Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Has gentrification become the new affirmative action debate of our generation?

Arts on the Avenue
(Anacostia, Summer 2011) 
And by that headline I am wondering if the focus has become so much about race that we have marginalized the hard work and success of the committed? Are we assuming that achievements in poor Black communities aren't attributed to the hard work and commitment of its residents? Are we perpetuating the misguided perception that poor Black people don't want (and deserve) better?

When it comes to reporting news East of the River it is bad enough to focus primarily on the negative, it is only slightly better when the "positive" reporting comes with a caveat.

LaThreadz Fashion Show
(Anacostia, Fall 2010)

I am not so blind to recognize the challenges facing East of the River. I am not so naive to think that race and economics does not play a significant role in how we move forward as a community. The unemployment statistics are inexcusable and should leave the city and the nation shamefaced. These are all real issues in need of immediate solutions. However, I don't think that makes us incapable of wanting more or achieving more based on our own merits. In the months, weeks, and days leading up to the LUMEN8Anacostia kick-off I saw Anacostia and Ward 8 residents come together. They coordinated community cleanups, stayed in touch with DDOT regarding street improvements, advocated for new trees to be planted on MLK Avenue and they volunteered for the festival. Most of these community advocates were of the "poor and black" demographic that is often the subject of news headlines and gentrification studies.

When white middle-class neighborhoods improve it is called "progress," a natural progression of achievement; the precursor to the holiest of holy of economic development labels: an "up and coming" neighborhood. Why is it that when progress happens in predominately Black, lower-income neighborhoods, it is framed around a discussion about gentrification? When did "poor and black" become code-words for a lack of pride or sense of community? When did the most obvious reason for progress (success based on merit) become the most unlikely? Why is it just assumed that when neighborhoods become safe, clean, and prosperous all the poor Black people have to leave? What does that say about our perception of the capabilities and morals of the poor and the Black?

There is this often-told joke that all the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenues in the country are in bad neighborhoods.

Why is that?

Anacostia Art Gallery & Boutique
(Spring 2011)
As a girl I remember my family being hard-working, law-abiding, and dare I even say, "fabulous." We may not have been rich but we were definitely not poor in the things that mattered. My mother and father (and their mother and father before them) taught us that our achievements (and failures) came at our own hands. My father told me often that as a black woman I would have to work twice as hard to get half as far. It wasn't framed as being unfair it was just the way that it was.

Our success as a black family may not have been publicized but it was no less real and no less deserving. Even the "poor" neighborhoods of my grandmother and grandfather's youth were clean, orderly, and safe. Community pride didn't come with an income requirement.

Anacostia residents advocating for economic development
(Jan 2012)

Why can't success East of the River ever be attributed to the efforts of the people (black and white) who live here, now? 

Why is there this perception that outside forces must save us from ourselves? 

Why does every measure of success have to framed around a discussion of gentrification? 

Why does it seem that things only really matter if a certain demographic is present to legitimize it? (The truth is that cool things have been happening in Anacostia for years, even if not as many people had been around to see it.)

East of the River Juried Exhibition
Anacostia, Summer 2011)
Perhaps it is time to change the yardstick of how we measure success? Perhaps we need to rethink what we thought we knew?

Perhaps the white knight in shining armor is actually a black woman living in Southeast.

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Sariane Leigh said...

Chuch Sista Peele! It is covert racism by whites and self hate by blacks. Our society (both black and white) are programmed to believe that we Black people are victims that can only be saved.

We ignore the people who do little things everyday. I commend you for calling everybody out on romanticizing poverty.

Anacostia will be revolutionary as it becomes a unique black community in DC that created positive change without pushing anybody out.

It's a beautiful thing to watch unfold!


Anonymous said...

And the church says, "Amen!"

The depiction of the Black community in the media switches from criminal to impoverished victim and vice versa.

Time for a new story people!

Anonymous said...

Let us be clear, if we do not maintain and hold on to our communities, Ward 8 will become the old Georgetown. It is nice to have galleries and chi chi shops, but let us not forget our heritage and let us promote our culture and history and not that of a group who want cheap affordable housing because they cant afford nw.

The Advoc8te said...


What makes you think that Ward 8 residents don't want art galleries (over half the LUMEN8 artists are from East of the River) and don't deserve nice places to eat and shop (what I think you are calling "chi-chi."

I never understood that kind of logic that because something it is "nice" it must not be for "us" (Blacks). Many of the business owners, homeowners, and community advocates are Black (not that it should matter) and they are advocating hard for things to improve for Anacostia now, not the next Georgetown or U Street.

I think that is what makes Anacostia and Ward 8 special is the idea that it can and should be nice for all residents.

I missed the memo that said that black people's culture is exclusively in poverty. I grew up knowing I could be authentic to myself and never expect anything less than the best.

That is why I think this whole mentality we foster on each other of being "the last and the lost" does nothing but hurt us.

All Ward 8 residents (black + white, middle class and low income) deserve clean streets, safe neighborhoods, and options.

What's next? Speaking well means you are "sounding white?"

We deserve the best.

Birney Graduate said...

I have lived in this community for more than fifty years. I commend you and others for your work but I just want to remind you we have been here before. Please keep fighting even if it gets hard which it will.

H Street Landlord said...

Well written, interesting piece. I would like to see you expound upon it further. A couple of thoughts:

1) You made no mention of the fact that most of the gentrification/new comers are blacks who are middle or upper class. Will that disprove your entire thesis?

2) You throw the idea of gentrification under the bus (and I partially agree with you) but then advocate for the same things gentrifiers want (clean schools, safety, economic opportunity etc). Explain this disparity. Is it simply about who the media gives credit for revitalization that you are concerned about (and media attention to this type of situation is not monolothic)?

3) Not sure why you threw in there that when your grandparents grew up, poor neighborhoods were clean, orderly and safe. Are you somehow indicting current residents?

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with Advocate, my father, who used to live in America in the 50's said that poor neighborhoods (white, black or blue) used to have a flavor of family, community and pride that has dissipated today. There were safe streets and nice neighbors.
It is not a matter of wealth or race, it is a matter of PRIDE in what you have.

Anonymous said...

Gentrification is a science. Governments cooperate with businesses to push out people with less money in favor of people with more money. Race is only involved in as much as races tend to share certain experiences in racist societies. Our experiences inform how we confront the less favored groups when gentrification occurs.

In Anacostia government policies encourage gentrification, which again, is pushing out people with less money in favor of those with more money. Some of these policies include tax assessment regimes combined with renovation grants and downpayment assistance for first time homebuyers.

In other words the government is extending benefits to people with income capable of buying a house. When someone takes advantage of these programs to buy and live in a house with say a section 8 tenant already living there the section 8 tenant is displaced. The govt exchanged providing benefits to the section 8 tenant in favor of a lower to moderate income tenant financially savvy enough to be a homeowner. Gentrifaction.

When the new owner takes advantage of renovation grants curb appeal and prices go up. Also taxes. When an old person on a fixed income or their eventual heirs cant keep up they lose the property and more displacement occurs. These are government policies mind you. Not white people or middle class blacks organically finding their way to these neigborhoods.

The government even gives breaks, benefits, and incentives to million dollar companies to develop while the population of people with disposable income builds critical mass.

The government prefers giving benefits to lower to moderate income v no income or very low income because the former have more disposable income, which businesses like. Businesses increase the tax base for governments so it goes without saying why they'd rather extend benefits to businesses rather than very low or no income people.

Back to our experiences, as a black man I know much of the reason people on section 8 look like me is institutional neglect and historical disenfranchisement. I don't ignore this because I found a way.

I want opportunity for everyone, but I know that doesn't automatically come with jobs that amenities may bring to the area. People outside the neigborhood want jobs too and if we in it aren't prepared they will be the ones to get them!

I want to feel safe but I'm not comfortable with that safety if it means people have to go.

We need to share our expertise and experiences, our time and our resources, and most of all our understanding, compassion, and patience. For everything a gentrifier takes, by the same govt handouts we berate our lesser priviliged cohort for accepting, we ought to leave something for the people here in terms of tools, know how, and access to achieve success and that should be the only priority.

The rest of the stuff I see getting argued about will take care of itself, or rather is the work of government policies and will undoubtedly eventually happen. The question is will the people you displace encounter a better reality or a worse one on account of confronting the early vanguard of the gentrification movement.