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 neighborhood debate over music swiftly became something bigger, and louder: a cry for self-determination from a community that is struggling to be heard.
I live down the street from a Metro PCS store at the corner of 7th and Florida in Washington D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, and every weekend, when I’m crossing the road at that intersection, I bop. The small, nondescript-looking cellphone retailer blasts go-go music from outdoor speakers most days, and it’s really hard to ignore the conga drum beat.
The store is, in many ways, an embodiment of Old D.C.—the District as it was in the 1970s and ‘80s, when rents in this once-predominantly African-American part of town were a lot cheaper and go-go was the made-in-D.C. funk soundtrack of the day. But a lot has changed in this neighborhood, which has experienced dramatic demographic shifts since the 1990s.
Gentrification in Shaw is a hot topic in D.C., especially now thanks to a dispute over Metro PCS and its go-go music that blew up last week. A resident of The Shay, a luxury apartment building across the street, regarded that insistent go-go beat as a nuisance. As DCist’s Rachel Kurzius first reported on April 8, complaints coming from the building forced T-Mobile, the store’s parent company, to ask the owner to turn down the music. (The Shay management distanced itself from the complaint.)
But D.C. wouldn’t let that happen. A Howard student named Julien Broomfield coined the hashtag #DontMuteDC, which started trending locally. Longtime D.C. activist Ronald Moten assembled a protest and confronted the resident who had complained. The music was turned up outside. Videos starring kids from a local community organization, passers-by, and old regulars jiving started circulating on the internet. The evening the news broke, a crowd of activists, artists, musicians, and concerned citizens had gathered in the parking lot next to The Shay; one by one, they came up to an open mic to speak about their experiences with gentrification in D.C., and their memories about the days when go-go was heard on every corner.
“Every time I heard that music, I knew I was home,” said one man—a native Washingtonian who remembered hearing the music play at this corner back in the 1990s. “In this city, there are a lot of rules that don’t pertain to all of us that make this home, but one thing that makes this home is the music. I can hear the beat, I can hear the rototoms, I can hear the congas, I can hear the basses. And I know I belong.”
The protest cranked all the way up in the week that followed. D.C. rapper Wale weighed in on Twitter—and joined a block party on 14th and U streets, where veteran go-go bands like ABM performed. Elected officials picked up the cause. Moten’s internet petition in support of the store gained more than 70,000 signatures. Two days after the controversy erupted, the CEO of T-Mobile, John Legere, weighed in: “The music will go on,” he tweeted, “and our dealer will work with the neighbors to compromise volume.”
On Sunday, the block hosted a victory concert. The day was full of remarkable moments, but the most poignant, perhaps, was the image of the older black folks who hang out on the corner dancing with a gaggle of joyous little kids in the shadow of the new development creeping down a street—one named, not so incidentally, after the late go-go pioneer Chuck Brown.
The drama of gentrification has a powerful hold on the urban imagination. Seeing neighborhoods erupt in defiance of the economic forces that are reshaping them—as in the whitewashing of murals on a community center in Chicago’s Latino Pilsen neighborhood, the march of art galleries in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, or the attempted rebranding of South Harlem in New York City as “SoHa”—feels like an irresistible illustration of how inequality and opportunity are divvied up in American cities. Such protests are cries for self-determination by groups who feel excluded from the community’s growth and trajectory, despite being central to their identity.
But the phenomenon itself is not as widespread as one might think, researchers tell us. Per two recent studies, extreme gentrification—the kind that involves a dramatic increase in higher-income residents into neighborhoods—has been limited to a handful of big cities in the past decade or so. And within those cities, gentrification often involves just a few areas.
Of course, economic development in neighborhoods that have not seen much historically should be a good thing. Some urban experts argue that fears over the looming “threat”of gentrification and displacement make little sense in low-income areas that are desperate for investment—places where structural forces like housing discrimination, targeted disinvestment (or “benign neglect”), and exclusionary zoning have disproportionately trapped people of color.
In Shaw, though, gentrification isn’t some false boogieman sowing anxieties among native Washingtonians. It’s a very real thing. Those two studies measure gentrification differently, but both singled out Washington, D.C., as ground zero: The city has undergone one of the most starkly visible demographic transformations in the country. And where gentrification has hit hard, populations of color have bled out. The D.C. Policy Center found the white population in Shaw grew tenfold since 1970, as its overall population doubled. The share of non-Hispanic whites went from 11 percent in 1970 to 62 percent in 2015.
D.C., then, offers a way to examine what this kind of gentrification actually means, and why it causes such anxiety. Why did this store—at the edge of a neighborhood that’s already on the far side of gentrification—touch such a nerve? And what does the reaction tell us about the way we talk (and don’t talk) about gentrification, in D.C. and around the country?
For Travis Houze, a 28-year-old photographer who grew up on D.C.’s Georgia Avenue, go-go was the way he came to understand popular music.
“I remember Rare Essence’s ‘Pieces of Me,’” he told me, invoking the pioneering D.C. funk outfit’s cover of the 2004 Ashlee Simpson hit. “That was like a really popular song I used to get on all the radio channels. Then when I heard Ashlee Simpson’s version of ‘Pieces of Me,’ I was like, ‘Why is Ashlee Simpson covering a go-go song?’”
The Metro PCS store was a staple, Houze said—immediately recognizable by native Washingtonians, a constant in a sea of change. “It’s the understanding that this is the one place … that will always play this music,” he said.
The store’s owner is himself an institution, as the Washington Post’s Marissa J. Lang explains. In the 1990s, Donald Campbell owned a club in the neighborhood that hosted go-go bands; eventually, he traded the venue for an electronics store that sold pagers, beepers, and go-go recordings. The store was a safe space for members of the community back then, and the music he blasted from the speakers out front was like a bat-signal broadcasting that message. “Yeah, I guess we’re kind of unique—a different kind of cellphone store,” Campbell told Lang. (He’s now using the momentum from the protest to start a GoFundMe to create an online streaming service for his go-go collection.)
Today, too, this corner store retains the air of a community anchor. When I was in there the other day, regulars popped in and out, buoyed by the support and attention the store had seen in recent days. From time to time, one of them sang along to the song playing in the background. A homeless man from the neighborhood came inside and quickly nodded off next to the gumball machine. Later, an elderly veteran rolled up in a wheelchair and parked outside on the sidewalk. Hillerie Rodriguez, who works the desk, came out to greet him with a smile of recognition.“They know me,” he later told me.
This Metro PCS is a landmark in D.C.’s Shaw-U Street neighborhood, which was the epicenter of black arts and culture in the District in the 20th century. Segregated during Jim Crow, U was a “Black Broadway” that hosted Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Cab Calloway. The store is an extension of that history, which helps explain why the complaint about the music struck such a chord in this neighborhood.
“It’s like defacing tribal ground in a way,” Storm Stevenson, a D.C. native who grew up in the area, told me. “Once you sound off the music, you sound off the culture.”
In his book, Race, Class, Politics in the Cappuccino City, American University sociologist Derek Hyra focuses on the cultural and political transformation of Shaw. While the current iteration of the neighborhood advertises its cultural diversity—there’s an apartment complex named after Langston Hughes and a cocktail bar named after Marvin Gaye—that diversity is largely superficial, he writes. Newcomers, often more affluent than existing residents, often don’t understand the culture, rituals, needs, and background of the community they are joining, stoking resentment.
“Why are you coming here and complaining about what we got going on?” said Stevenson. “It feels like a flex of power in a way.”
Gentrification evokes such strong emotions in part because it exposes something that’s often otherwise hidden: who enjoys choices and who doesn’t. It demonstrates which parts of a community are hoarding opportunity with respect to housing, transit, public education, and other urban amenities. But what that process actually is, the way it unfolds, and what consequences it has is not always clear.
Gentrification is marked by an uptick in wealthier, often whiter residents, new development, and commerce. Researchers don’t see eye-to-eye on the relationship between gentrification and displacement because the latter can be measured in a number of (imperfect) ways. One of the most comprehensive definitions of displacement, in my opinion, comes from the UCLA-UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project:
Displacement can be physical (as building conditions deteriorate) or economic (as costs rise). It might push households out, or it might prohibit them from moving in, called exclusionary displacement. It can result from reinvestment in the neighborhood—planned or actual, private or public—or disinvestment.
Importantly, the researchers mention the cultural facet of these changes on existing residents: that they can “lead to a reduced sense of belonging, or feeling out of place in one’s own home.” This rings true with what Natalie Hopkinson, a culture and media studies professor at Howard University and author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City wrote in in Slate following last week’s events—that they “reflect the ways that urban markets amplify the cultural erasure that gentrification brings to cities.”
When a neighborhood starts turning, some existing residents may see their home values and credit scores improve. But if no safeguards are in place, new development can push out—and then keep out—the most vulnerable residents through direct and indirect mechanisms. Over time, gentrification-related displacement looks a lot like resegregation.
Sometimes, the less-tangible changes accompanying the process get lost in the conversation among urbanists. Depending on the kind of demographic shift, the sense of community in a neighborhood can take a blow; the existing residents of color can feel more stress; and the identity of the area—if not redefined completely—can be commodified. There’s also some evidence that calls to police go up in tandem with the demographic shifts, and police stops multiply with the renewed law enforcement attention to these areas. Where gentrification goes, the police follow, research shows. (The dynamics of intra-racial gentrification—black gentrification or Latinx “gentefiction”—can be different.)
At the end of the day, though, it’s not one luxury condo or one oblivious gentrifier, but larger structural and historical systems that trigger gentrification. All of us who move to the city, to a neighborhood like Shaw, are implicated in the process.
In cities like D.C., where a widespread rise in housing prices has accompanied intense pockets of gentrification, the demand to build more housing at all price points is often touted as the solution to both issues. But Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) activists often dismiss working-class residents who resist new construction, fearing that development will feed future displacement. Those fears are well earned. While research shows that even building market-rate housing can ease the rent burden writ large, there’s also plenty of research showing that this type of development hikes home prices in the vicinity in the short term. Low-income residents may also not see the affordability from building new units reflect on their monthly rent bill—and if they do, it may take a while.
The desire to have more of a say in what gets built is natural in communities that have long been ignored or railroaded. And yet, this kind of community resistance is often clumsily clubbed together with classic NIMBYism—the tendency of rich, often white neighborhoods to reject new development and moves to densify for fear of “loss of character.” To make this even more difficult: In California, as Miriam Zuk of the Urban Displacement Project points out, privileged residents have used gentrification “as a smokescreen” to justify their resistance to pro-housing legislation, even though they themselves are not at risk for displacement. The first step is to disentangle the two contexts. And the second: If rich NIMBY neighborhoods have created—and continue to exacerbate—the unequal conditions we see in cities, why shouldn’t they assume more of a burden of fixing it?
“We know ‘we’ did not underbuild for decades,” writes Fernando Marti, the co-director of the San Francisco-based Council of Community Housing Organizations, in Shelterforce. “It is we, in fact, who built these cities; we who stayed in these neighborhoods while their grandparents fled to racially exclusive suburbs.”
In some urban policy and planning circles, there’s also a poor understanding about the cultural and psychological effects that coincide with gentrification—and how they interact with issues like policing. D.C.’s newly released cultural plan, as my colleague Kriston Capps recently wrote, doesn’t dwell much on go-go or recognize the broader structural challenges that are driving it into extinction:
The city merely needs to formally recognize that the rights of longtime black cultural consumers, cultural producers, and cultural spaces outweigh the interests of new residents who move to this high-decibel nightlife strip and then demand that it change.
Policy-wise, a toolbox of solutions to the negative consequences of gentrification does exist—but it needs to be more comprehensive and intersectional. Building and preserving affordable housing needs to go hand in hand with transit equity, public health, cultural preservation, and steps that help rectify historical wrongs. On that last front, a good start is to center voices from communities that have got the short end of the stick. In D.C., Moten and Hopkinson, the go-go scholar, are forging ahead with their plans to elevate black-owned businesses in the district, create a go-go museum, and research the cultural effects of displacement.
“To me, the movement is huger than this one location,” Moten told local radio host Angie Ange, citing a long list of now-vanished D.C. music venues that didn’t survive in the city’s glitzy new era. “And down in Anacostia, our businesses are fighting to stay alive—they’re being bought out. This is about people coming together to do the right thing about the D.C. citizens and new citizens who come here.”
The move, for the rest of us, is to listen.