The District of Gentrification

By Bliss Davis | Potomac

According to Merriam Webster, the textbook definition of gentrification is “the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper or middle-income families or individuals”. Simply put, gentrification happens when people with money start fixing up poorer neighborhoods to conform to middle or upper-class tastes. Earlier this year, both classes of the Advanced Humanities Seminar got to see it firsthand on a field trip to the historically black U-Street Corridor. After learning about historic buildings like the Industrial Bank and the Howard Theater, we were shocked to see how much the neighborhood had evolved. There were so many examples we made a game of it. A Lululemon next to a Soul Cycle next to a West Elm a block away from the Lincoln Theater? Gentrification. The African-American Civil War Museum replaced by a CVS? Gentrification. Four different artisanal coffee shops within three blocks? Definitely gentrification.

We all seem to know gentrification when we see it. However, upon greater research, I discovered the causes and historical background behind the process to be much more complex.

As property prices increase, property taxes follow suit, thus increasing the cost to rent property in the area. Landlords need to increase rent prices to keep up with heightened taxes, which often forces out lower-income residents. The problem only gets worse when restaurants and stores with low-cost options are priced out and replaced by establishments that cater to wealthier tastes, thereby increasing the cost of living. According to a recent study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, our nation’s capital has the highest intensity of gentrification in America. 40% of DC’s lower-income neighborhoods experienced gentrification between 2000 and 2013, and more than 20,000 black residents were displaced during that time.

Gentrification is not simply a recent issue created by Millenials who like organic coffee and SoulCycle. Decades of discriminatory institutional practices have made communities in major cities vulnerable. Throughout the 1930s and 1960s, the federal government labeled neighborhoods with predominantly people of color as “unfit for investment”, a practice known as redlining. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago directly linked historical redlining practices from the government-sponsored Home Owners Loan Corporation to the modern withdrawal of funds from communities. White flight during the mid-20th century involved the growth of white suburbs, the phenomenon of white people moving out of urban areas, and the mass exodus of capital from urban centers. Highway system expansion and urban renewal programs provoked mass clearance of homes and businesses to create opportunities for the upper class, which further drove both public and private disinvestment. Lastly, the recent foreclosure crisis left neighborhood homes vulnerable to be purchased and flipped. All of these historic conditions came together to help set the stage for gentrification.

In historic areas like U-Street, gentrification also involves “black branding”: the commodification of the black experience as a marketing strategy to attract white buyers. U-Street’s history as “Black Broadway” therefore creates a prime opportunity. On our tour, we passed a beautiful apartment complex called the Ellington, which clearly gives a nod to U-Street’s relationship with the musician Duke Ellington. Not long ago, the city’s association with blackness was negative. Majority black areas like U-Street were seen as unrefined and dangerous. Now, organizations, realtors, restaurant owners, and urban planners claim blackness as a marketing tool to promote tourism, homeownership, and community redevelopment. While some argue that these changes show some level of acceptance towards the black identity, I find this benefit minimal at best. As black branding occurs alongside the displacement of black people, it’s hard to view this “appreciation” as authentic. This commodification not only reduces black history to a gimmick but also actively harms those who helped create it.

During our field trip, I saw Ben’s Chili Bowl as a great model for a true environment of inclusion. From the moment we walked in, the atmosphere of energy and positivity was palpable. While Lauryn Hill’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” played from the speaker above the door, two of the cooks and the cashier joined a few patrons in singing and dancing along. Historically, the restaurant has served people of all different economic and racial backgrounds (from janitors to jazz musicians and even US presidents) and this trend seems to remain true today. As a staple of the U-Street Corridor, Ben’s Chili Bowl is a place where the pulse of the community is both felt and heard. The restaurant stayed open during the 1968 riots, survived drug wars, and remains standing despite the dramatically changing neighborhood and city. Because of the neighborhood’s history, I took the chance to ask Virginia Ali (one of the founders) how the restaurant has survived the changing landscape, and she told me that one of the secrets to the place’s success was the fact that Ben’s Chili Bowl “offers comfort food and a place for people to meet and catch up with other members of the community.” As she explained, “there are new people coming in but the atmosphere has stayed the same.”

Neighborhood redevelopment presents the possibility for true racial integration and increased equity, but it’s not enough for different demographics to simply “share” these spaces. True integration demands the creation of systems that work for different racial groups. The African-American population deserves to profit from the decreased crime and economic growth that comes with development. There have been dozens of proposals to address this issue, from preserving low-income housing to programs that protect small businesses. In my opinion, the most crucial change must be the promotion of neighborhood organizations that bring people from different backgrounds to advocate for themselves. These ideas all point to the most important task ahead: creating more inclusive cities and neighborhoods that truly address the needs of a diverse group of stakeholders.