Villified revitalization: in defense of gentrification

When getting off the Metro at Shaw, Nick told me to get off at the S St. & 7th St. NW exit and avoid the R & 8th one. It was my 22nd birthday in a foreign city and after work Nick had invited me to have drinks with him in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. He had found a new bar, specializing in sherry and artisan prosciutto and I was happy to try anything once.

Of course, in contemplating how someone even thinks of making a bar devoted to sherry and glorified bacon, I forgot about Nick’s advice and exited on R & 8th St. As I came off the elevator, I could see why he had warned me. Two cop cars were parked on the curb, idling as the occupants lazily scanned the rows of the stoic brick subsidized apartments and dilapidated Victorian row houses. But as I walked up the block to the bar, the buildings abruptly went from shabby to swanky, epitomized by the bar in question being flanked by a microbrewery and a niche soul food parlor entitled Southern Efficiency.

It was with this frame of reference that I was surprised when I found out Shaw was once a mecca for African-American culture and academia. The birthplace of Duke Ellington and home of Howard University, Shaw was a thriving satellite of the Harlem Renaissance until the 1968 D.C. Riots brought the community to economic decay. However, in recent years, the neighborhood’s central location in the District have caused an insurgence of young professionals and places that sell $13 pork and kale sausages.

It is no wonder that gentrification has become a dirty word—one that conjures images of young old-money professionals tearing down the homes of poor people of color in place of vegan free trade coffee shops and eco-friendly apartment complexes. Gentrification has become synonymous with erasing a neighborhood’s culture and perpetuating cycles of racial inequality. How can there be an upside?

While I believe that what has happened in Shaw is tragic in terms of the history that is being paved over, I have one other anecdote illustrating why gentrification can be positive. During the late 1980’s, my parents lived in an apartment on Florida Avenue, about two blocks from U St. When my dad visited me this summer, he showed me the building before we decided to walk through Meridian Park, a scenic block of ponds, waterfalls and trees. While we walked past the beautiful art deco architecture and picnickers, my dad told me how that was the first time he had entered the park. The year he had lived there, Meridian Park was a drug park, with guns and overdoses leading to more than a few deaths.

Like Shaw, the U Street corridor has a storied place in D.C.’s African American history. Until Harlem overtook it, the neighborhood was the U.S.’s largest urban African American community. Following the 1968 D.C. Riots, it too fell into a state of economic lethargy and drug trafficking. And finally, in recent years, it has seen widespread development, including luxury apartments and upscale dining options.

And yet, as journalist Garance Franke-Rute points out, “black population loss in the [U Street] neighborhood actually slowed as gentrification picked up.”  This is echoed by Steve Conn, a history professor at Temple University, who found that “poor and working-class residents in gentrifying neighborhoods were 15 percent less likely to move out than residents with similar socioeconomic profiles in other neighborhoods in the city.” This stems primarily from the decrease in crime and increase in services, like education that come with development. While some residents may have to pay a little more, many are happy to pay these premiums. Likewise, with the addition of mandated permanent affordable housing, diverse socioeconomic groups are guaranteed to stay in the community.

While some may bemoan U Street’s move away from its historic African-American roots, I believe the corridor has been sufficient in giving homage to its history—with the construction of the Langston Hughes Lofts and Duke Ellington Apartments—while becoming one of the most diverse neighborhoods in D.C. in recent years. Not to mention, despite its historical importance, U Street is merely the latest neighborhood in flux. After all, before becoming an iconic homosexual haven, the Castro in San Francisco was a working-class Irish-Catholic neighborhood. Before the Great Migration, Harlem was home to Dutch, English, Jewish and Italian families (though this demographic change came under decidedly unsavory and racist circumstances).

Gentrification has gotten a bad rap. While it is sadly inevitable that some low-income residents will be pushed out of these neighborhoods, the number is far lower then if no gentrification were to occur. Similarly, as seen in the gentrification of Boston’s Southie and Charleston neighhorhoods, development can be slowed to allow long-time residents to acclimate to the changes. When done correctly, gentrification creates happier communities. It improves schools, decreases crimes and creates businesses that will cater to a diverse socioeconomic community. In cities and neighborhoods that are in states of economic stagnation, this sounds like a no brainer. Take notes, Waterville.

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