City Desk

“It’s Been Invaded”: Newcomers and Native Washingtonians Clash at Gentrification Panel

This was not the Prince of Petworth's crowd. An hour into the "Humanitini" gentrification panel at U Street's Tabaq Bistro Thursday night, blogger Dan Silverman was having trouble even being accepted as a resident of his own neighborhood. “It's not your Petworth, Dan,” said one woman. “It's mine.”

Silverman corrected her: "It's really our Petworth."

The rest of the Humanities Council of Washington D.C.-sponsored gentrification talk went like that, with some trying to assure the audience that if newcomers and native Washingtonians just looked each other in the eye and hung out sometimes, the economic and racial changes convulsing the District would be smoothed over. Not everyone was having it, though.

"One thing that I have come to understand is that white people don't understand black people," said Dianne Dale, the author of a book about Anacostia.

Almost everyone on the panel already had a gentrification mini-controversy to their name. Author Natalie Hopkinson clashed with Chevy Chase's Politics & Prose in July after they briefly turned off her go-go mix CD at a reading, and writer Stephen A. Crockett Jr. caused an Internet flap in August after he accused U Street restaurants of "swagger-jacking" black culture. Moderator and Express local news editor Clinton Yates writes fiery articles on the topic for the Post (today, he's on Union Market's renovation). The Prince of Petworth is the Prince of Petworth.

The only ones without a claim to button-pushing fame were National Journal reporter Elahe Izadi (who used to write WAMU's DCentric blog) and Dale (but give her time!).

"[U Street] feels like it's been invaded," Dale said. "I don't mean that to be insulting." Hopkinson was more conciliatory, describing the feeling that newcomers to Washington were just waiting people like her to die off.

With the exception of some attention from Izadi and Crockett, though, there was little talk about the elephant in the room: money. Newcomers aren't able to live in D.C. because of The Plan or some ever-increasing quota for non-black residents; they can live in an increasingly expensive Washington because they have an economic advantage over the people being pushed out. There's a racial connection to that, but that's not all there is. Ignoring comparative wealth left the discussion stuck on who can really call themselves a Washingtonian, like an argument over whether champagne not made in Champagne is really sparkling wine.

But the reluctance to discuss money and class created some interesting dissonances. An announcement that former Mayor Anthony Williams would be on a future panel was met with approval from the audience, until Dale reminded us that Williams is no more a native Washingtonian than your average Hill intern.

"I don't know a busboy or a poet that could eat at Busboys & Poets," Crockett said at one point. But at the end of the panel, Hopkinson urged audience members to walk the block to the restaurant and buy her book. So is Busboys & Poets a beachhead for gentrification's moneyed shock troops, or is it a cultural jump-off for Washingtonians native and not? Maddeningly, it's both.

"Gentrifiers, you got it, you won," said Crockett, who moved to Maryland from U Street after the area became too expensive.

But what did the newcomers win? Two of them—Silverman and Izadi—were trying to keep ahead of the same tide of change that drove other Washingtonians into Prince George's County.  When Yates asked the panelists where in the District they would choose to live the rest of their lives, Silverman declined to say he'd stay in Petworth. And Izadi chose Southeast, or maybe Northwest, but only if it stayed the same.

Photo by Daquella manera

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  • Daddy Grace Fish Sandwich

    There's a serious racial divide in the District of Columbia between blacks and whites. We need to have a serious discussion on race openly. I've read the Prince of Petworth and I've read some vile racist comments on this blog. People can hide behind their computers and say how they truly feel in their hearts.

  • pon

    what's a newcomer? izadi is local to the dmv. silverman came here only 4 years after hopkinson, both back in the 1990's.

  • Leelah James

    I agree with Daddy Grace. This sounds like this was an attempt discuss race, but it seems like it may have fallen short. But I'm not surprised. Conversations about race in a forum tend to lose focus, and people are left angry with no action plan.

    Going forward, I think any discussion about racism should be paired with a discussion about class and money. This is not news, but the result is more action and less cacophony.

    I mean, some white folks have money, some don't. Some black folks save money, some don't. Some latinos have money and speak English, some don't. Yet, one ethnic group is shown favor over others, depending on which neighborhood they live in or visit. This is not a healthy way to live, because it limits our ability to move freely as citizens in a supposedly free country. This happens because of segregation (self-imposed or not), yet we convince ourselves that America is not segregated.

    You may ask, "Well, has integration worked?" Sadly, it hasn't yet. For one, integration has a sour taste in mouths of many blacks, because it rarely benefits us (I'm black if you can't tell). I argue that the great experiment of integration hasn't happened at all. Look at the way we live.

    The point of integration was to make resources equally available under the law, yet we've abandoned our ability to uphold it. We've given up on voting, democracy, and having our voices heard on a local, state, and federal level. No wonder we're still having these problems!

    It is important to acknowledge our cultural differences, but at some point, we have to come together and recognize our similarities, and do something about making our conditions better if we are to get anything done.

  • Daddy Grace Fish Sandwich

    Noted and agreed, Leelah James.

  • CityRez

    Were there any African-born, DC residents.business owners there being told by African-Americans that they're not black?

  • Typical DC BS

    @Leelah, loved your comment: "Conversations about race in a forum tend to lose focus, and people are left angry with no action plan." Seen it happen a few times and it's a real head-scratcher to solve.

    @CityRez: Had a roommate in college from Nigeria, a guy who was an Ibo. His dad was a leader there and my roommate, older than us at 24 and with some military and martial arts background, had an English accent from being educated in London. When our school's Black Student Union president came to recruit him, "Mike" looked at him incredulously and said "You are not black, you are brown. I am black." The BSU guy was dumbfounded. When "Mike" held up his arm to BSU fellow, the difference was noticeable to my white-boy eyes finally. Mike told him to GTFO and don't come back. When I finally asked him why he did that, he haughtily said he was 100% black and not a "mongrel". I got quite the education that day.

  • Over the River

    There's a serious divide in the District of Columbia between idiots and non-idiots. Everyone take the goddamn chips off your shoulders and learn to live with each other.

  • Remote

    Well, if you want to keep repeating "there's a racial divide," go ahead, but why not get closer to the issue on a more day to day basis. I've been here since 1989, I live in a teeny tiny apartment, same one for a LONG time, am I a gentrifier? One thing - among m a n y - that I notice among the transplant whites is that they tend to shun things that are associated with long-time DC residents or natives (black and white), things like riding the bus. So there's that kind of thing. There's also just a basic like of respect for those that came before. That is something I noticed when I first moved here. Few transplants are truly humble, and fewer want to be. It's seen as a sign of weakness. Many transplants prize resume over residency. So that is a POV that is going to be very hard to move beyond. Aside from these rather pedestrian observations, DC people just have a very difficult time forming a meaningful community. Especially in NW. (Also, not all transplants are white; and not all natives are black. Ok, that was obvious, but someone had to say it.)

  • Kevin

    @Remote: "Few transplants are truly humble, and fewer want to be." Yeah, no generalizing there, eh?

  • Remote

    Just the pattern. Majority are not humble, in my experience. Sure, a few here and there. But most arrive pretty defensive and oversure of themselves. Which is a little natural. I think that if there were fewer transplants overall, then people WOULD be better behaved and more humble, but when you see everyone (transplants) around you acting kind of arrogant, I guess the tendency is to do the same.

  • LeelahJames

    @Remote, it's true. I am not from here, but I've lived here long enough to vote and know my way around the city.

    But because I'm black, the question I get from black residents, "Where are you from?"

    The question I get from non-black residents, "Are you from around here?"

  • LeelahJames

    Again, @ Remote: "Few transplants are truly humble, and fewer want to be. It's seen as a sign of weakness. Many transplants prize resume over residency."

    I tend to notice this too. I think that for many newcomers, this is their first taste of "The Big City," many of whom have never experienced real diversity. It can be a bit of a culture shock. But really, in order to be successful in the District, professionally and personally, you have to learn to adapt.

  • The Java Master

    I live where I live because I can afford it and YOU cannot! Get your shorts in a bunch if you want to , but I'm not moving any time soon-- I'm a gentrifying badass and I will knock that chip off your shoulder, sucka.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    For the record -- Dianne Dale lives in Beltsville, Maryland and has for many years. She is a very bitter person expressing animus towards people of all ethnicities and socio-econonimc and educational backgrounds. Her remarks about Mayor Williams are clownish. Her other remarks speak for themselves in their juvenility and outright ignorance.

    These sort of events are held here and there in Washington and often devolve into what apparently happened here. The Humanities Council should do a better job of moderating. An upcoming forum at the Wash Post will assuredly be closely moderated and thus more focused toward the topic(s) of the forum.

    There is much not discussed her. Many of these "gentrifers" are upper-middle class, well educated black folks that have a disdain for DC blacks. This is rarely discussed and what it is (like Shani Hilton weak ass dog shit) it is not done well.

    Also -- no one talks about the city's history -- something of which the Humanities Council is supposed to celebrate/recognize fully not selectively. While Washington, D.C. is a very special place for black folk the city has always had white people. The problem with this new white people is, most of them, don't care about the city's history and carry on without a care in the world talking about beer pong, the New Yorker, etc. These white people act as though the city didn't exit before they landed and the black folks don't really know the history of the city outside of "oral history" so everything becomes emotional and based on identity.

    But yeah, that Prince of Petworth dude is kinda weak. Yeah he's been blogging for a half dozen years which deserves rep for consistency but what does his site really contribute? It is a forum for white people to joke with other white people about dog pictures...

    White people love discovering other white people. Black folks need some cheese with their non-stop wine.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    @Remote -- dead on right

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    Hopkinson's book reads like an English Arts Capstone Project by 9th graders at some random DC charter school.

  • Karl

    Navel gazing. Glad all involved in this debate have so much time on their hands.

  • B’dale res

    I thought we were protected by law to live where we want if we can afford to. People that can't Accept change will lead a selfishly angry life. Good for them, they have that right should they choose it.

  • Frustrated

    Many black residents seem reluctant to accept that there are black gentrifiers moving in to DC and living amicably alongside their white, Asian, and Latino neighbors. Also missing from the conversation are the black homeowners who are selling their homes to gentrifiers at huge profit and the very wealthy black business people who have chosen to live in Prince George's County rather than the historically black neighborhoods in the District.

    For years the lack of development in majority black neighborhoods has been attributed to racism and discrimination. Now that development is arriving, the cry of racism and discrimination still exists. DC was majority black for decades and run largely by blacks. Black politicans still wield tremendous power in the city and control key institutions. There is a lot of black talent, money, and power in this city. You cannot blame the shortcomings of indiviidual blacks in Chocolate City on The Man.

  • Wallach Place

    I live a block away and am not sorry I missed it! The DC Public Forum seems far better a week before even though some might say it was organized by far-fringe elements.

  • DC Native

    This is a good discussion. It may not go anywhere but it's better to be talking than not talking.

    I was born at GW in '67 and raised in Tenleytown. I'm white. I moved to Columbia Heights in 01. Does that make me a newcomer?

    I guess it does since I'm a newcomer to CH but I've been in DC my whole life (minus my 20's). I'm sort of neither a "newcomer" or a "DC native."

    In any event, I totally acknowledge that most black folks have every right to be mad about all sorts of things including gentrification. I'm even overwhelmed by the changes in the District in my lifetime and sometimes aren't sure how to feel about them.

    Hard as it is to talk about, bottling up that unease can only be bad.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    Next time I won't let the copy editors at the Wash Post edit and post my comment!

    @Frustrated - Well said. The Humanities Council needs to have you on a future panel if they continue this conversation past the next two discussions in this series. Email them at humanitiescouncilwdc@gmail.com

  • Remote

    @Leelah James:
    " But really, in order to be successful in the District, professionally and personally, you have to learn to adapt."

    I wish we could make an adverb out of community, because I would add communitarily to the list. Communely? Doesn't really work. Guess what I have in mind fits under "personally" but what I mean is to fit into your community and more important, contribute to it. Hmmm..maybe civically is the word I'm after.

  • seeseehpounder

    @Remote: Good observation that newcomers don't like taking the bus. How dare them not love riding the bus. That's unfathomable. They probably like nice stuff too right? Like nice restaurants and stores. Oh, and they also probably figure if they are going to spend a lot on a house for it to be nice too? Maybe they prefer low crime and nice schools in addition. How dare them come into your city and spend huge amounts of money and demand nice stuff. That's the way the world works. Sit around and have debates hosted by Marylanders about the inter-workings of DC, but the fact is that if people spend their money they want nice stuff. If you don't have nice stuff people with money don't move in and you won't get their taxes to pay for nice stuff. The trick is, don't have anything nice and people won't move in, i.e. Ward 8.

  • Remote

    You prove what I'm talking about: associating riding the bus with high crime and general "not nice" things.

    Thanks.

  • CJ

    @seesee.

    Please stop talking. Remote's comment was spot on and you're proving his point in the ugliest way.

    People who ride the bus, no matter their socio-economic status, like what you so eloquently call, "nice stuff." The fact that they don't equate bus riding with inferiority, while you do, is exactly the point Remote was making.

    Grow up.

  • JustMe

    The bus is slow and the arrivals infrequent. I, for one, will almost invariably bike somewhere rather than take the bus. I'm not really sure what the problem with that is.

    A lot of the tension seems to stem from the fact that, historically, DC has chased away all the residents who wanted a better quality of life off the PG county. Now DC is dealing with people who move here and decide they're going to improve their quality of life right here in the District, and then get the stink-eye for not being "humble" (what they seem to mean is "servile").

    Many transplants prize resume over residency.

    That's what a "meritocracy" is.

  • Lynn

    DC Native, you understand the issue. The Java Master - stay out of Bethesda. I would not like an arrogant punk like you for a neighbor. Are you a bully at work too?

  • oboe

    Author Natalie Hopkinson clashed with Chevy Chase's Politics & Prose in July after they briefly turned off her go-go mix CD at a reading...

    Followed by...

    Hopkinson was more conciliatory, describing the feeling that newcomers to Washington were just waiting people like her to die off.

    Yes, when it comes to the type of person who goes ballistic when a go-go CD is briefly interrupted for a poetry reading, the city is going to a better place when you've died off. Or at least turned your Offend-o-Meter down about 50 notches.

    Also, to the "It's not your neighborhood, it's mine!" person: You are looking at an increasingly painful few decades coming up. You might want to adjust to the new reality.

  • oboe

    "Gentrifiers, you got it, you won," said Crockett, who moved to Maryland from U Street after the area became too expensive.

    Just to be very clear about what this means: "too expensive" translates literally to "can get a bigger house in the suburbs."

  • DC Resident

    I came to the District in 1966. Great stories about the racial divide were printed daily in the local media. Every year since then the same stories. Just change a few names and dates of the stories. A few wannabes get quoted in the paper as some try to sell themselves and their stories. Eventually everyone gets bored with the stories or move to Maryland or die off. Big deal. The next group will tell the same stories. That's life.

  • Chgobluesguy

    I grew up in DC. During my childhood most of DC was receiving no economic development and was in a slow death spiral. We looked at places like U Street and couldn't believe that at one time it was a destination of choice for nightlife. So it's a great story that DC has come back to the extent it has. Life is better overall. I'm just puzzled at the preferences of those to whom the development is geared: bike lanes, artisanal cheeses, $15 "handcrafted" cocktails. I am not bitter; I still live in DC and I've been able to profit modestly from the real estate boom. I grateful that things have gotten so much better in my city; sometimes though it just seems that my city is gone has been replaced by Portland. But what are the alternatives? The glass is 3/4 full and I'm not going to bemoan the other quarter too strenuously.

  • Rebecca

    I wasn't at the panel forum, but the comment section on this article seems to be providing a more well-rounded and honest discussion than the panelists themselves. I think that the types of people who participate in these forums tend to represent the extremes. Neighbors who get along probably have better things to do, like help each other with yardwork.

    Both "sides" of the gentrification divide are contributing to the problem by perpetuating stereotypes of the other side. This is aided by the sensationalist-leaning media - who wants to read a story about neighbors getting along, when you can read one about someone accusing another of invading "their" neighborhood?

    Given new articles like these, it's easy for newcomers to assume that all longtime residents are like Crockett or the resident who informed Silverman that Petworth was "her" neighborhood, not his. When you think your new neighbors aren't going to accept you, why bother getting to know them or learning about the neighborhood's history? Obviously there are some people who aren't going to make the effort no matter what, but for many white gentrifiers, I think much of the reluctance to put themselves out there stems from white guilt and an aversion to stirring up racial tension. It's easier to hide in your renovated rowhouse and pretend like gentrification isn't a problem than it is to have an honest discussion with your neighbors about who you are and why you moved to the neighborhood. I don't say this to criticize anyone, I just say it because I think it's the truth and it would be better if we all just came out and said it.

    At the same time, longtime residents need to meet their new neighbors halfway. One could easily assume that all gentrifiers are white, dog-park-loving rich people who are only interested in turning the neighborhood into the next Dupont Circle. Longtime residents should question this stereotype. While these self-absorbed a-holes no doubt exist, most gentrifiers are regular people just looking for an affordable home in a safe neighborhood. And some of them are black, so any discussion about gentrification needs to also be about class and education. Saying that "white people don't understand black people" is generalization at best and prejudiced at worst. And I don't think this is an opinion held by most people, but of course it's more interesting to print than something less inflammatory.

  • John

    "Many transplants prize resume over residency."

    Uh, this is a problem?

  • oboe

    "I'm just puzzled at the preferences of those to whom the development is geared: bike lanes, artisanal cheeses, $15 'handcrafted' cocktails."

    Wait, you honestly don't understand why anyone would want to ride a bike in a bike lane in this city? Also, people pay $100+ for a single ticket to a Wizards game, and somehow buying a $10 hunk of cheese for a special occasion is completely alien to you?

    Perspective-taking fail.

  • oboe

    "Many transplants prize resume over residency."

    Uh, this is a problem?

    This sounds like something that someone who wasn't favored enough by God to be born in DC would say.

  • Nick

    With average home prices above $300,000 almost everywhere in NE and NW it's just not possible for people with household incomes around $50,000 to live there. The math doesn't work. Slowly the low income people in those neighborhoods, almost all of whom are black or latino, will move somewhere else. In the meantime there will be a lot of anger. This is an economic issue and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Hopefully things get re-sorted sooner rather than later. We have been slowly pealing off the band-aid. We all know home prices are going to stay high and that will change neighborhoods. Let's get it over with. We need more condo conversions, streetcars and people putting their houses up for sale.

  • Juanita de Talmas

    I'm always struck by how these so-called debates always get bogged down in black vs. white, when the reality of 21st century America is that we are rapidly approaching the point where no one race is in the majority. If any one thinks "their" neighborhood is going to remain the same in the face of these demographic changes, they are in for a rude awakening.

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

    Cityrez -- re your q about Af-Am vs. African immigration and business development, see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/24/AR2005072401136.html

    re Latinos, which you didn't ask about, see From "The Painful Lessons of Mount Pleasant: Alienation Felt by Hispanics Caught Mayor and City Off Guard," by Christine Spolar, Washington Post, May 12, 1991, A1:

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  • LisaT

    Good discussion for the most part.

    Just a couple things:

    "Few transplants are truly humble, and fewer want to be." This seems to assume that transplants are supposed to be humble, is that the case? Because they moved here from somewhere else? Is that automatically supposed to make them humble? If I move to another city do I have to go with my hat in my hand? With all due respect, I honestly don't understand that comment. This makes it seem like "old timers" are due something from "newcomers," but something that the newcomers don't know about.

    Also, with regard to people getting involved/not getting involved, knowing their neighbors/not speaking to their neighbors, isn't that their right? I love a community feel to a neighborhood, and even better my block, but if folks want to keep to themselves and others want to be out and about and involved, who cares? That's not unique to DC and it's not a recent perspective, especially in urban areas. People have a right to be private if they want to.

  • mona

    One thing no one has asked is what is it that the old residents want? Do they want things to be like they were 15-20 yrs ago? Do they want to have urban blight and Starbucks? There is all this talk of gentrification and all this hostility and name calling but no one is offering a solution. If there is no solution and things are just going to progress the way they are then why are we talking about this? What does NY City do with areas like Park Avenue? Do they have a couple of "affordable housing" units in the same building where John Lenon lived? No, I can assure you they don't. Stop complaining if you can't offer a solution

  • http://urbanturff SML

    I have lived in Washington, DC continually since 1966 and have seen all the changes that have occured. As mentioned in the article, and ignored in most of the comments, is the "800 pound gorilla" -- money. I now live and own a house in an area, Lanier Heights in northern Adams Morgan, which if some told me back then that I would live, much less own there, I would have told them they were crazy. Before me, a very nice multi generational working class family had rented the house for decades and kept it up as nice as they could. They could have bought it for a fraction of what I paid for it and could have afforded the first price but chose not to do so since they thought it was an outrageous price for the neighborhood at that time. Now I see H Street NE, Petworth, Pleasant Plaines, etc. all getting the same mind blowing prices that were unthinkable just a few years ago.

    Whatever people feel about being 'dissed' now relations in DC are actually much better then back then. DC was a southern city with southern patterns of segregation--i.e., pockets of both races surrounded by areas different then themselves--Georgetown and Foggy Bottom and Tenleytown once had black majorities...and..for new comers...Anacostia was more than 60 percent white until 1960. Houses were being sold that still had old covenants prohibiting (but no longer enforceable) to 'members of the Hebrew race.'

    All that has changed for the better. There is only economic prejudice---you can be white, black, brown, yellow, male, female, transgendered, any race, any creed, etc. as long as you can afford it. To the 'oldies' how many well to do black people hung out in the hood? To the newbies, one should be respectful of cultural differences and sensitivities.

  • name

    Eh. There is a professional class of black activists in DC that still live for the lie which was called "The Land of Milk and Honey" promulgated after the Civil Rights era. Unfortunately that economy and culture, which was developing largely in a vacuum created by rampant drug violence, drug use, a disdain for police enforced law and order and an economy that was dynamically changing (I assume urban blacks, like many whites expected the manufacturing boom era to continue indefinitely and where thus unprepared for the education boom) was a short term effect. DC, like many cities, was an economic sink hole which encouraged a zero cost-of-living lifestyle.

    To compound the problem, the city had a "black first" hiring policy, which wasn't so bad for WMATA and most city services, but has been a disaster for DCPS. You could get a degree from the worst colleges in the country (no-show classes as long as you paid tuition), and you had a job in DCPS. Many teachers when given the funding for a master's degree, spent it on more of the same. We're now in the 3rd generation of abysmal teaching effort. Think about that: the city had a blatant policy of ignoring childhood education for 40 years. It's criminal and it's no wonder folks in poorer parts of DC can't find jobs.

    Now that the drug violence which subsidized the urban lifestyle has subsided, many people want to live in DC again. It seems to be the people who were unaware that they were living in an economic vacuum are having a hard time facing the reality of the rest of the world. Folks think that you can live on nothing but a city check and occasional work because they did. For years. That's no longer possible, and the reality is an existential crisis.

    I'm not sure anyone moving in has to feel bad about it. Folks are still living a subsidized life in DC on their backs. People had 20-30-40 years to get their lives together and join the larger world. Many decided not to ignoring 5000 years of human history. As temporary caretakers of the city (As all of us are), they allowed the houses to crumble, the rivers to be polluted, children to grow up in violence and filth which is why there's such an enormous mess to clean up now.

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