OPEN LETTER to Gentrifiers

Isabel Farjardo, Emerson Preparatory School Photography by Jackson Fox- Bland, Woodrow Wilson High School

Isabel Farjardo addresses gentrifiers in her community in an open letter. She reconciles with the sad reality. (Published: 2019)

Dear Gentrifiers,

Mi barrio is a sacred place, once serving as refuge for Latino and other immigrants seeking a room, a meal, a job. Even the DC Historical Society thinks its history is worth preserving, as residents must gain their approval for window replacements that may have the slightest chance Of marring the authentic, Victorian exterior of the century old houses and buildings. I enjoyed playing in the street to Mt. Pleasant Day festivities that celebrated the Latino heritage of most of the neighborhood. Most Saturday mornings after a soccer game, I’d watch my dad order "dos donas de chocolate y un cafe" at Heller's Bakery. I felt connected to my community there, as I did in most Mt. Pleasant establishments. My friend's Peruvian grandfather had owned Heller's years before, and the 1928 mural of a blissfully fluffy cake that decorated the side of the buildings.

Now, only four of the letters on the neon "Heller's" signs are lit up. "Elle," as it's recently been christened, is a fully fledged restaurant that requires reservations. New owners have transformed a quaint bakery into an upscale business. Although I have never set foot inside, it is not difficult to see the types of people that frequent the coffee counter and pay obscene amounts for a "buckwheat financier" (which is bourgeois for "almond cake"). After paying a visit to my dentist (in between his service trips to Lat inAmerican countries), I'd go upstairs to his wife's shop. She had collected souvenirs along their expeditions and accumulated thousands of scarves, necklaces, artwork, toys, and many objects only recognizable by certain residents of the neighborhood. Each visit, shed ensure to give me a ring, its origins an exotic mystery. The shop is now permanently closed and replaced by a boot camp for aspiring programmers. The rings still sit in my house as the only remnants of her in the neighborhood. My dentist plans to retire soon. Where will Latinos find another nearby bilingual dentist?

The multicolored toy capsule dispensers that lined the walls of the laundromats provided entertainment for kids for which a trip there was a routine occurrence, begging their parents for chicle as a reward for their patience. Only one decrepit laundromat remains, the other turned into a “Fit 360” gym. Memberships are expensive, and it is unlikely that if one cannot afford a washing machine, they will be able to practice krav maga there.

Instead of a typical after school snack, I’d stop by the corner store, run by an Iranian immigrant owner. People would stop to grab a quick meal before heading off to work or stand outside to smoke and eat a cheap tamale. It was only after I had grown up and involved myself in other circles that I realized how unique something as plain as a snack was in Mt. Pleasant.

I ate ‘de la Rosa’ Mazapan, charamuzcas, and atol de elote from a woman doling it out from a shopping cart outside. For the joy of these little idiosyncrasies, I feel indebted to my neighborhood; at school, although my friends and I may have come from different countries, we ate the same lunch. The store never sold kombucha or anything with the label craft, vegan, or raw. Now, it’s a small grocery store with prices that match those in Whole Foods. I can only watch as people sit outside and sip cold brew coffee.

Who is responsible for these stark changes? In my neighborhood, young, White progressives seem to be beating out business. For every new Subway, three artisanal cafes have opened. I don’t blame them, though, because Mt. Pleasant lives up to its slogan: “a village in the city.” However, neighbors have come and gone. They seem to first expect the area to be a chic neighborhood in which to raise their children with a bit of multiculturalism and organic produce, and then complain about a “Black man going through trash — called the cops” or “Latino teen shot on Irving” on our neighborhood listserv. Perhaps, they misinterpreted the flash and appeal of a bilingual preschool with a neighborhood free of Latinos, or the exorbitantly high rent with the absence of homeless people.

Newcomers are not the enemy. I mean, who doesn’t want to live in a nice neighborhood? The fact remains that although it may not be intentional, they are changing the neighborhood, and fast. I wonder if the sole reason for preserving the older businesses in Mt. Pleasant is due to newcomers’ desire for the aesthetic, food, or atmosphere. The novelty of a shoe and key repair shop may be why it has not already been driven out.

I am thankful for all that remains, though. Los Esquineros are a group of Latino immigrant men (and a few women) who have convened in a small courtyard next to the 7/11 for decades. Playing chess, joking, smoking, and talking about who knows what constitutes a standard role in this small community.

Los Esquineros are such a neighborhood institution that the GALA Hispanic Theatre hosted a show about them, detailing their lives and, for some, even their deaths. There is no next generation of Esquineros to replace them.

So where do I fit into this neighborhood? I’m half White, so I must be the oppressor. But I’m also half Honduran, so I must be the victim? Then again, I’m completely white passing am not at risk of eviction, so I can’t be that negatively affected. I feel guilty for patronizing these businesses and even working at one, but they pay incredibly well.

I may not be able to legitimately label it all as “gentrification,” but I know that with every brown family business that has moved out, there have only been upscale, majority White establishments that have come in to replace them. Maybe I just resent change.


Isabel Farjardo