Housing Complex

Is Congress Heights Gentrifying?

The stretch of Alabama Avenue SE by the Congress Heights Metro.

Gentrifying? The stretch of Alabama Avenue SE by the Congress Heights Metro.

Back in June, the Washington Business Journal's Michael Neibauer and I had a little disagreement about a study of D.C. neighborhoods. The study identified 18 neighborhoods that were poorer than the citywide average in 2001 and whose median income and property values have risen faster than the city average since then. Neibauer wrote that these neighborhoods were gentrifying. I, noting that they include very poor (in terms of income, retail, and amenities) neighborhoods like Congress Heights and Barry Farm, begged to differ.

Today, Neibauer has a longer piece out on this phenomenon. It's well worth reading, and it sums up our earlier debate:

The Washington Business Journal reported those numbers in June, and controversy quickly followed. Congress Heights and Barry Farm gentrifying? “No, they’re not,” wrote Aaron Wiener of the Washington City Paper.

“They’re enjoying higher incomes and property values — but they’re a long way from the displacement, racial inversion, retail and construction booms, and skyrocketing prices of the truly gentrifying parts of the city,” Wiener added.

The bar was lower to start east of the river, and the resulting shift between 2001 and 2010 is not nearly as obvious as, say, Columbia Heights or H Street NE, both much further along in the transitioning process. But the results are the same: Younger, single residents. Strong earners. Professionals. Changing faces.

East of the river, these neighborhoods have not yet “gentrified.” But they are undoubtedly in the earliest stages of gentrification.

Most of the story is about Congress Heights, the Ward 8 neighborhood south of Anacostia. Now, it just so happens that I was in Congress Heights this morning. The neighborhood does have potential, but I would argue that gentrification is a long way off.

There's no official definition of gentrification. It means different things to different people. To some, it means rising incomes; Congress Heights has among the lowest incomes in the city, and the lowest of any Metro-accessible neighborhood. (Neighboring Anacostia is the runner-up, in part, no doubt, due to the poverty at "gentrifying" Barry Farm.) To some, it means the arrival of fancy cafes and pet grooming stores; as Neibauer notes, the neighborhood's "main intersection, at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Malcolm X Avenue SE, struggles to maintain quality retail of any sort." To some, it means white faces; there are hardly any of these in Congress Heights.

"Most of these communities east of the river sit on or near Metro," Neibauer writes of the allegedly gentrifying neighborhoods. "Historically, in Washington, that’s a key element to any neighborhood revitalization (see U Street, Columbia Heights and Petworth on the Green Line)."

But Congress Heights' main intersection is more than half a mile from the Metro station. The strip of Alabama Avenue near the Metro is filled with two- and three-story low-income apartment buildings. Sure, there are plans for some development there, but U Street and Columbia Heights and Petworth all had ready-made retail corridors right by the Metro, just waiting for quality tenants. The part of Congress Heights by the Metro doesn't have that.

What the neighborhood does have is St. Elizabeths. The former mental hospital will eventually be converted to a mixed-use campus—or rather, two: the Department of Homeland Security-occupied West Campus and the privately developed East Campus, closer to the heart of Congress Heights. But there's legitimate concern that the federal employees won't have occasion to spend time in Congress Heights and spend their dollars there, instead commuting to and from their suburban homes. Even the Gateway Pavilion—a temporary structure just across from the West Campus that will feature food trucks and a brick-and-mortar food vendor and is intended to help bring DHS employees into the community—will literally be connected to the West Campus by an underground tunnel, so that workers won't have to spend any time on or crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Yes, change is coming to Congress Heights, and to the other locations identified by the study (which did not, by the way, use the word gentrification). But most residents are likely to welcome that change, if it means more retail, an economic boost to local business, better connectivity, and some attention from a city government that's at times neglected the area. The real, threatening kind of gentrification—with displacement of longtime residents and a selection of nauseatingly bourgeois shopping and dining options—is nowhere to be seen.

Image from Google Maps

  • ACyclistInTheSuburbs

    so many silly things

    Gentrification = Racial change? Then canton or south baltimore, where college educated affluent whites replace working class whites, is not gentrification? The neighborhoods in Paris, where, IIUC, the term was born, are not gentrification? And if whites replacing whites is gentrification, why are blacks replacing lower income blacks not gentrification?

    And defining gentrification to mean "threatening" seems circular. Whether gentrification is a bad thing for existing residents is an important debate. Some say they can benefit - if only by selling their houses and moving to suburbs where they can live better. To DEFINE gentrification as threatening makes that debate impossible. Its like the no true scotsman fallacy. There can be no good gentrification, because when its good, its not gentrification by definition.

    Any sensible, usable (and not merely polemic) use of gentrification means the replacement of lower by higher income people and/or by the less educated with the more educated. Whether the data point to that for CH is worth discussing. Claiming that gentrification can't be happening because the nabe is still all black, and the locals arent unhappy, is pointless.

  • The Gentry

    I'm curious to know how Noodlez feels about this.

  • city guy

    I think we miss the point in the debate of gentrification. The problem is that those residents have lived in a neighborhood for generations in poverty. A neighborhood should welcome redevelopment, and place blame for displacement where it belongs, on the institutional failure of a population for generations.

    Congress heights is not a top ten neighborhood, as no low income area is.
    We turn our anger at more affluent movers instead of at the policymakers who fail to solve the poverty problems for generations.

    They're taking the cheap easy way out now, trying to import affluence instead of build it.

    Shake on them.

  • Chris hauser

    601 Raleigh pl se C2A hub zone for lease. 2000 sq ft of space, 3+ car parking.

    Ready when you are.

  • Hillman

    Aaron is right on this one.

    An improving neighborhood is just that - improving.

    It isn't automatically some evil plot.

    Neighborhoods in DC artificially hit rock bottom during the Marion Barry era.

    Anyone that believes they should stay that way is an idiot.

  • NIMBY4Life

    Gentrification can go both ways...sometimes it is an improvement, sometimes it means getting worse. It is not always about race, but it is always about class.

  • ACyclistInTheCity

    "They're taking the cheap easy way out now, trying to import affluence instead of build it."

    You must be young. To imagine, that importing affluence to an inner city neighborhood is considered easy. I remember when there was nothing harder than that.

  • George

    I think you and Neibauer are mostly arguing definitions.

    But the neighborhood is going to change, whatever you want to call it. I don't think it's too early to start thinking about how to make sure that the developmet that does happen there does the most benefit and the least harm to the people who live there.

  • Rich

    Lots of ridiculous assumptions here: "Quality retail" tends to be a lagging indicator--Logan Circle's gentrification had been happening for 20 years before Whole Foods showed up. Well into the 90s, 14th Street was the one place in NW where you could buy auto parts and get your car fixed. Some DC gentrification has had a big African-American component (e.g., LeDroit Park). Other areas provide less extreme examples, but they included places like Adams-Morgan which had never lost its basic retail like Safeway and peoples Drug (now CVS). New investment is often low key--near parks or on side streets or reflective of investments by one or another developer. As for race, places like LeDroit Park were pioneered by African American couples and Black genetrifiers often have gone into places with existing African American populations like Logan or Capitol Hill. Their lack of visibility says a lot about who's doing the viewing.

  • CH Homeowner

    so... i moved to Congress Heights 2 years ago. I am female and white. This seems silly/scary to lots of folks, but I love it. I got an amazing house within 2 blocks of the metro (affordable..with a big yard and off street parking!). The folks in the community have been very welcoming and nice.

    But really, the retail... SUCKS! I've tried to keep it local by going to my local grocery store, Giant, but it's expensive and always packed and a bit dirty. The dry cleaners is a total rip off and the take out places are...terrible. I can say this because I've tried them all. There is only one pizza chain that delivers and I think it's just...sad.

    So i still get in my car and drive across the bridge back to the "real" city and do my grocery shopping at harris teeter, run up to national harbor for a quick bite or take out and run a bunch of errands around my office downtown.

    I'm into this neighborhood for the long haul. it has tons of potential and, hopefully, everyone will start to see that and not be so surprised when it finally happens.

    Come visit us any time. Congress Heights welcomes you!

  • Alan

    CH Homeowner,

    I have been to both the Giant on Alabama Avenue SE and the Harris Teeter on Potomac Avenue (to which I presume you referred above). Both stores are equal in terms of cleanliness and both were generally about equally crowded (I would argue HT was moreso on most of my visits). I have no idea what you're talking about.

  • Murph

    Aaron and ACyclist are right on about the mis-definition of gentrification as involving racial or ethnic change. Another missed opportunity is not reflecting on the converse of gentrification - neighborhoods where children have improved economic conditions relative to their parents, or where young adults grow into greater wealth and economic opportunity as they 'age in place'. There is no displacement going on, so I wouldn't consider this gentrification. Yet, like gentrification, this too may mean that some people who are not so prosperous can not afford to buy in that area, whereas they once could. Unfortunately, no snappy word exists to describe this, that I know of. But the whole discussion really would benefit from being more nuanced.

  • Another CH resident

    I agree that the retail in Congress Heights does suck. I've been to the Giant on Alabama Ave as well and have waited in lines for what seems like hours. It is just an unpleasant shopping experience.

  • Hillman

    There is a protection against being displaced from a neighborhood.

    Buy your house (or condo).

    DC has a ton of programs to help even very low income people purchase their home.

    They've had these programs since the 70s.

    Granted, not everyone can do so.

    But for decades in DC you could buy a home for dang near nothing.

    And many people chose not to.

    Home ownership is hard. You have to fix the roof. You have to tend to things.

    Renting is easier.

    If someone lived in DC in the 80s and 90s and had a chance to purchase a home and didn't I feel very little sympathy for them.

    They made a choice to take the easy route.

    And the down side of that choice is your easy route isn't guaranteed forever.

  • arcataberry

    There are many more trees, 200 year old oak trees, for e.g. in SE than in NW.

  • http://www.stankoniforous.wordpress.com/ WB formerly known as Stank_0

    As a lower CH resident (off Southern at Shipley Terrace), I'm torn by the improvements. My neighborhoods need a makeover, but it will lose the "soul" the closeness of the neighborhood when it happens.
    As for gentrification, a switch from higher socio-economic status black residents has never resulted in an across the board rise in tax rate or property values. Black people cannot gentrify. We generally do not have access to the funds to make those indicators go up, which usually occurs from putting newer retail in the area. Gentrification is a macro-level event and a swap in socio-econ status blacks is not.