"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Chocolate City Revisited

In a well-balanced article in today’s New York Times (6.24.12) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/24/opinion/sunday/farewell-to-chocolate-city.html?_r=1&hp Nathalie Hopkinson writes about the changing demographic makeup of Washington, DC, once a city with a black population as high as 70 percent is now just under half.  I moved here in 1977 during the historically peak years of the black super-majority, and have observed how some racial displacement has occurred in new, hip neighborhoods, while de facto segregation is just as prevalent as it ever was.  Crossing Florida Avenue is crossing into another city – a black city, and one far removed from the Mall and its monuments, the White House, the elegant townhouses of Georgetown, and the well-manicured estates of Spring Valley and Wesley Heights.  While gentrification has penetrated to the farthest corners of NW along Florida and U Streets, and as far east as 4th Street NE in Capitol Hill, the neighborhoods across the River in Anacostia are solidly black.

Gentrification is not new in DC. Georgetown, formerly a home to recently-freed slaves and a solidly black enclave in Washington, and now one of its whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods, was considered a slum in the 1920s.  Rehabilitation first started in Washington more than fifty years ago when developers realized the potential of the area and particularly its waterfront.  In the Fifties, Government passed a Historic Preservation Law which immediately raised property values and facilitated the gentrification and racial changeover.

Other areas soon followed suit. The  Dupont Circle neighborhood in the 70s was very small and confined to areas on and west of Connecticut Avenue.  Now it has expanded far to the east.  Formerly dangerous slum neighborhoods around Logan Circle and on both sides of U Street were no-go areas, and now they are amongst the most desirable. The race riots in the 60s destroyed great swaths of residential and retail real estate which were left rotting and vacant for years, but now the 14th Street corridor, the center of the riots, has become one of the city’s most vibrant.

All these areas have become progressively white, and poorer black families have moved out.  To a large degree, they simply moved farther east to the inner suburbs of Prince George’s county.  These areas now have the same poor social statistics for crime, single-parent families, life expectancy, etc. as inner city areas of DC. Black families may have left DC, but segregation has followed them.  This exodus was more of a forced migration, and thus the the PG statistics are not surprising.  Many of Washington’s successful middle-class blacks (Washington has always had one of the country’s highest percentages of this group) have indeed moved up and out; but their numbers are few, and the real change has come from displacement.

In the 35 years I have lived in DC I have seen Washington become a real city – well, not New York or San Francisco exactly, but a city nevertheless.  It now has the calling of an alluring metropolitan areas with bars, restaurants, cafes and all the other amenities that young professionals are looking for.  Washington has always had a lively, vibrant, and unique music scene (Go-Go is an indigenous art form), and young people have said for a long time that nightlife in DC is as good as it gets. Gentrification has improved the city as admitted by the author of the Times article, a black woman who grew up in DC:

Black privilege has always been relative. The city’s median black household income is $36,948; for whites it is $99,401. This demographic reality creates a crude, ethically charged math, and everyone who owns a stake in Washington calculates with it. The presence of white faces is the most reliable sign of the quality of a school. The more white people move in, the higher the property values go. The city’s population is growing, but each black family that leaves a school or neighborhood makes it richer.

At the same time, the cultural identity of the city has changed. The author writes:

My own initiation in the ways of Chocolate City came nearly 20 years ago when, after growing up black in nearly all-white environments, I arrived in Washington as a freshman at historically black Howard University. The Washington I encountered then was a strange, alternate universe: I saw black schools taught by black teachers and run by black principals reporting to black superintendents. Black restaurants. Black hospitals run by black doctors and staff members. Black suburbs. Black judges ordering black police officers to deliver black suspects to black jail wardens. And of course a black-owned music industry, go-go.

This racial homogeneity felt good, she goes on.  For the first time she was not looked at as a ‘minority’.  She was home. 

She refers to the unhappy corruption of that black city politic and blames it on segregation.  While this is certainly true – de facto desegregation did not really happen in the South until 1965, and the social dysfunctions that characterized slavery persisted within the community exacerbated by persistent white racism – it cannot account for the venality of the Barry years.  He was a successful racial politician, ran the public coffers dry with political patronage jobs in Anacostia and other black wards to keep him in office and far from public censure.  Racial voting has persisted in DC and has assured a political elite with far less accountability than in a more diverse environment.  Blacks got the favors, whites paid the bill.   This will surely change now that the city itself is changing.  There is even talk of a white mayor if our current mayor is dunned out of office for alleged corruption.

The author talks of the rage that black residents feel against white interlopers, and now as DC’s black majority ends, this rage is boiling just below the surface.  Not everywhere, she concludes, and sees a new racial harmony emerging out of the demographic changes:

Some days, walking the streets of Washington, a seemingly colder place where people don’t always exchange greetings, I feel nostalgic for the days of black privilege that George Clinton crooned about. But given the warmth of many of my new neighbors of many races, I would like to see the transformation around me as racial progress. The change in attitudes that caused a generation of whites to release their fears and return to the urban centers their parents fled a generation ago is the same change in attitudes that allowed millions of white Americans, in the quiet sanctity of the voting booth, to vote for a black man named Barack Hussein Obama.

The black population of DC is not and never has been monolithic, and as mentioned above there has always been a black middle class; and she and fellow black doctors, lawyers, and architects are also moving into these gentrified neighborhoods and are benefitting from the better schools and rising property values.  They feel at home here because they have already moved into mainstream white culture with first-class educations, white-like privileges, and the money to move wherever they want.  They also drink specialty coffees, go to yoga, and work out at the private club nearby. So she is right in stating that there is a new racial harmony; but as we have known all along, racism is largely a function of economics.  No one in a white neighborhood objects of a Harvard-trained black lawyer moves next door.  She sees ‘racial harmony’ when what she is seeing is ‘economic equality’. 

She is right to see this new ‘racial’ harmony, but she is wrong to conclude that it is only a localized phenomenon, far from the brutal areas across the River or in far Northeast.  Washington still is a functionally segregated city.  Yes, blacks and whites work together in government jobs; but they go home separately, play separately, and still marry separately.  No one in my 35 years here has figured out how to improve these violent inner city neighborhoods.  No amount of public programs, volunteer efforts, or financial subsidy has seemed to work.  It has been a frustration to see the city change in so many positive ways but to still be blighted by neighborhoods of intractable problems.  I have argued that community accountability is the only way out of this morass – that religious and secular leaders have to demand more from their congregants and neighbors – and that political accountability has to follow.  Until then, the racial, social, and economic divide will persist.

Gentrification is a fact of life in a capitalist society.  There will always be an ebb and flow of money in and out of neighborhoods.  There has always been the complaint of ‘progressives’ that New York (Manhattan) is becoming a city only for the wealthy.  While this is true, so what?  The outer neighborhoods in Brooklyn, for example, are becoming transformed and gentrified as well, but a a far lower price.  Queens and Staten Island are soon to follow.  There is a value, these ‘progressives’ say to having rich and poor living together.  Rent control is a way of engineering an economic parity.  Rich people have never wanted to live with poor people; and poor people have always wanted to be rich no matter how society may try to engineer things differently.  Washington will eventually become as uniformly wealthy as Manhattan (until the next outbound express takes passengers in the distant future), and all of us are benefitting from it.

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