It became painfully noticeable when construction finished on some flashy condos stretched atop a new organic market on Pennsylvania Avenue, an artery running through the heart of Washington, D.C.’s Black side. The building imposed, like the pretty new girl in a school full of hags, at the end of one of the last residential blocks that separates shi shi Capitol Hill from its Negro neighbors on the other end. Unlike the row of little ramshackle businesses gangsta leaning nearby, this new structure was bright and swanky and fresh.
It was also a neon flashing sign that the others are coming. You know. White folks.
In fact, there are plenty of indicators that gentrification has descended not just in overwhelmingly Black southeast but colored communities all over the District, like locusts on Pharaoh’s property, primed and prepped to squeeze every Africanism by its throat and shake the ‘hood ‘til the ‘hood ain’t even the ‘hood no more. That particular stretch of city is a highlight reel of everything that’s beautifully hilarious and endearing about around-the-way living. At the intersection, Fruit of Islam sell bean pies and Final Calls from the median while hardworking hustlers peddle packages of socks to passersby. Girls with multi-colored weaves and skintight jeans have loud cell conversations as they walk past washed-up playas shooting the breeze in the doorway of the carryout slash corner store. And homeless guys panhandle from drivers with the misfortune of being stuck at the red light.
It’s the distinctive and familiar choreography of a Black metropolis.
But after that combo condo/organic market opened its doors, the landscape started to change. Rail-thin blondes with swinging ponytails jog up and down the block in tiny shorts, sporting even tinier dogs on leashes. Gay couples in matching flip-flops look like walking J. Crew ads as they sashay along the sidewalks like they own the place. In actuality, they do. It’s all very unnatural. But that’s gentrification for ya.
Developers and politicians try to soften the blow of the shifting demographics with fancy-sounding euphemisms like “community revitalization projects” or “up-and-coming neighborhoods.” But what they really mean to say is, “Pack your bags, your baby daddies and your unsavory ways, darkies,” even if they themselves look like the very folks they’re trying to herd out of D.C. proper. Their own projections must be their pride and joy—census statistics released about a week ago estimate that the District, nicknamed Chocolate City for its predominantly Black population, will no longer be predominantly Black as early as 2014.
It’s not just D.C. suffering the effects of the Great Whiteout. It’s Chicago. It’s L.A. It’s Philly. It’s Atlanta. It’s Brooklyn. I used to live there, too, and I vividly remember when white ladies would get off the Utica Avenue stop in Bed-Stuy by accident and scurry—literally run—back to the subway for safer, more porcelain-skinned places. Now Caucasians strut around freely, unafraid, buying up the gorgeous brownstones that I can only drool and fantasize over because they have the money to snap up investment properties and I—and most people who look like me—don’t.
When yuppie urbanites swoop in on a Black area, they change the dynamic of everything, from the value of the real estate to the prices in the local grocery stores. Out goes Pathmark, ShopRite and Piggly Wiggly. In goes Harris Teeter, Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Out goes the barber shop and beauty salon, the storefront churches and the Chinese carryout. In goes a pet groomer, a day spa and an overpriced coffee and internet cafe. Our old-school way of life is bulldozed to make way for theirs; our informal landmarks pummeled in the path of their new settlements.
It breaks my heart to know the history in these communities are being whitewashed by Becky and Brad because, for whatever reason, Tyrone and Tamika didn’t hold on to Big Mama’s House, those family homes that could be passed on from generation to generation. Sometimes it’s for financial reasons, and those I can completely and totally empathize with, particularly as the side effects of gentrification take hold and drive the cost of living through the proverbial roof. But there are others of us who just don’t have any allegiance to the sweat and struggle our parents, grandparents and forebears in general invested into buying, keeping and building their homes into neighborhoods and ultimately, the places that nurtured and cultivated our little brown tails coming up.
We’s college educated now and as a result of making a little money and having a little clout behind our names, we took our high saddidy tails to more upscale, exclusive neighborhoods because we can’t feel like we’ve arrived at the threshold of the African-American Dream unless we can work an impressive-sounding address into the course of a conversation. We’re moving out to be more like white folks and they’re moving in to make our abandoned communities their own. It’s an odd, depressing dance of politics, complete with social acrobatics.
I’m not saying we should subject ourselves to dodging shots and strapping on bullet proof vests just to go out and get the mail in the mornings because so committed are we to keeping it gully, we want to be on the frontlines of ‘hood tomfoolery. No, no, no. But community comes from communing, and way before integration gave us a tentative pass into areas that previously redlined us, we built thriving neighborhoods where we lived, loved, worshiped, laughed, played, danced, sang, rejoiced, enjoyed life in general. I want us to hold on to those places. For old time’s sake.
I love D.C. Correction: I love D.C. as it is, full of contradictions but flavored by the Blackness that has been—and will hopefully continue to be—the signature of the city. Next to my big dreams of being the African-American answer to Carrie Bradshaw, teetering daintily on five-inch stilettos while I flag down a cab to whisk me to an event in Manhattan, the District is the only place that really feels like home, the only place that can satisfy that balance I crave between the historical and the hip. I’m in the process of buying a house in the District because even if I don’t plan to stay here for the rest of my life, I want to stake my claim to just a tiny piece of the history that my people created in this city. (I’m still hanging on to my dream of buying a brownstone in Brooklyn, too.) I’m making sure, if it’s only my little brown family on one block, that I do my part to keep the chocolate in Chocolate City. I hope my fellow Clutchettes will do the same in theirs.