Are U Street NW Restaurants “Swagger-Jacking?” Maybe, but Our Conversation Needs to Go Deeper
Are establishments like The Brixton and Busboys & Poets guilty of "swagger-jacking?" That's what Stephen A. Crockett Jr. accuses them of today on The Root D.C.—and along the way connects their allegedly pilfered vibes to broader changes in the District:
It’s an inappropriate tradition of sorts that has rent increasing, black folks moving further out — sometimes by choice, sometimes not — while a faux black ethos remains.
In a six-block stretch, we have Brixton, Busboys and Poets, Eatonville, Patty Boom Boom, Blackbyrd and Marvin. All are based on some facet of black history, some memory of blackness that feels artificially done and palatable. Does it matter that the owners aren’t black? Maybe. Does it matter that these places slid in around the time that black folks slid out? Maybe. Indeed, some might argue that these hip spots are actually preserving black culture, not stealing it.
The news peg is presumably The Brixton, the latest Hilton brothers joint on U Street NW. It's a British-style pub that serves mushy peas and, in the vein of every single other Hilton endeavor, aims to transport its patrons to a magical land of sophisticated chill. The Brixton jacks far less Parliament-echoing swagger than the style and affectations of a country with its own long, painful history of cultural imperialism. But I digress.
The not-very-compelling target of The Brixton aside, Crockett's displeasure with the whitewashing of the city he grew up in is—if a frequently mined topic—valid. D.C. is growing, and the people who make up that growth are mostly white, mostly well-educated, and mostly take up residence—at a barstool or in a condominium—in center-city neighborhoods like the U Street NW corridor. And while his pulling-apart of the cultural appropriation of black cool reminds me of the introductory-level critical theory class I took in college, Crockett's concern with an industry that profits on the names of Marvin Gaye and Langston Hughes should be taken seriously.
But Crockett's piece doesn't dig much deeper—or at the very least, the shifting demographic landscape he presents isn't quite complete. He ignores D.C.'s significant non-black minority population, playing into the fallacy that people here are only black or white. (Or only older, black, and poor or younger, white, and affluent.) And what of the fact that the 9th and U streets NW building occupied by The Brixton, the target of Crockett's ire, was vacant and decrepit for years?
Crockett doesn't even answer his own question: Is no black ethos worse than faux black ethos?
Either way, Crockett is right about the ickiness exuded by many of the establishments on U Street. But a discussion of "swagger-jacking"—or whatever you call it—deserves a lot more nuance.
I'm white. Until very recently, I lived three blocks away from Eatonville, Busboys & Poets, Blackbyrd, The Gibson, and Marvin. I've spent money at all of those places. But when I'm confronted by a menu of upscale soul food that includes a) gluten-free options and b) Zora Neale Hurston quotes, I am forced to think about What the Hell It All Means.
I don't have an answer to the faux-versus-no question. And like Crockett, I'm more skeptical than appreciative of the skin-deep tokenizing of African-American cultural signifiers. Still, the city wants the tax base that an affluent, educated population brings, and that affluent, educated population is interested in moving to dense, public transit-accessible urban areas where it can be catered to by bourgie bars and weekend farmers markets. Aside from evacuating everyone from U Street, or Bloomingdale, or H Street, there's no way to stop the upscaling. What will Crockett say if Andy Shallal opens a Busboys & Poets in Anacostia?
"At the very least, it's good that we're talking about this," I told myself while scanning Crockett's piece for the 20th time. Is it, though? Crockett's just saying what we already know: D.C. isn't what it used to be.