Thursday, May 16, 2013

Missing the moral fortitude to oppose gentrification

Why I'm not gonna get involved

I got back from walking Jetta at about 10:00 this morning. On the last leg of the walk, Jet and I went down a block with several newly planted street trees. It was obvious that when those trees reach some green-crowned maturity, the whole streetscape will be beautified. Into the bargain, the air will be a little bit cleaner and the houses below will be little bit cooler on an 80-degree day like today. The houses will all be worth more, too.

That all sounds good, I suppose. Who wouldn't want to live in a more valuable property, in a cooler house on a shadier street?

Nobody would wish otherwise I think, assuming the changes don't suddenly make living there unaffordable. But that's the way Washington, DC is headed for a lot of people who have roots here two or three generations deep, roots deep in the house they live in now, deep in the neighborhood, deep in a local church, deep and solid like the work they did and the businesses they built and maybe passed on.

Parts of Northwest DC have been very upscale for a very long time. The rest of the city has long been a different place--majority African American, lower income, and frequently the object of official disinterest and neglect. But always home to hundreds of thousands of African Americans who were born here or moved here, were educated here, raised families here and from here participated in every struggle for freedom and civil rights and for a new deal and a better deal.

You don't really have to walk down a street and see a few young trees to predict that upscale and mostly white and very professional Northwest DC is expanding inexorably into Northeast and even parts of Southeast. You can see it at every Red Line Metro station in Northeast. You can see the mid-rise, high-density housing coming for the recent college graduates and the new political interns flooding into the city. You can see it in every remodeled supermarket with their salad bars and their health food aisles. You can see it in the new taverns with craft beers on tap replacing the old neighborhood bars. You can see it in the fading community churches selling land to developers. You can see it in all the new young families moving in, some black, most white.

When the change spreads far enough, DC will be a majority white professional city with first-class bike lanes, new trolley lines and, even, improving public schools. Though there will be a spreading chain of Bus Boys and Poets restaurants and bookstores with a bias toward empowerment and human rights, all the bus boy-poets, like the young Langston Hughes once was, will be gone. No more of the community that nurtured Chuck Brown's Go-Go mix of funk and soul and rock 'n roll, either. No more of the Chocolate City that showed George Clinton and Parliament the love.

It wasn't all good. No way. After Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, rioting in DC left 12 people dead, more than 1,000 injured and 6,000 arrested. Twelve hundred buildings were burned, almost 1,000 businesses destroyed. Historic black business strips in Columbia Heights and U Street and H Street were devastated. For some, the riots were merely an opportunity to take what they felt had been denied them. But for others the riots were an expression of pain and loss and frustration and rage. Still, even some of the scars from the riots have acquired a patina of beauty and a whiff of something profound just from aging in place. From enduring. Those monuments of street and struggle will be gone, also.

What a loss. It's too bad that I don't have the courage or fortitude or energy to join with the opponents of gentrification here in the city, don't have the will to testify to the value of the community and the history and the slaves and free men who came here and built this city.

Right now, I live in the nicest house I've ever lived in on the quietest street I've ever lived on. The house may get a little nicer over the years as we work on it. Those changes might not make the house more valuable, but they will make it even nicer for us. The street won't change much, either. But the streets around us will likely improve in that the houses on those streets will be renovated and remodeled and, as time goes on, increasingly occupied by people who are wealthier or more professional than the people they replaced. And everybody's house will go up in value. Quickly. So will their taxes.

People unable to keep up with higher taxes and insurance premiums will move away. Heritage and soul and community of a particular sort will be lost. And I won't be standing in the way.

I like that my house will increase in value. I like that a super market will be developed nearby. And that we won't have to leave the neighborhood to find a good restaurant. I don't want to live anymore in a neighborhood that's falling apart, like Five Oaks in Dayton did, or in a low-income community with a lot of marginal housing and big parking lots and no trees like 33rd and S. Wallace in Chicago. And I can't work up any particular hate for the newcomer in our DC neighborhood, either. After all, we're among the "pioneers" in a neighborhood that was fully pioneered long before we got here.

So, I'm not going to stand in the way, but I'll tell you that I dream of something else entirely. I don't want to be a gentrifier. Nor do I want to be gentrified. Instead, I dream that someday I'll live up in northern Michigan somewhere, near Petoskey or Traverse City. I'll build a big, roomy house to live in, on a piece of land that's green and inviting and all of you who go on fighting the good fight will be welcome to come by and stay for a little R & R.


  1. And you don't think northwest Michigan has suffered gentrification? It gets harder and harder for local people (non-lakefront owners) to get to any kind of beach every year, and of course property values and taxes follow the same course they do everywhere... but there are nice restaurants and groovy little gift shops, bookstores, etc. Don't get me started.

  2. I'm guessing you'll guess who Anonymous is pretty easily.

  3. Hmm. Indigenous to the area? Ready to share an opinion and hard to stop once she's on a roll? The girl from Beulah?

    There's always been a lot of outsiders (many from Chicago) snatching up property for vacation homes on the west coast of Michigan. But some of those invaders were Jewish socialists from the city who established summer homes north of South Haven on a development of their own they called Workmen's Circle. They surely added something of value in their years there and didn't push anybody out.

    Of course, that's not the case anymore. Those properties, by and large, have passed into the hands of more upscale professionals who have renovated and are in the process of building year-round homes. And the invasion further north is certainly class-based and, as you suggest, is making some property in your homeland unaffordable.

    But those changes pale in comparison to the speed and intensity of the race and class changes going on in the city that George Clinton called the capitol chocolate city of all the chocolate cities.