-the-commonwealth-of-virginia/)

    While a lot of neighborhood residents are going to walk or take public transportation to DCUSA, a lot of them are going to drive (their own cars or Zipcars) so they can haul their purchases home, just like they do now in VA. I think it's foolish to think that the traffic is going to be better any time in the foreseeable future.

  • Jim

    I completely agree, Sara.h. The traffic in the neighborhood will get worse. It's hard for me to sympathize with any of the complaints about that, though. But I still don't think it's fair to judge it by how the traffic is during the construction.

    And would I trade a crime-ridden neighborhood full of burnt-out, empty buildings and vacant lots for what it has become, traffic problems and all? Yes.

    Cherkis, I realize you and your paper have done excellent work in the past on gentrification issues, but be honest, you didn't read my whole response, did you? Judging by your other posts here, I would say that you likely took yet another shortcut.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    With all due respect, if you believe that newspapers are key to the "Growth Machine" (Molotch) agenda, this is an old story.

    What's really interesting is to go back over a 15-20 year period and study Post coverage of a particular neighborhood. I've done it for H Street (but haven't written it up), from the early 1970s, through today.

    What's sad is to see how every few years a new program was trotted out that would fix everything and of course it didn't. Finding an article from 1984 showing some of the people I was trying to work with in 2003 through the Main Street program was an important, if too late lesson, on why they were polite,but diffident and noncommittal.

    The Columbia Heights story should have been longer, and it didn't adequately cover the back story (the Hafts holding the Tivoli for many years, the DC Govt. chosing DCUSA over Forest City, etc.), but what do you expect?

    I'm more concerned with the editorial pages... at least with some of the Post journalists, you can talk with them, they'll respond to your emails, and I have taken some of them around on tours that led to/and or shaped stories.

    The editorial page people don't give us the time of day...

  • J

    We posted a lengthier rebuttal to the Post piece, which really is quite poor reporting: http://campusprogress.org/opinions/2618/all-you-need-is-shopping

  • thefrontpage

    The City Paper is right in this case, folks. Yes, neighborhoods undergo rebuilding. Yawn. Of cours they do. But most of the time, that's just half the story. Most, if not all, of the time, these rebuildings suck--they literally suck the life out of the neighborhoods. Somewhere in time, some iditots thought that razing historic buildings, gutting classic rowhouses and townhouses, getting rid of mom-and-pop stores, trashing affordable housing, giving robotic chain stores free tax breaks (which is unfair), putting in a bunch of bland, boring glass structures that are just ugly, tearing up the landscaping and just overall making everything boring, bland, dehumanizing and overly-expensive, was progress. Folks, it's not progress. In the long run, it's not even productive. It's a sham. It's going back 100 steps. And, in a real way, it's very anti-neighborhood. Yes, anti-neighborhood. Keeping mom-and-pops, keeping the historical nature of the neighborhood, welcoming long-time residents, keeping boring chains OUT, keeping local businesses IN, restoring historic structures, and keeping the real, actual, living neighborhood charm of a community are the real answers. That is real pro-neighborhood work. Anything else is just window dressing and stupid dog-and-pony shows. We should be able to see through the crap from the developers and the builders and the greedy politicians.

  • dcdude

    Sorry frontpage. I have to disagree. Do you recall what was there before the DCUSA and all the condos went up in Columbia Heights? NOTHING! Vacant lots full of empy liquor bottles. How's that for historical character? If you can't see what's happening in Columbia Heights as progress, then I don't know what's wrong with you. And you know all the poor long-time residents that everyone is so worried about in all this gentrification? They're THRILLED that they don't have to drive or take the bus to the burbs to do their shopping. And they're thrilled that the neighborhood is finally safe enough that they can actually walk their own streets. Also, independent local shops are great if you are of a certain class and income level. But let's face it, they can't beat national retailers when it comes to the things that most working folks need: value and selection. You're only mad because development isn't happening in a manner that caters to YOUR consumer preferences.

  • sanegirl

    these are the kinds of pieces that make your paper not only predictable, but insufferable. i suppose empty lots and boarded-up storefronts are better than big-box stores. how about some history: did you know 14th and irving was a main center of commerce in the city before the 1968 riots happened?

  • PNWxNEDC

    If the folks at City Paper spent half as much time on their own product rather than nitpicking another paper's coverage, they'd have something I'd actually read.

  • andrew

    Most of the writers over at the City Paper are just rich kids who rent rooms in group houses with no real investment in any community...other than wherever their parents live, which is usually where they go back home to after about a year. They look at an incredible development story in a great neighborhood like Columbia Heights only through the eyes of a recent college grad with strong left-wing, activist political views. Those views, comments, belgian beers, artsy clothes, and poor work ethic are all subsidized by mommy and daddy. Since they don't know anything about real work, committment, or community (other than their usual, tired, brief stint in the Peace Corps - where they did no more than socialize with like-minded shirkers), they can only criticize those who are productive. The good news is, they all go home to mommy and daddy eventually, to leach off of them for a couple more years, until mommy and daddy pay for grad school and force them to go. By the time they 30, they have either come to their senses, are in rehab, or have moved to Key West.

    Maybe somebody should write a story about that? I would read it.

  • Matthew Borlik

    Andrew: Make clueless generalizations that leave you looking like a bitter and insecure old fart much?

  • antonio

    oh, the drama in columbia heights. its an "alright" neighborhood, i don't know why everyone is so in love with it.

  • Mike O

    I'm curious to know if Mr. Cherkis or frontpage live, or even visit, CH.

    While the cost of housing in DC has surely displaced some CH residents, however it should be pointed out that all of the glitzy developments displaced zero (0) units of housing. Most were built on empty lots, which makes The Man v. Mom and Pop theme (which the Post seems to love in most cases) moot. Yes, one can quibble with the choice of tenants (Best Buy AND Radio Shack? Target AND Marshalls?), but this is literally a case of something from nothing.

    Your consumer snobbery speaks for itself. If you saw the criminally bad produce (not an exaggeration, the place should have been shut down by the health inspectors) at the old Giant or the large numbers of African American and Latino CHers who patronize Ruby Tuesdays and Cinnabon, our lack of macrobiotic green grocers might not seem so tragic to you. CH still has a wealth of pre-existing businesses, and I'm sure, were you to visit, you would patronize the four liquor stores within a block of my house or the oh-so-appealing eating options along Park Rd.

    The traffic is bad, yes, this is why we have a Metro. Excellent planning by the DC government to put the biggest new development in the city literally on top of public transportation. For once, our taxes dollars well spent.

    frontpage's airy comments about neighborhood change belie the fact that CH was gutted (literally and figuratively) 40 years ago and the place is just now making it back. The fact that CH, finally, offers modern consumer advantages (and their attendant civic and economic advantages) for the people who have lived there for decades is a good thing. Not sure what kind of person would think it isn't.

  • AJ

    "Here’s my answer: The revival is for: a) people that love airport food (see Cinnabon, Ruby Tuesdays); b) people that can afford bullshit luxury condos; c) people who buy big TVs and video games (ok that’s everybody)."

    Not to mention people who like to buy food without getting into a car, new parents like myself who appreciate being able to buy affordable baby gear by only walking five blocks to Target instead of driving to Alexandria, and those who like to live in an interesting and walkable neighborhood with strudy pre-war houses close to where they work without having to rely on a car.

    Yes there is still crime, drugs and rock throwing kids. But do you really think you could compare the Columbia Heights of 10 years ago with it today and act like nothing has changed. Come on.

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