Growing Pains in Washington D.C.

With its shady, tree-lined streets and preponderance of single-family homes, my neighborhood in Northeast D.C. has a quiet, small-town vibe, even though it’s minutes from downtown. Brookland has big yards and open spaces, wide streets and wood-frame houses, but not much in the way of shopping or dining or big city amenities. Its commercial district is a two-block strip with a handful of take-out joints and restaurants, a couple of coffee shops, a hardware store, and an assortment of other small businesses. Its residents are mostly old-timers who have lived here for generations or young families drawn to its relative affordability.

That’s about to change, though, now that developers have apparently decided that Brookland is the hottest real estate market in town. Backhoes and cranes have become routine features of the landscape, and the walk to my son’s weekly music class is an obstacle course through a multi-block construction zone of bulldozed sidewalks and orange construction cones.

 

 
Across from the metro station, in what used to be a mostly empty five-block stretch on the edge of the Catholic University campus, an ambitious one-million-square-foot complex of stores, restaurants, and hip luxury lofts is taking shape. In March, a beloved neighborhood tavern, Colonel Brooks, was demolished to make way for still more luxury apartments and retail space—a five-story, block-wide development that incited bitter opposition from some residents, who argued that the scale of the project was too big for the site. Meanwhile, just down the street, 237 brand new cookie-cutter townhouses have sprung up on a 10-acre plot of land, with price tags well above the neighborhood’s current median house sale prices.

The building frenzy in Brookland mirrors a larger trend that has been unfolding across D.C. over the last 15 years, as entire neighborhoods have been transformed by massive development and revitalization projects, in some cases seemingly overnight. The U Street Corridor, for example, once a crime-ridden stretch of blighted buildings and crack houses, is now a trendy nightlife destination crammed with upscale restaurants, clubs, cafes, boutiques, and galleries. Columbia Heights—just a few years ago still littered with vacant lots and abandoned storefronts—is now almost unrecognizable after a rush of construction brought in a big box mall, several high-rise apartment buildings, and more than three dozen new restaurants and businesses.

The turnaround has been dramatic. From a neglected town suffering from a shrinking population and stagnating economy—a town still scarred from the 1968 riots that decimated much of the city after Martin Luther King’s assassination—D.C. has morphed into one of the fastest growing urban centers in the nation, attracting a steady influx of young, affluent, college-educated professionals pumping their tax dollars and disposable income into the city coffers.

 

 
Yet there is something unsettling about the sheer pace of the change, about the way you can practically see the process of gentrification unfold before your very eyes, like a giant wave washing over the city, neighborhood by neighborhood, bringing in its wake a seemingly unending tide of shiny new shopping centers, chic cafes, upscale apartments, gourmet markets, fancy gyms, dog parks, bike lanes, and other yuppie amenities—not to mention surging house prices and rapidly shifting demographics.

Given D.C.’s longstanding heritage as a predominantly African-American city, a particularly potent symbol of the sea change is its shrinking black majority. While blacks made up 71 percent of Washington’s population in 1970 and 60 percent in 2000, the city’s black population now barely hovers above the 50 percent mark. It’s a familiar story of economic displacement: as the cost of living spikes, poorer residents get priced out. While black residents are not the only ones affected, it’s a problem drawn most starkly along color lines because of the way that race and class intersect.

Meanwhile, as D.C. as a whole becomes wealthier and whiter, it has also become more divided. Washington now has one of the highest percentages in the nation of 25-to-35-year-olds earning over $100,000 a year. At the same time, however, it also suffers from a poverty rate four times the U.S. average and one of the highest levels of income inequality in the nation. Ritzy Georgetown has a median household income of $116,000; east of the Anacostia River in Congress Heights, the median income is $32,348. Citywide, the median white household income is $99,401; for blacks it is $36,948.

I’m not against development, by any means. Clearly, coffee houses and dog parks are better than crack houses and vacant lots. Without a doubt, D.C. as a whole is much safer and more livable than it was in the ’80s and early ’90s, thanks to the flood of building projects and investment dollars. Here in Brookland, too, I’m well aware of the potential benefits that the bulldozers and excavators promise to bring. It would be nice to have more shops in walking distance and a few more places to grab a bite to eat. I would welcome a little more bustle in a neighborhood that, quite frankly, can seem a little too sluggish for my tastes, and with more pedestrians out and about, I’d feel safer making my way home from the metro at night.

Nonetheless, it’s hard not to regret the casualties of change: the longtime residents displaced by rising costs, the small homegrown businesses pushed out when big-name retailers drive up commercial rents, the lost traces of a community’s roots. Surely it should be possible to revitalize neighborhoods without squeezing out everyone who can’t afford half-a-million-dollar-plus homes; making neighborhoods more “livable” doesn’t have to mean sending the cost of living through the roof. Just how many high-end condos and luxury lofts could one city possibly need anyway?

Back in my own one-bedroom apartment—decidedly less than upscale with its cinderblock walls and speckled, office-style carpeting—I browse through ads for the new luxury townhouses that have just sprung up in my neighborhood. A young woman beams enthusiastically over her take-out caramel macchiato as she strolls home; a father and daughter laugh together as they step onto the tidy brick pathway to their house, toting groceries and a bouquet of flowers; a fashionably dressed couple hold hands, clutching shopping bags.

 

 
The ads are meant to convey a feeling of neighborhoodliness, a sense that the area is vibrant and thriving and lived-in. Yet there is a bland sterility to the images, a certain homogenized aesthetic of affluence. Everyone in the ads is young, attractive, stylish; everyone is holding some symbol of their purchasing power: groceries, shopping bag, coffee, flowers. The images remind me of the stereotypes of suburbia: the shiny uniformity, the insularity, the sanitized streetscapes—ironically, the very features that many people are trying to escape when they move from subdivisions to cities in the first place.

Some months ago, my family and I stopped into Colonel Brooks for one last visit before the little tavern, a neighborhood fixture for 32 years, closed its doors for demolition in preparation for the new $50 million-plus development project that will soon rise in its stead. As usual, the place was crammed with an eclectic mix of people: college students and professors, priests and preschool teachers, plumbers and federal employees, cashiers and artists, retirees and young couples with toddlers—people of all ages, races, income levels, and backgrounds, representing the full cross-section of Brookland residents. More than retail opportunities, more than property values and median incomes, that kind of diversity seems to me to be the real measure of how a neighborhood is thriving. Yet that mix and diversity—the lifeline of cities—is exactly what gets squeezed out when neighborhoods turn into sterile bubbles of affluence.

Realistically, Brookland is unlikely to become the next Columbia Heights or U Street. So far, construction has been limited to predominantly unused space by the metro, and the rest of the neighborhood is too spread out to allow for the density of development that has radically transformed other neighborhoods. Moreover, unlike downtown areas that were still badly damaged from the 1968 riots when developers moved in, Brookland isn’t ridden with boarded-up buildings and abandoned, decaying lots. Hence, there’s no pretext for the sort of massive reconstruction that wiped out all traces of the past in places like Chinatown—where the streets are now lined with the same national chains you might see in any suburban shopping mall and few vestiges of the neighborhood’s heritage remain other than the Chinese names incongruously posted on storefronts.

 

 
It’s too soon to tell exactly how things will pan out in Brookland. However, judging by the price tags showing up on the newest real estate developments—$600,000-plus to buy a townhouse, for example; $1,800 a month to rent a studio—one thing is looking pretty certain: My family and I probably won’t be here to experience the results. Our son is getting older; eventually we’re going to need more space and a place of our own.

When we first moved to Brookland three years ago, buying a place here might have been within our reach. After all, up to now, the relative lack of commercial development has been what has kept the neighborhood affordable. Now that’s changing, though, and all too soon Brookland, like so many other neighborhoods in D.C., will be out of our range.

 

Elisabeth Herschbach lives in D.C. and works as a copy editor, ESL teacher, and freelance translator. Her translation of the 1938 novel Eroica by Greek writer Kosmas Politis was published in 2012.

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15 Comments / Post A Comment

OllyOlly (#669)

I am always thinking, shouldn’t there be a limited supply of people who can pay $700k for a two bedroom row house? But then it seems like everything in D.C. sells for above asking, so there is actually too great a supply of people who can do this.

@OllyOlly I mean, $600k for a whole rowhouse doesn’t seem outrageous if you have, say, a young couple who both work for the Feds for $80k each. There’s room to grow and you can rent out the basement for extra cash.

What I don’t understand is the $600k studio condos on 14th Street. If my wife and I ever manage to earn enough to make that mortgage I don’t think we’re going to want to continue living in a shoebox perched atop a sea of drunk people. Two rooms separated by a door, one of which does not have a toilet in it, doesn’t seem like much to ask for more than half a million dollars.

KingCash (#2,095)

I’m annoyed by the inclusion of bike lanes in your list of gentrification signifiers. There are many low-income people in this city who use bikes to get around — they’re much cheaper than cars and often cheaper than public transportation. The fact that you included bike lanes in your list of “yuppie amenities” makes it seem like you’re just parroting superficial anti-newcomer rhetoric.

This piece reiterates a lot of the familiar debate around gentrification, but I feel like it dances around the core question: to what extent should people be able to continue living in a certain area at a certain price point regardless of market conditions? And once we’ve determined that, what kind of public policy will help us achieve that balance? How, for example, do you feel about the recent bill proposed by councilmember Anita Bonds that would exempt homeowners who are 75 or older, say they have lived in DC for at least 25 years and earn less than $60K from paying property taxes? That would certainly help ensure that they are not priced out by gentrification, but to me it seems pretty discriminatory and prone to fraud…

@KingCash To be fair a lot of local politicians who claim to be on the side of black/low-income/long-term residents also routinely include bike lanes on their list of yuppie signifiers. FWIW I’m pretty sure poor people also own dogs, shop, and drink coffee too.

KingCash (#2,095)

@stuffisthings That’s sort of what I’m trying to say — it seems to be leaning a bit heavily on the lazy “dog parks and bike lanes” rhetoric that often pops up in local politics.

I focused on bike lanes because they’re something I use everyday and I really don’t think it makes sense to include them in a list of “yuppie amenities” given the economics of transportation in DC. But yeah, you’re right, dog parks and increased commercial development also don’t solely benefit any specific class.

alexbaca (#865)

@KingCash @stuffisthings That rhetoric is fading out (bikes vs. everything else can still get nasty, but for the most part electeds are like, “Uh, yeah, welp, the bikes, they’re a thing”) and was largely the province of Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy to begin with, anyway.

But I handily deconstructed all of that for you in August 2011 when I worked at City Paper (shameless self-plug for the only cover story I wrote while working as a copy editor :/)! http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/41367/the-symbolism-and-politics-of-bicycling-in-dc/

ETA: Full disclosure: I now work in bike advocacy.

@Alex Well it helps when you have massive “unexpected” multi-hundred-million-dollar surpluses year after year. “This year we can do bikes AND schools AND a dollop or two of corruption without making any hard choices whatsoever! Yay!”

alexbaca (#865)

@stuffisthings Mmmm, yeah, having a budget surplus is nice, but I do think biking is slowly getting more normalized here. My piece grossly understated the phenomenon that is Bikeshare because of when it was written. That’s made a huge difference. Probably the most difference.

And surplus or no, there will always, always, always be the people who are like, “Why are we spending money on THIS when we could be spending it on THAT?” even though reallocating funds from, like, education to transportation or vice-versa is not a thing that happens. See: streetcar.

ETA: Terry Bellamy is also not the lightning rod Gabe Klein was, for better or worse.

hopeyglass (#3,298)

@KingCash Mmmm I feel you on this, but part of that is because cycling is being wrestled away (at least IMO) in some cities into that signifier, very much on purpose. As someone watching really, really squintily at the Divvy bike-share and its ballyhoo rolling out this week in Chicago, we have a mayor who is point blank saying that better bike infrastructure is being put in to benefit whatever version of the “Creative Class” he envisions. I was just reading the article, I’m happy to point to it if you like (It isn’t hard, just look up “tech sector”, “protected bike lane” and “Rahm”).

City cycling advocacy feelings alllll over the place.

ETA: I just wanted to add it : “Mayor Rahm Emanuel often touts the connection between building better bike infrastructure and attracting high tech companies to Chicago.

“It’s part of my effort to recruit entrepreneurs and start-up businesses because a lot of those employees like to bike to work,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times last December. “It is not an accident that, where we put our first protected bike lane is also where we have the most concentration of digital companies and digital employees. Every time you speak to entrepreneurs and people in the start-up economy and high-tech industry, one of the key things they talk about in recruiting workers is, can they have more bike lanes.” – http://www.wbez.org/news/divvy-blues-bike-share-program-leaves-some-behind-107893

@hopeyglass Well no matter what Rahm thinks/hopes bike lanes can still be used by poor and non-white cyclists so it seems like a bit of a win-win? As opposed to using bike lanes as a rhetorical cudgel against gentrification, which just means depriving your constituents of useful public infrastructure.

ETA: Though I guess in segregated Chicagoland this might also mean only putting bike lanes in rich/white areas. But how do you fight that if you also claim bike lanes are the stalking horse of gentrification?

hopeyglass (#3,298)

@stuffisthings I mean it definitely is. And I live in a place that has utilized the mentality to the best of its ability. And you can’t. I guess it just means hollering louder to try and continue to get good infrastructure in destabilized neighborhoods, which gets hard when energy continues to go into these “tech centers”? (I have been mulling on this for about ten days now, ugh.)

@KingCash What’s interesting to me is the way that urban gardens are in some places becoming gentrification signifiers. Where we used to sneer at people who raised chickens in cities because they were poor immigrants who didn’t understand how things worked, now we sneer at them because they’re out-of-touch hipsters who…don’t understand how things work. There’s a conception on all sides of the debate that a lot of urban sustainability measures are also agents of gentrification.

KingCash (#2,095)

@Alex Rereading that cover story now, it’s really so good! I’m curious to see how bike issues will get treated once the mayoral race starts heating up, especially with Wells running…

alexbaca (#865)

@KingCash Thank you! I was so proud of it (…still so proud of it). So far, all the declared candidates have a track record on the council of at least paying lip service to cyclists. I don’t think bikes will be as divisive as they were in the last election (I really believe that! I’m not just saying that because my job is to normalize biking for transportation!).

Komura2 (#4,272)

As a new resident to Brookland, I am thrilled with Monroe Street Market and the development that will be taking place over the next several years. Brookland really is a great neighborhood. Alot of green space and easy access to every part of the city and surrounding region.

So so happy I bought when I did!!!

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