Thursday, May 17, 2007

DC: Not So Chocolate City

A recent census report issued yesterday confirms what many already know: DC is getting alot whiter.

The 14 percent increase in non-Hispanic white District residents and 6 percent decrease in blacks from 2000 to 2006 are probably the result of the gentrification of once-affordable city neighborhoods, demographers said.

The impact on the city's racial makeup is noticeable. In 2000, blacks made up 60 percent of the District's population. By 2006, that figure was 55 percent.

If the trends continue, the city will almost certainly cease to be majority black by 2020, said Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. "It will wind up more like a Los Angeles or a New York, with no clear majority."

I spend a lot of time in the city, but I'm a suburbanite, so I can't really say I've got much of an opinion either way on gentrification anymore. I used to see it as a travesty that erased the social fabric of a town and replaced it with an edgier version of the exurbs. Starbucks proliferate every corner. Bed Bath and Beyonds replace bodegas. And ultimately, poor and working class people of color are elbowed out to make way for monied whites.

Now, not so much.

Reality is, gentrification comes down to one thing: money. If you can afford, and are stupid enough to pay $650,000 for a brownstone that used to be a crackhouse, more power to you. Do that. It just so happens that whites are more willing to do this than blacks. That's not necessarily racist, although one race is effected more than another. Likewise for the leading trigger of this exodus: the conversion or destruction of apartment buildings and Section 8 Housing to make way for pricier real estate. But even then, it's a simple matter of economics: if you don't own anything (ie: you rent), then you aren't entitled to live anywhere. That's how this country works.

DC's U Street is a prime example of gentrification at work. About 10 years ago when I moved to DC, I'd spend entire weekends down there hitting the clubs (Republic Gardens, Bar Nunn, UTopia, Club U, etc.). This was definitely the place to be. But I would have never, evar considered living there. It was dark. It was rundown. And it was unsafe as hell, especially for folks stumbling out of clubs half drunk at 3am (not that I'd ever do this of course). Outside of the club scene, and the obvious energy that it brought, there was no other real reason to be there. Of course, cities can't be maintained by partygoers.

10 years later, U Street is very different. A few of the clubs I used to frequent are still there, but now there are also million dollar luxury condos, million dollar rowhouses, a Metro stop, chic clothing and furniture shops, high end restaurants, and of course the obligatory Starbucks. You're more likely to see white faces as you stroll the block than what I recalled back in the day. There is also more police presence, better lighting, better retail, etc. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Only a person who lives on U Street could really tell you this. My view as an outsider, however, is that this is change for the better.

People who argue against gentrification also miss one very large part of the equation: blacks with money are choosing not to live in cities anymore. I'm sure lots of people will see this as an abandonment of "our people" and "turning our backs when we make some money", but reality is, lots of black people grow up in urban settings. They grow used to crime, congestion, poverty, etc. Most make a conscious choice to move somewhere with more room to grow, safer streets, and better schools. This isn't racist either, it's just what it is: choice.

The only true losers in this entire equation are the elderly who may no longer have a mortgage, but see their tax assessments go through the roof as their property values rise. Cities should do things to assist, and maybe limit this financial strain for retirees. That's definitely not good.

Otherwise, what's not to like? Slightly changing the makeup of a city does not change the complexion of what that city is. DC may inch closer to being Vanilla City, but it will always be the birthplace of Go-Go, and Marvin Gaye, and Duke Ellington's Playground, and HU Homecomings, and Anacostia, and....

Times change, but history doesn't get erased.

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