Shani Hilton, who lives downhill from me and my perch atop Rhode Island Ave, wrote the cover story for this week’s Washington City Paper about black gentrification. That’s a fascinating focus within such a wide and fraught topic, and I wanted to pluck one point that I think is particularly interesting:
For neighborhoods where it suddenly feels like white people are “everywhere,” the U.S. Census Bureau says the vast majority of residents in LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale (and Petworth, and Brookland) are still black—more than 80 percent of the residents in some gentrifying census tracts in a 2009 estimate.
Perhaps that’s because just as “black people” is a proxy term for poor people in D.C., “white people” is a proxy term for the young professionals who have moved in—and neither term is being accurately used.
She proceeds to the point that ‘Gentrifier’ can’t be equated with ‘white person’ — true. The questions I’m interested in personally are, who counts as a gentrifier, and why? Hilton draws much of her point from racial, income, and employment data on residents of LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Petworth, and the city at-large, but fresh-out-of-undergrad investment bank analysts aren’t the only gentrifiers. Shani moved here to work as a journalist, and the title of her piece suggests that she recognizes herself as an “offender” despite a young journo’s pittance. I first moved to Shaw as an unemployed Georgetown graduate with little savings, bracing for six figure student loan debt — yet I’m clearly the culprit as well.
Question being, if these divisions are about race only insomuch as they’re about education only insomuch as they’re about income levels, how has Shaw been gentrified largely by freelancers with unframed diplomas? Maybe what we really mean here is that it’s all about earning power? Probably, but doesn’t it matter that this influx of educated kids, with their skinny jeans and their bachelors degress, won’t necessarily wield earning power ten years from now that their parents would have commanded with similar university credentials? And doesn’t it matter that, at least for the time being, the kids are all broke?
I also suspect that D.C.’s gentrification angst is, to some degree, about neighborhoods feeling less “black” and more “white,” even where “black” doesn’t really mean Black, and even where young, ascendant African-American professionals are complicit in the conversion. Of course, Shani has largely beaten me to this point, which is why you should go finish reading her piece.