Happiness Is the Truth
Gloria Davis sat in a packed tent on the Southwest Waterfront last week to mark the official beginning of at least six years of jackhammering, cranes, and fenced-off sidewalks in her neighborhood. She was thrilled at the prospect.
“I think it’ll be great for the neighborhood,” said Davis, who’s lived near the waterfront her entire life. (“Just say 50-plus years,” she demurred when asked how long.) “It’s something to do, something to bring people in.”
Davis was on hand for the groundbreaking of the Wharf development, which will change the face of the waterfront from a dreary, sleepy area to a bustling new community with more than 1,000 apartments, 350 condos, three hotels, several music venues, a movie theater, offices, and an expanded marina, expected to be completed by 2020 or 2021.
Also in the crowd was 82-year-old James Dean (“the other James Dean,” he said), who moved to the Southwest Waterfront area from northern Virginia seven years ago. He was just as excited. “It’s going to open up a lot of new things in walking distance,” he said. “I think it’ll be great for the city.”
Davis and Dean represent different demographics—black and white, old-timers and relative newcomers—but share an enthusiasm for the changes the city is undergoing. They’re part of an overwhelming majority of D.C. residents who feel this way, across race and age and geographic lines.
According to a new poll from Washington City Paper and WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, 59 percent of likely Democratic voters think their neighborhoods have improved in the past four years, to just 14 percent who say they’ve gotten worse.
There’s a common perception in the city that the rapid changes over the past few years—the glassy condo buildings, the metastasizing bike lanes, the small-plates restaurants, and the $12 cocktail joints—are embraced by the city’s newer, younger, whiter residents and resented by longtime, often black residents. The poll results don’t bear this out.
White residents were actually the least likely to say their neighborhoods had gotten better, if by a small margin: 56 percent say so, versus 60 percent of black residents and 73 percent of Hispanics. Likewise, neighborhood changes are popular among both newcomers and old-timers, with people who have lived in the city for less than 10 years actually the most likely to say their neighborhoods had gone downhill.
The poll results come against the backdrop of a city that’s clearly on the rise in many ways. The population, which declined for decades, is growing to the tune of more than 1,000 residents per month. The economy weathered the recession better than in most cities, though unemployment continues to be higher than the national average. New restaurants and residences are sprouting up in both hotspots like Logan Circle and previously quieter neighborhoods like Petworth, while major development projects are underway from Walter Reed in the city’s north to St. Elizabeths in its south.
Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mayor Vince Gray, says the administrations of ex-mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty deserve partial credit for the city’s recent successes, but that the current mayor is largely responsible.
“Every single one of those new restaurants has opened in this administration,” he says. “They got their permits under this administration. They got their licensing under this administration. It’s really easy for an administration to create an environment where people don’t want to open businesses.” Ribeiro also points to the administration’s outreach to investors, restaurants, and hotels through tours of the city and the annual trip to Las Vegas for the International Council of Shopping Centers conference.
The hat-tip to Gray’s predecessors represents a change of tone for the administration. In December, when Gray held a press conference to mark the first anniversary of his five-year economic development strategy and trumpeted the city’s gains, I asked him if earlier administrations and economic trends might not be partly to thank for the District’s growth. Gray responded by calling my question “debilitating” and shouting, “You’re wrong! You’re just plain wrong!” Ribeiro and a top Gray deputy joined in the jeers, forming a resounding chorus of denial.
Of course, with the mayoral primary coming up on April 1 and Gray facing a federal investigation into his 2010 mayoral campaign, the mayor is doing all he can to focus public attention on—and take credit for—the city’s successes.
But to the extent the Gray can claim credit for the city’s gains, his electoral rivals can perhaps take equal credit. Ward 6, represented by Tommy Wells on the D.C. Council, had the most neighborhood satisfaction in the poll, with 68 percent of respondents reporting an improvement over the past four years. (Meanwhile, poll respondents from east of the river, where Gray has his strongest base of support, were the least happy with changes in their neighborhoods.) Jack Evans has served on the Council longer than anyone and chairs its finance committee; Muriel Bowser took the helm of its economic development panel last year.
The other problem for Gray? Washingtonians’ enthusiasm over changes in their neighborhoods is nothing new. When City Paper asked residents the same question four years ago, responses were nearly identical, with 58 percent of people saying their neighborhoods had improved and 10 percent saying they’d gotten worse. The following week, incumbent mayor Fenty got crushed in the Democratic primary by Gray.
Gray’s win was seen partly as a rebuttal to neighborhood changes that were coming too fast, with “bike lanes” standing in as code for the attention lavished on the city’s newer, wealthier residents. Yet bike lanes have continued to proliferate, as has biking, particularly among more recent arrivals to the District, the new poll shows: While only 3 percent of residents who have lived in the city for more than 20 years typically bike to work, 15 percent of those who have lived here for between 5 and 10 years do. (The margin of error is higher for these breakdowns of the responses, due to the limited sample size.)
But certain changes are appreciated by just about everyone. Neighborhoods across the city are safer than they once were as the city’s murder rate has declined sharply over the past 20 years, although it did rise slightly last year. Test scores indicate a general improvement in the city’s public schools, even if many schools have closed and skeptics attribute the gains more to demographic changes than to better teaching. An improved economic outlook means more basic amenities like grocery stores that choose to open new locations in the District.
That’s why, at the Wharf groundbreaking, Davis looked at me with bemusement when I asked if she thought the changes in the city had made it a better place to live. “Of course it’s changed for the better!” she said, and turned to the stage to learn more about the reinvention her own neighborhood is about to undergo.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery