City Desk

When Is A Story About Gentrification Not About Gentrification?

TBD’s Ryan Kearney complains that Adam Serwer’s recent piece for The American Prospect is a “how-to” on writing a story about gentrification. Kearney takes issue with Serwer’s description of changes that have happened in Petworth, like organic groceries and farmer’s markets, calling it “a tiring litany of gentrification signifiers.” 

To be sure, Serwer treads familiar ground, but for a national magazine’s audience, the descriptions can serve as a useful shorthand. Kearney says that Serwer “coyly describes without naming” Capital Bikeshare—but that complaint seems like extremely small potatoes. When writing for national audiences (including at The American Prospect), I’ve found that the proper names of programs and services often lack meaning to people who’ve never heard of them.

I asked Serwer, a D.C. native who happens to be a friend of mine and a past contributor to Washington City Paper, about the piece. Perhaps not surprisingly, he thinks critics are missing the point.

“It’s not really a story about gentrification,” he says. “That’s sort of incidental. It’s about the fact that the structural inequities we see in the rest of the country are replicated in D.C., despite its supposed ‘immunity’ to recessions.”

And that’s true. Setting aside the talk about new restaurants and breeds of dogs, the recession hasn’t hit people living in the region equally. While unemployment in the metro area is still incredibly low at 6 percent, within the city it’s higher than the national rate, at nearly 11 percent. While nationally, teen unemployment is at 25 percent, in D.C., it’s 50 percent. These numbers are all being skewed upward due to black unemployment.

Serwer adds, “D.C. becoming a safer, more prosperous place didn’t change much for a lot of people who theoretically should have benefited from that.”

Photo of Petworth Safeway by ElvertBarnes via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License
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  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    hum drum

  • meanteeth

    ...and that Safeway sucks for all of us.

  • T.A. Uqdah

    I'm really lost with this term "gentrification;" so I don't use it.

    When "coloreds" moved to DC around the beginning of WWI, history records it -- and DCPS still teaches it -- as "the great migration." When it happened again in 1945 -- and "Negroes" moved here in mass -- at the end of WWII, they still called it the "great migration," only the "2nd one," to distinguish it from the first.

    When "whites" trickled out of DC, as the "Negro" came in under the 2nd wave (1945), they subsequently exited in droves, by the mid-50's, after Brown v. Board of Ed.; "white people" couldn't take it any more. Many a private school, in this country, has its "founding date" circa Brown v. Board. By the end of the 1968 riots, "they" had abandoned ship and Washington, DC quickly became known as "Chocolate City."

    It was always a "wonderment" to me: "Where are all the white people," when I viewed the trophy cases at Cardozo, Roosevelt, Coolidge, Western or my alma mater, Eastern? I went through 13 years of a DCPS education, between 1957-1970, and during that entire period, I recall none in elementary school, (River Terrace), maybe 6 in jr. high -- and that's because Jefferson was an out-of-bounds choice for the city's best and brightest -- and only 1, my entire 3 years at Eastern. "Where did all the white people go?"

    But no where in these above scenarios were blacks ever classified as gentrifiers or whites ever classified as "some other type," unless you want to consider "white flight" as an appropriate terminology. The only thing that either group had or has in common is the color of one's skin and the treatment or lack of it -- like it or not -- based on that skin color.

    During these periods "redlining" for the "Negro" was commonly practiced; I would even argue it continues today. Back then, many a "Negro" had to have co-signers to purchase homes in the District, as evidenced by the dozens of "seniors" I know, who have lived in their homes since the 40's and 50's, but names do not appear on the deed. The former Riggs Bank (now PNC) would not accept "green" money from "black" people, much less extend them a loan.

    "Working class" or not, it's kind of hard to maintain the value and up-keep of your property when lending is based on race and neighborhood -- and not necessarily in that order.

    I don't hold it against anyone for "moving-in" as others "move out," as long as we're all willing to accept that opportunities are abound and racism is still in full force and effect.

    "Gentrification" is not applicable in this "Petworth" instance, because the persons moving out were not "low-income;" they were "working middle class." You want to study "gentrification" in the DofC, look at SW, Foggy Bottom or Georgetown, that was created by an Act of Congress, in 1951(?) -- all "port" neighborhoods -- that's "gentrification." But what's happening in Petworth is not.

  • KJN

    Normally I find Adam Serwer's writing and thinking to be excellent. But this piece for the Prospect didn't deliver. I understand the point (that the economic improvement in the DC area bypassed the underclass), but he couched it in terms of gentrification, and so buried his lede so deeply few could find it.

    As I've said, I love reading Serwer's writing (and was therefor selfishly disappointed to learn he'd no longer be blogging at the Prospect - good for him, bad for us), but this piece didn't live up to his usual level of incisiveness and clarity.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    The closing of the Madness shop means something but people who aren't from the city probably didn't even recognize or notice.

  • Java Master

    I don't belive in "gentrification"I only believe in turning neighborhoods around and rebuilding them for the next generation of residents regardless of who is doing the rebuilding. And I won't subsidize the so-called activists--or the loser ANC reps--who scream the loudest about this. Go ahead and scream, you are still moving out when I raise your rent!