Housing Complex

Is This Local Journalism’s Future?

So, I wasn't going to puncture the warm bubble of approval that surrounded the release of A City Divided, a project by American University journalism school students that looks at gentrification across the city. Why snipe at such a well-intentioned effort? Good for them for taking on such a big subject.

But then, my colleague Alex Baca–who just recently defended her thesis on gentrification and displacement in Anacostia–went ahead and did it anyway, which gives me cover to snipe just a little bit.

Alex's beef is basically that by rehashing these tropes that we all know to be true, and grapple with every day–Columbia Heights has both modern retail and poor folks! Gays hang out on U Street now! Sometimes people can't afford to live where they used to!–the project further divides the city instead of illuminating how we often face similar problems and need to think about city-wide solutions. I agree.

But what bothers me most isn't the potential effect on how people think about the city. Mostly, it's journalistic practice. The writers start out with this idea of Gentrification ("the G-word") and use it as a shoebox to hold all their stories, like this one about a church in Anacostia, where the pastor's fairly standard message of personal uplift is characterized as "fighting gentrification through faith"–without going into whether "gentrification" is even happening around them, and if so, what it looks like. Does it mean the mixed-use megaproject at Sheridan Terrace that will replace dilapidated public housing? Or efforts by local businessowners to fix up their storefronts and attract customers from across the city? Are these really things to be feared and fought against?

I don't want to be discouraging, but it's depressing how much this looks like a precursor to the sort of pieces that annoy me most–emotion-heavy, substance-lite reiterations of the conventional wisdom, all wrapped up in new media without the innovation (this roundtable looks all ready for CSPAN).

I'd really love to see journalism school students digging into these issues on a daily basis, instead of with one fluffy package that they can show off to potential employers. This city needs more reporters who follow development issues, because God knows there are dozens every day I can't get to, and TBD won't be interested in. It doesn't need journalists who start out with an preconception of what's going on and find talking heads to paint it over with a broad brush.

  • Paul in VIrginia

    "emotion-heavy, substance-lite reiterations of the conventional wisdom, all wrapped up in new media without the innovation"

    Well said....

  • http://ustreetgirl.wordpress.com u street girl

    I've enjoyed reading your and Alex's take on this project -and I completely agree. Didn't mean my post (on DCist) to be seen as a warm bubble of approval. I was just trying to present the project, with its pluses and minuses, and leave the reader to decide. As a former journalism student, a lot of the stuff made me cringe - but as someone who is no longer a student and gets paid to do something resembling journalism, I didn't want to rip them a new one either. Glad to read the criticism though, I didn't get the the glowing reviews on other local sites either.

  • Indeed

    The real question is: who is going to read that website anyway? It keeps on getting publicity, yet as you've demonstrated, Lydia, it's a questionable endeavor. Very few people care what American university journalism students have to say about the city.

    Please don't spend another second of your time writing about this. there are so many other stories out there, which I know you're interested in. Keep up the good work, Lydia!

  • foldingtime

    I really think that "gentrification" is a meaningless word.

  • http://www.borderstan.com mattyillini

    What about their professors? Where are they in this?

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

    Well, to be fair, students at this level don't spend enough time to really understand what's going on. That can happen at the thesis level too, I think this one e.g., is pretty weak:

    Kathryn J. Wells
    Selling Shelters: Public Property Gentrification in Washington, DC (2008)
    Maxwell School, Syracuse University
    http://www1.maxwell.syr.edu/geo.aspx?id=36507222365
    (I'll send you it, if you want. It's about neoliberalism and Franklin School.)

    I guess I'll have to read your colleague's thesis too.

    But some student work in DC is pretty good as well. I think the whole Gentrification thing is very difficult for people to really get a handle on in a few months, especially if they have no exposure to urban sociology and the Chicago School ("ecological succession") not just Neal Smith (although I think Loretta Lees' work is pretty amazing although I will admit I have a couple of her books that I still haven't finished).

    For your work, you'll have fun if you drop in on various CUA urban design studios, especially for the undergrads, who tend to be a bit more creative than the grad students (they don't have as constrained thinking patterns yet).

  • amanda

    i agree that the package of stories is simplistic and light on substance, but i also don't buy the whole gentrification-doesn't-exist, we-can-all-find-solutions b.s. either. whatever you want to call it, poor people are largely not benefiting from the city's growth (as 2009 census results showed clearly) and low-income renters are gradually being forced to move to PGC as a result of there being fewer and fewer cheap apartments around. HOPE VI projects won't fix that, neither will smart growth. whether it's a bad thing or a free market reality is open to discussion, but it's a discussion worth having, rather than pretending that solutions are on the way. they're not.

  • Sam

    The history of DC neighborhoods, like many larger US cities, is one of change: up, down and vice versa. Gentrification and yes, de-gentrification have see-sawed across DC. Do we remember that Anacostia or upper Georgia Ave. once had a large white population? (so too did Prince George's County). That Shaw once housed wealthy whites? Are we really shocked that lower income people get moved around by our market driven economy? Neighborhoods often can get disinvested for various reasons. What then to do with decades of deferred upkeep? Do we want DC to look like devastated west Baltimore or northern Detroit? Do we want the wealth to be much more in the counties around DC? What of the not-so-affluent "minority" property owners in Wards 1,2,3,4,6 and 8 that cashed in on the market uptick in rents and house prices? As they sold to whites or upper income types they laughed all the way to the bank and to a real county they now live in.
    A better question is how many low income people should DC support and be home to compared to the region? And how to help make poor people permanently not-poor?
    Poor people don't need just jobs. They need assets as a cushion and ladder and they need a huge mental and physical break from chronic poverty and lack of education and access. There is an enormous level of dysfunction, ill-education, and inability to plug in in very poor communities in DC: less than 12% of all Ballou High graduating seniors went on to any college upon graduation.

  • Lydia DePillis

    @U street girl: I think that's why a lot of journalists might have held their fire. But why not share the benefits of your wisdom and experience? It would be too bad if these AU kids didn't graduate, do better, and tell future j-school students the same thing.

    @amanda: Definitely wasn't arguing that gentrification and its discontents don't exist! Just that they ought to be talked about in concrete, enterprising terms, not vague emotional ones.

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