Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chocolate City Just Got A Bit More Vanilla.

Since moving here from NC after college, DC is my home. Most of my family and friends live here. I met my wife and had both of my kids here. It's a vibrant and diverse city full of fun (and often free) stuff to do. We enjoy four seasons of weather that's seldom extreme. There's a million and one parks. The pro sports teams suck royally, but there are lots of em'. With the exceptions of the cost of living and traffic (and the pro sports teams), it's a pretty ideal place to live. I couldn't imagine living anywhere else (no shots fired, Atlanta or Charlotte) and will probably be buried somewhere in the DC Metro Urreah when all's said and done.

In short, I love DC.

I say all that because as a black person of decent means, I suppose I should be agitated over the city's gradual pigmentation shift over the last decade and change. Once known as Chocolate City, the District Of Columbia's population has grown in recent years, but the percentage of blacks in the city continues to shrink. Ask any historian, cultural critic, or Uptown hustler what all this means and you'll prolly get a million and one ominous responses. Me, I'm not so sure.
When new census data revealed last month that blacks are probably no longer a majority in Washington — a status they had held since shortly after World War II — some residents read that as confirmation that the District’s black identity is slipping away.

From politicians to talk-show callers, in diners and schoolyards, many Washingtonians — and especially black residents who have spent all their lives in the city — took the census numbers as proof that the District is turning into one more majority-white city. But in politics, business, culture and sports, the public face of Washington is still largely African American, and there’s considerable evidence that it may stay that way for a long time to come.

Washington remains “a magnet for black intellectuals, the black middle class and the black creative class,” said Richard Florida, whose theories about how the creative class of academics, artists and professionals vitalize cities have been the core of several best-selling books. Florida, who moved from the District to Toronto in 2007, said his interviews with young people across the country “identified greater Washington as a place they wanted to live — young policy wonks, foreign-born techies, gay professionals and also ambitious, college-educated African Americans.”
The Washington Post story rambles on and on about how gentrification has driven blacks out of DC (and into surrounding suburbs), replaced by moneyed white and working class Hispanics. The bottom line seems to be if Chocolate City is less, well, chocolate, what does this say about the city's long held reputation as a mecca for African Americans? Personally, I don't see the big deal.

DC is always going to be identified as a "black" city. Culturally, so much to the city's fabric from Duke Ellington, to Fredrick Douglas, to Walter Washington is identified with black people. No, I'm not talking about "Federal DC" where all the lawmakers reside. That's practically a different city within the city itself. I'm talking about The Big Chair, go-go music, Ben's Chili Bowl, Yum's curryout, U. Street, mambo sauce, The Shrimp Boat, and Saturday nights in Adams Morgan. Real DC. No influx of hipsters and yuppies is going to change that.

To find the gradual brightening of DC as inherently evil, you'd also have to subscribe to the theory that all gentrification is inherently evil. Personally, I don't. Yes, it's unfair when people have to leave a rent stabilized apartment building because some developer wants to build condos. That's also just life. It happens. The tradeoff is that cool new Target Store on 14th, the revitalized 7th Street corridor, the slowly developing ballpark district, and the upcoming streetcar system that will eventually link Ward 8 to the rest of the city.

Yes, some people caught a bad break as a result. But the city, I honestly believe, is better off with the influx of new taxpayers. Crime has dropped, housing values (even in some of the roughest hoods) have grown, schools are generally getting better. And through it all, the city's culture remains mostly intact. I'm sure some others will disagree. That's fine. But let's not make more of of this than there is.

Chocolate City, even with a lil' vanilla, will always be Chocolate City.

Question: Does a city lose it character and culture when the people associated with that character and culture move to the burbs?

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