Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A historically black D.C. neighborhood markets its diversity to lure Millennials. But what happens when the new arrivals never interact with the longtime residents?
On the corner of 7th and P Streets in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood is a boxy building, with the words “Bread For The City” stenciled across the brick facade. This is a non-profit that provides food, shelter, and legal services for low-income residents. A stone’s throw away is a busy coffee shop and a trendy cocktail bar, both beloved by young locals. Elsewhere in the neighborhood are organic grocery stores, glistening high-end menswear shops, a new movie theater, and a gay sports bars, all sprinkled in between East African restaurants, carryouts, and Baptist churches.
The Shaw-U Street neighborhood has had many avatars over the years—and its most recent one has been re-branded to attract young, hip city-loving out-of-towners.
Back in the early 20th century, U Street was called “black broadway”—a cultural, commercial, and intellectual hub for African Americans in the Jim Crow era. But in 1968, this area was the epicenter of civil unrest in D.C. following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In the decades after, it fell into decline.
Like many other cities, D.C. saw an influx of young people starting in the 1990s, encouraged, among other things, by local efforts to revitalize the downtown area. This back-to-the-city movement ushered in a new era for the U Street-Shaw corridor. In 1996, George Stephanopoulos, a senior adviser to Bill Clinton, spoke to The New York Times about U Street:
"This is Washington, the city, rather than the capital. It's more integrated, cheaper, more casual than the rest of D.C. Great for dancing and, frankly, less sanitized than the rest of the town."
For Derek Hyra, an associate professor of public administration and policy at American University, the neighborhood is the perfect grounds to study dynamics between different groups in what looks like an integrated space, but is actually a contested one. In his new book, Race, Class, Politics in the Cappuccino City, he lays out his findings. CityLab caught up with him for a conversation.
Tell me how the U Street-Shaw area is different from other historically black neighborhoods that have been gentrifying in the last few decades.
When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 2005, I realized that the Shaw area had a very similar history and development to Harlem and Bronzeville. But its contemporary redevelopment was different: there were many more whites moving in. When I examined Bronzeville and Harlem, they were going through black gentrification. This is the late ‘90s, early 2000s. There weren't a lot of white people moving back at the time, and yet, the property values were escalating. Really, it was the black middle class and also affluent African-Americans were moving back to an area that was once low-income.
Shaw-U Street was very different. In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was 90 percent African-American. By 2010, it was 55 percent white—only 30 percent of the population was African-American. Part of the reason that Shaw-U Street are gentrifying is because we have this expanded downtown. Chinatown and Penn Quarter in Downtown East have redeveloped. Millennials who are moving into the city want to live as close to downtown as they possibly can, but they can't afford those areas, so they’re looking at the neighborhood on the cusp of the central business district—like Shaw and U Street.
In the book, you talk about how the black history of the neighborhood is being leveraged to advertise it to young urbanites. Could you talk about that?
In the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, if a neighborhood was branded black, it usually led to economic decline and white flight. And in the ‘90s and 2000s, you see low-income African-American neighborhoods being branded black and yet attracting whites. That is the unique dynamic of the Shaw-U Street area. Many of the developers are branding the buildings after iconic African Americans. There’s the Langston Lofts, there’s the Ellington Apartments. There's Marvin’s, which is a restaurant that's named after Marvin Gaye, who grew up in Washington, D.C. There's Busboys and Poets, Andy Shallal’s restaurant, named after Langston Hughes, which is very well-known in the D.C. area and also around the country. There's also a historic walking trail, and you can see where Alain Locke, who wrote The New Negro—the philosophy of the Harlem Renaissance—lived. There’s historic preservation related to this community's black history that is appreciated by whites and some whites are moving to this area because it is a diverse area.
But I also write that some whites are moving to the area because they know it was once the former ghetto. They know 14th Street used to be an open air drug market in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And some white residents are looking for racial stereotypes. They're looking for the iconic ghetto. They've seen shows like The Wire, and maybe New Jack City or Boyz N The Hood, and they have a connotation of what inner-city African-American areas that were once low-income look like. They're actually moving here, in part, because they think that they're moving to an area that they consider “authentic.” It’s not a homogenous affluent white area. It's not in Georgetown. It's not Foggy Bottom. It's not Dupont Circle: It's Shaw-U Street.
Elaborate on what’s positive and what’s problematic about this change, and with this perception of the neighborhood.
We have been so segregated in the United States and that now that whites are attracted and willing to move into what was formerly a low-income African-American neighborhood does symbolize some progress, in terms of race relations in the United States. That we have mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods, I think, is a very positive thing.
But that diversity not necessarily benefiting the former residents. Most of the mechanisms by which low-income people would benefit from this change are related to social interaction—that low-, middle-, and upper-income people would start to talk to one another. They would problem solve with one another. They would all get involved civically together to bolster their political power. But what we're really seeing is a micro-level segregation. You see diversity along race, class, sexual orientation overall, but when you get into the civic institutions—the churches, the recreation centers, the restaurants, the clubs, the coffee shops—most of them are segregated. So you're not getting a meaningful interaction across race, class, and difference. If we think that mixed-income, mixed-race communities are the panacea for poverty, they're not.
During my research, for example, I had a lot of people tell me that they were pleased with the redevelopment because they felt it was associated with reductions in crime. They felt that it would be safer for their kids and their families. But then I would say, “What else is happening in this neighborhood?” “Oh well, the amenities are coming in that we can't utilize or don't want to utilize them.” “We're losing our political power, because most of the civic associations used to be African-American, and then flipped.” So there's a political loss that's also occurring.
And then also you've got some people in this community that I say in the book are “living The Wire”—looking for iconic ghetto stereotypes. Some newcomers thought it was hip and cool, that it actually brought them more credibility because they were living in a neighborhood that was edgy and rough. Crime and blackness is associated in the minds of some newcomers—and that’s really problematic. Low-income residents, on the other hand, think crime is detrimental to their kids’ opportunities and to their health.
Sociologist Robert Sampson writes a lot about collective efficacy: that controlling crime brings people together across difference, as a community. But in a place where crime is perceived differently by a long term and newcomer populations, that’s not going to happen.
So, for newcomers, the diversity is an aesthetic or a superficial feature. It attracts them to the neighborhood, at times, because they have stereotypical ideas about the culture of that neighborhood. And once they start living there, they often don’t engage with neighbors—especially across racial and class lines—in a meaningful way. At the same time, you note in your book, that older residents are also suspicious of newcomers. What’s the reason that different groups are reluctant to talk to each other?
We just have to look at race relations in America to understand that there tends to be a mistrust of people who are different, regardless of whether you're living miles and miles away, or whether you're living next door to them.
I would also say that the current climate in gentrified spaces is one where newcomers typically come in, and instead of politically integrating, they do a political takeover. They start to take over the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) in D.C. They take over the city council seats. And then, they start instituting policies that relate more to their tastes and preferences and their idea of what they want the community to look like. They advocate for things like the bike lanes, coffee shops, and dog parks.
There's a great example in the book where the first off-leash dog park was developed in the Shaw-U Street area. It was advocated for by a civic association that was dominated by white newcomers and they got less than half a million dollars for it. I spent time doing my ethnography at this park, and I noticed that African-Americans, who had dogs, that were living around this park, didn’t enter it. I asked them, “You've got a dog, why don’t you use this space?” “Oh, no, no, no. We're not going to use that because that space is not for us.” I said, “why isn't it for you?” “It was put in place by a white-led civic association. They got the money and that's their space.” This person felt like they weren't included in the political process. Other residents mentioned how, for years before newcomer whites came in, they had been advocating for improvements in that park—and nothing occurred. So there was a lot of resentment by longterm residents.
What’s the best way to go about bridging this divide?
If it wasn't for affordable housing policies in Shaw, it would maybe be 90 percent white. Many of the African-American longterm residents who are living there are living in subsidized housing that dates back to the 1960s. And so we've got to preserve and maintain affordable housing in transitioning communities. That’s one. But if we just focus on housing and don't go beyond that, we're really not stimulating the benefit for low-income people.
We really need community based organizations that are focused on bringing people together across difference. I call these neutral third spaces. Public policy isn't geared toward funding community based organizations in gentrified areas that are trying to bring people together to dialogue about inequality or differences. It’s not going to happen organically. There are very few foundations, a few city governments using their Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money to focus on bridge-building. I really think we need that. We need affordable housing first, but we have to go beyond housing to make mixed-income, mixed-race communities work for everybody—to make them more inclusive.