One More Thought on Lumen8 Anacostia: The Feeling of Losing Control
While I was busy contemplating transience, Elahe Izadi over at WAMU did some reporting at last weekend's Cherry Blast, taking the temperature of partygoers just setting foot in Anacostia for the first time. For many, the experience was a boost over the psychic barrier created by perceptions of poverty and danger. That wasn't necessarily the point of Cherry Blast—the Pink Line Project's Philippa Hughes emphasized that it was mostly about finding an available warehouse to show off the city's cultural side—but it's probably the only event that's had that kind of effect on as many people at once.
That kind of mental shift among river westerners, which was more tangible the previous weekend at Lumen8 Anacostia's daytime kickoff party, has a couple of effects on river easterners. On the one hand, Mike and Patsy Wiley moved to Anacostia from Northwest D.C. about six months ago—looking for a cheap house in a neighborhood on its way up—and thought the pop-up street party was fantastic. "I thought it was great," Mike said, as they stopped on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, pointing at the ramshackle structure parked on top of the warehouse. "They had a Busboys and Poets! Everything’s on the uptick."
Charles Wilson, who's lived in the neighborhood for about five years now and runs the Historic Anacostia Block Association, hears those reactions among some people he talks to. But he also hears something different: A distinct unease about the gentrifiers at the floodgates.
“I think we all want change, but we want to be able to control what that change looks like and feels like," Wilson says. "It felt a little bit like we were losing control of how we want that change to happen.”
He remembers living in Trinidad, and how the H Street festival brought folks from other parts of town, which was soon followed by an influx of newcomers. It's a common pattern, of course; others remember the old U Street and Columbia Heights. Nobody has a problem with more residents, per se—but what would it mean if Anacostia went that way too? "Any time the face of a neighborhood changes, the issues of top priority change," Wilson explains. "You gotta be careful what you ask for. Can you have it both ways? I don’t know."
The thing that really bothers Wilson, and others in his circle, is the notion that all these newbies are what's needed to revitalize the neighborhood. They passed around a blithely boosterish Huffington Post piece, which took all the activity as a sign that in a few years, "we'll treat Anacostia as just another normal corner of our unique and rapidly evolving capital city."
It struck Wilson as vaguely imperialistic. “We can to go H Street and change it, and we can come to Anacostia and change that," he said, paraphrasing the attitude. “I think that type of entitlement bothers people. If you want to come in and be a part of it, okay. But don't come in thinking you’re going to make us better because of your skin color."
Fair enough. Current residents need to be convinced that new businesses are there to serve them, not just newcomers. But the thing is, more residents of any skin color would better the case for retailers and restauranteurs to come locate there, which everybody says they want.
As it happens, Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal tells me he's talking to the owner of Uniontown Bar and Grill about working out some sort of deal for the space. It's far from finalized, but evidence of solid interest nonetheless. And a Shallal outpost, as anyone familiar with the Busboys effect knows, would make the kind of change that starts to stick.
Photo by Lydia DePillis