[I have granted my earthly agent, Prof. Christopher Chambers, leave to post today, as he is concerned that candidates for his local ward boss and other offices are running against whites and “loosing their” locales, in the way the Slave Power did when I was alive, or in 2010 with the whites among the Tea Party. I suppose he feels it’s the ultimate “Stockholm Syndrome” irony. I will have to research that term soon. In that connection, have it, sir. —D.N.]
Upon reflecting on the piece in the RootDC/Washington Post linking some concepts of Columbus’s voyage and Columbus Day with gentrification, I thougt I’d add some thoughts of my own. They are not pleasant ones. They are not about linking arms and singing. They are dirty. I am a DC native. My family and others abandoned places like DC when crime, nihilism, poverty, riots, politicians pandering to baser instincts tore it and other cities apart apart. Does that make us, even me as a child, part of the problem? No. It just created new constituencies for politicians described above. This is a catch all that includes local black machine politicians of the 70s—what Marion Barry de-evolved into by the late 80s—activists and their progeny today, AND Southern Democrats turned Southern Republicans in the Congress from Reconstruction to now, enabling an impovrished, violent Indian reservation/Bantustan, except for the parts they liked or within they had to mix and patronize. Then you have “West of Rock Creek Park,” where true Washingtonians lived and put up with that yoke because it seemed to be the only thing keeping the “savages” from bursting through the gates.
First dirty secret: in Washington we aren’t talking about the truly interesing and impactful phenomenon. Latinos. Here, not engaged Chicanos/Mexican Americans in the west, or Puerto Ricans in the Northeast, or entrenched Cubans in Florida. Here, it’s “new” immigrants from Central and South America. Their numbers have exploded in the District of Columbia and their children, American citizens, are often the only reason some DC public schools remain open—on an ESL program. They are displacing or replacing black people. Yet to black people the enemy—as we all need enemies rather than brave introspection—is “white people.” Latinos in DC are largely disengaged from the polity. Many are undocumented and/or living in “mixed” households where some are citizens, some aren’t, some have no knowledge of our culture and some are fully assimilated. Many who are “legal” or born US citizens are too young to vote; those who are, don’t, because they don’t see the point. Some are getting pregnant very young and short circuiting educational opportunities, some are stone cold criminals. But most aren’t. Regardless, most of these folks are are plugged into an above-ground economy, just on the lowest rungs, as cleaners, laborers, fast food, some semiskilled light industrial, some skilled blue collar. They are great at helping bust unions.
That still gives them a leg up on many black people in DC. Too many of us are in the under-ground economy, under-ground culture, with no alternatives…not even a pipeline to learning trades or even laborer/construction skills; some of us don’t want those jobs and never did. There “mixed” households too. But here, it’s mixed with varying degrees of functionality and dysfunctionality, and here lay the dirtiest secret of all.
Second dirty secret: The urban removal and redevelopment brand of gentrification—where you take out the slums with a bulldozer, or replace ramshackle retail, strip clubs, crackhouses, warehouses, etc.—is pretty rare here. H Street NE commerical strip is one of he exceptions, as is the area extending from the Capital Building to the Waterfront in Southwest to Nationals Stadium to the Navy Yard. There are the planned projects or projects extant around Washington Hospital Center, Catholic U., Howard U. Some of this began at the genesis of “urban renewal” around the Korean War era post 1951 or even before. Much of Georgetown was gentrified in the 1930s, believe it or not. Some began last week. Some involves retail and transportation re-engineering. If you build it, whites, students and bourgie blacks (not upside down on their Mitchellville, Charles County or Bowie mcmansion or mega townhouse mortgages) will come. New housing, new retail, chain and funky eating, drinking, glassed in office space. The real action is in the neighborhoods which were, in Jamie Foxx’s lexicon, “crack-ish” or thick with fully stable owner-occupied homes. House by house, block by block, corner store or hairbraiding establishment by bulletproof catmeat carry-out. That’s “new school.” Relatively.
Third dirty secret (though not really a secret): It is hardcore fact that DC was “Chocolate City” only for a fraction of it’s existence, and Chocolate City and it’s nemesis, “The Plan” is mere cultural/racial chimera, the beast of myth and saga and the good ole days tales told by bama and bougie alike. Indeed, there is evidence that the good ole days for the native black middle class and professionals was, ironically, the midst of post-Reconstruction stress to 1963, not the 70s and afros, the 80s grooving to that DC swing in a Go Go club concert in our Cross Colours gear, or the 90s worshipping Bill Clinton. No, George HW Bush didn’t have to invent that fraudulent crack buy in Lafayette Square, or that he heard sirens and shots in he and Babs’ bedroom. That shit was real. The blood was real.
Myths are stronger than reality/history, just as delivery trumps content. Just ask Barack Obama, post-first presidential debate, about how Mitt Romeny lied and smirked, yet “won.”
So we come to the fourth and nastiest little secret: My thesis. These stable owner-occupied home owners are Grandmama. Mama. Uncle Pete and Aunt Cece. Shenia, who commutes to Virgina to work as an administrative manager in HR at some defense contractor but has two teenage sons who are in hot water—a lot. Grandaddy, who’s retired and rawing an endangered union pension. Or Dad and Mom two parent household, thanks to the GI Bill or a blue collar government job and a position at Giant, respectively. Or Grandmama’s friends at church, wondering who they will vote for as the pastor—who lives in a mcmansion in Maryland—shouts about gay marriage. These are the key figures in this virulence underlying the polite smiles and debates over gentrification.
I will brave an analogy to Islam globally and specifically in the Middle East: the VAST majority of people aren’t extremists, hotheads, juvenile nihilists, thugs, criminals, welfare queens, crackheads, cretins, chickenheads, sluts, mentally ill, street dogs, milling about with the DTs and smelling of either weed or booze or pee. That’s the minority within the” minority.” Does the anger, mistrust derive from white yuppies, hipsters or even people like me holding our noses, looking down our noses, painting ALL black folks, “long time residents,” with that brush?
No, the true problem is that the functional and quasi-functional majority enables, excuses, covers for, in denial over, has to clean up the mess of the dysfunctional or nonfunctional minority.
And that is embarassing. Embarassment doesn’t cause people to change. It causes people to either hide, or dig in. Or get mad. Perhaps, as in Islam in dangerous places, there are ties of kinship; perhaps it is the co-sanguinity of understanding being marginalized, abused, feared by the white majority ringing the city and meddling from Capitol Hill. Hipsters, students, white professionals, white entrepreneurs, gay or straight, certainly are not the enemy; Todd Akin isn’t buying a rowhouse in Shaw, though Bill O’Reilley does love to hang in Harlem theses day. It is stupid to equate these people with memes and mythic stereotypes of Mr. Charlie & Missy Ann. Concomitantly, more a handful of blacks with backgrounds closer to mine often sound like enablers, though they themselves are gentrifying in the “new school” style. Perhaps it’s more to assauge their own consciences? Interestingly, when these same folk are behind closed doors or at a tony urban nightspot with some wine or spirits losening tongues, they sound less like Baraka & Sanchez and more like folks who’d make E. Franklin Frazier, DuBois and the hinty-est dickty of the Harlem Renaissance looking down at the “rats” and newly arriving “bamas” gush! Couple that with politicians, such as the corrupt ones who stole the 2010 Mayoral election from an aloof bourgie named Adrian Fenty for old school Vince Gray…or local demogogues who feel it’s still 1989-99. Mix thoroughly with economic hard times and a national political vitriol and you have a warped millieu.
Therefore, its all in the mind, not about grandmama not being able to pay property taxes. Not about white people taking a big crap on “traditions.” Willard Mitt and Eddie Munster Ryan might say Grandmama benefitted from low taxes when the neighborhood was jacked up and she should be happy streets are getting cleaner, government and traditional retail/property owners are being held to a higher standard. Could they have a point? I dunno. What I do know is that a normal is here and people need to adapt. New businesses are here. New people who bring a certain energy and optimism arrived. A new generation of African American professionals and bohemians alike are digging in, too. These are folk who don’t tolerate old norms of mañana and triflingness, or ghettofabulosity. These people EMPATHIZE. Yet nor don’t see it as perps and victims. Beating up a yuppie chick on the way home from yoga for her iPhone doesn’t even the score for Grandmama; we see it as just twisting that whole dialectic anyway. Besides, the Latinos will be pushing both Grandmama and D’Aquarius & Dante (her troubled grandsons) in slow motion Lebenscraum. Aiden & Sloane rehabing their three story 1903 home, or quaffing a craft beer that their on 11th Street NW or H St NE don’t have shit to do with Grandmama’s problems. O
Anyway, that’s my two cents, and I admit the pennies are dirty. I admit I sound elitist, class-ist. Disagree with me, vehemently. Just don’t label me something cretinish like a “black republican” or “tom.” That just makes you look dumb…and you can kiss my Princeton educated ass whilst you secretly look for a private or charter school for your kid. (wink) It’s just realism. Something lacking in this chimeric creature gentrification has become.
(Now, as for the Brooklyn reference, that’s just the hook. But ask Jay Z on which side he drops when the Barclay Centre opens…)
Here are the top 25 zipcodes in the nation registering the largest increase in percentage & change, even switcheroo, in “NonHispanic whites.” Yes some nice old live-oak neighborhoods in Chattanooga, or Columbia, SC or Charleston, SC are in play, but look at the number of zips in Brooklyn and here in Washington, DC. Note the Chicago zipcode shows any remaining poor folks north of Printers Row…and any empty warehouses…being shown their hats (or tin roofs). So there we have more a species of urban redevelopment than true gentrification. Indeed that’s likely what’s going as Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton expand in Baltimore. No one is moving into W. Baltimore Street & Fulton Avenue, I assure you. Now you know why Fish in the Hood changed it’s name…