Tuesday, June 26, 2012

African American Gentrifiers and Segregation

"Farewell to Chocolate City" is an interesting op-ed in the NY Times, and part of a recent trend towards articles on segregation and gentrification. This one discusses movements of whites to majority black places in the D.C. region, but is from an "insider" angle. The story here is of Washington's "new integration" as whites move in, told from an African-American perspective. While this piece is insightful, I immediately noticed that the perspective is also affected by one more factor: the writer is not from the region. While she does not focus on that issue, she is an African American gentrifier - she moved to D.C. for college and stayed. Yes, there is a connection between race and class in D.C. - the high income and college education rates for D.C. whites is much higher than the national average, and higher than for D.C. African Americans, but the African American population is much more complex than it may seem.

This piece misses a class dynamic that creates cleavages within race - people who are visibly African American, but move to D.C. for college or post-college job opportunities are different than low-income local African Americans. Non-local college students, Caribbean/African immigrants, and African Americans who move to D.C. for professional jobs have no particular fondness or respect for go-go music, local heroes or D.C traditions either.

Even further, there are income and class differences within District's native African-American population. Looking at median incomes alone can be misleading - there are many African Americans with incomes well above that median and many well below it. The link in the article to 2009 income data for the District shows that more than 28,000 African Americans have annual household incomes over $75,000 and over 23,000 have incomes below $10,000. These groups may have physical similarities, but very clear differences in the type of places that they can afford to frequent.

We would probably find that go-go, mambo sauce and Marion Barry are less popular in upper income African American neighborhoods, regardless of the place of origin of the African American populations. College-educated, middle class African Americans have a much easier time benefiting from D.C.'s economic opportunities and many of the same civic benefits that attract white families. At the same time, there are churches, sports teams and other institutions that have crossover popularity, and individual preferences that can be all over the map, so the story isn't quite cut and dry (or black and white). The dynamic in Washington, DC is much more complicated than it seems (that's part of what inspired me to write a PhD dissertation focusing on the region.)

Speaking for myself, I am glad to see the new activity on H Street NE and have enjoyed some of the new venues there, but I'll miss a local spot such as Horace and Dickey's carry-out if they ever get priced out of the neighborhood. I am consistently amazed to see white residents walking their dogs or riding bicycles through neighborhoods that were once the epicenter of drug wars in the 80s, but the District-wide rise in rents and the lack of affordable housing in the right locations are both distressing to me.

Policy makers and those who influence the process should recognize the range of perspectives on the costs and benefits that come from neighborhood change - a dog park or bike lanes could be seen as an amenity by some and an affront by others. Any leader must recognize that the population that suffers through the "growing pains" of a city's development will expect to benefit from future civic successes and chafe at tax dollars being used for amenities that they perceive as "not for us." At the same time, those who grew up in a now-changing city must recognize that things are never "what they were" and attempts to keep things that way usually lead to frustration or stagnation. Urban neighborhoods are not static places - they inevitably change. The challenge is to make sure that growth and development are supported at the same time that traditions and opportunities for current residents are preserved. It takes a careful range of policies and actions to do all of that, but it is possible with good leadership.

I think that few would argue against the contention that the District (and H St NE) is in better shape than it was 20 years ago. However, it would be naive to think that everyone should just be happy with an overall improvement - to put it simply: "progress" may be good, but alone, it isn't enough.

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