“Gentrification is tragic comedy”
I tweeted that title a few days ago. I’ll never be the one to say I’ve done anything profound, but I’m not sure the visceral reaction to gentrification could be summed any more succinctly.
I went to DC for the weekend of the 4th. Twas close to home, had the hookup on the hotel, and I tend to have great luck in DC. One time I went for a conference, and I left with more money than I came with. To this day, I have no idea how I pulled that off. But pretty much every meal I ate was with a pretty woman, and I must not have had to pay for any of ‘em. That’s my kinda city, folks. That’s my kinda city.
Part of the fun for me in going to DC is the fact that my people are all over the place and into all kinds of different stuff. So that means Thursday evening was dinner with Reali and some folks near the studio, Friday night was a leisurely drive from the Hinkley Hilton through a neighborhood that had a Ryder truck in the middle of the road with a cat just sitting in it for no reason — at 10:00 pm — on the way to a U Street that I sure didn’t recognize. Saturday was museums and all that, and Sunday was a drive to Virginia to see my main man Kirk and his wife and new little man. Monday was walking through the Mall in a shirt that said “I (Love) Vaginas,” but that’s a story for another day.
Sunday night, my man Jamaal picks me up and asks where I want to get food. I tell him we can go wherever, and that I was paying. I figured that meant he was gonna leverage that for some fancy stuff — I sure would have — but he turned around with “we can always go down Georgia Avenue.”
And that’s really all I needed to hear. I wouldn’t look to buy a house on Georgia Ave, but driving past? That’s an essential thing for me on any trip to DC. I can’t describe it for you, unfortunately. People who are familiar understand just what I mean, and I apologize that I can’t share with the rest.
Anyway, we get some Jamaican food at this spot right across from the Petworth Metro station. I wasn’t thinking much of the neighborhood when I was waiting to order my food and the temperature in the restaurant was set on hooker-in-church. But once we got upstairs with something to eat, I got to take a gander out of the window. Couldn’t really see the neighborhood when we were parking on the backstreet.
So I look across the street, and I see this brand new apartment building with the “now leasing” banner loud and proud for all to see. Look down on the corner, and what do I see? White people.
This is on the corner of Georgia Ave and New Hampshire Ave. White people. Looking real comfortable, too. Not watching their backs or anything else. Just…there.
It wasn’t like that the last time I was there. And so began the chance to observe the tragic comedy that is gentrification.
“Gentrification” is a loaded term, but entirely dependent on perspective. The folks looking to buy low and sell high love the word. Tearing down ghettos and building over them is, to many, like putting Las Vegas up in the desert. There was nothing there. At least nothing to respect. After all, if the neighborhoods were to be respected, people probably wouldn’t have watched as so many of them went to hell in a handbasket.
It’s just tricky because it seems hard to argue that improving the quality of life of a neighborhood is such a bad thing…until you realize that’s not quite what’s happening. If you see a neighborhood as a series of dwellings, then sure. If you see it as something more intangible, then we’re calling “destruction” improvement. That’s a dangerous argument to make.
Speaking of which, here’s some Living Colour…
So I’m at the restaurant with Jamaal, who has a master’s in urban planning. For him, talking about stuff like this is almost like pr0n. The metamorphosis of a neighborhood doesn’t happen accidentally, so he knows what’s going on. Looking at the street while having dinner with him means noticing things like how far apart trash cans are, and how that simple thing can improve the cleanliness and quality of a neighborhood. His eye’s attuned to that, plus he’s from DC, so we just sat there and talked as I tried to figure out what the hell was going on here. Forgive me, but seeing the remnants of the soon-to-be-old neighborhood getting off the Metro as cabs — taxis that weren’t headed over there at night otherwise — pick up kids who have been assured that things are safer than they look.
It was like being stuck between worlds. With my feet in one place, I could see the following things…
And what was the first thing I saw when I walked around the corner to get to my boy’s car? A VW Golf parked right behind a Passat. Then, I looked up and saw a black girl on a porch, looking no older than 17 — meaning she could be 12 for all I know, with these steroids in the food or whatever — giving what must have been her son a serious dose of discipline.
I felt like I had a tour guide through time, like in “It’s A Wonderful Life” or something, except it was all right there in one place. Twas almost like watching a wedding and a funeral on a split-screen, though I’m not sure everyone else could grasp the irony. I sat in the Sweet Mango Cafe, listening to an odd conversation on political philosophy between three of the newer residents of the neighborhood, then saw them display that they’d never been to a carryout before (they left their food on the table). Then they walked out onto a corner that I never would have at night by myself, walked aimlessly across the street, then just bullshat on the corner waiting on a taxi…and never once did they think it might be a bad idea!
Given that police van, it clearly wasn’t.
On the way back to the hotel, we rode through Columbia Heights. Last time I was in Columbia Heights, I got off the Metro, walked halfway down the block, saw everything written in Spanish, and got back to where there was some light. This time, I saw a pottery studio directly across the street from a coin laundromat.
The crazy part is that, if done in an idealistic way, what I saw could be absolutely beautiful. I’ve been fortunate enough to kick it on all parts of the class strata — a variable far more important to diversity than race — and I’ve learned so much about the human experience by going where other people live and breathe seeing how they interact. It made me a more understanding and compassionate person, and it made it a lot easier for me to shake many preconceived notions I grew up with. To see the grad students — many of whom are living on someone else’s dime — sharing space with folks who have lived in these neighborhoods forever could be fantastic. There’s room for everyone to get along, especially since messing with those white folks is a guaranteed way to get the whole ‘hood sent to jail (as my boy crudely put it, “when the whites are comfortable, industry thrives!”). There’s room for people to learn about each other. Even if it takes a police van to keep it straight, there really is room for everyone.
And pretty soon, that will be a moot point. They didn’t put that sushi bar down there for the locals. It’s to attract the folks who will, eventually, be in the houses the locals now live in. The bright lights of progress come with the beeping of the moving truck headed to their porches.
Twas difficult to see. Hey, I liked being able to take those pictures on my classy new phone without looking like a meal. But seeing that one night after seeing white women in short dresses pass by the McDonald’s at 14th and U while a couple of them boys made a lil money on the corner, I was totally floored. I mean, it looked great, and I enjoyed the smooth restaurant I went to over there the other night. None of it really felt right, though.
Underdevelopment, which was largely forced, laid the groundwork for an explosion. After years of people being trapped in struggling neighborhoods, things are getting better. I just imagine that would look a lot cooler to folks it they weren’t seeing it in the rearview mirror on the way to South PG County.
Is anyone at fault? Hard to pin it on a person. It’s the game, and we know how it goes when you complain about it. But to see it in full force on two street corners was just a bit much. And the thought of what it’s gonna become is just a little heartbreaking, even if it’ll look really cool.