Thursday, July 16, 2015

Determining the Ward 8 "hip" factor.

By now I have lived in Ward 8 for nearly eight years. When I look back to when I was first considering a move east of the river I recall the adjectives that were  used to describe the community. Most descriptives were highly negative: "crime-ridden" and "poor" being the primary buzz words. On the flip side, "affordable" and "convenient" were often used to justify a move to 20020 or 20032.

One adjective that always seemed elusive was "hip."

"Hip" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some "hip" is used to describe gentrified neighborhoods with a bustling nightlife and more signature cocktails and cupcakes than you can wave a hipster's stick at.  For others, it may just mean a place of interest, someplace to be, an experience worthy of one's time and money. 

In short, the definition for "hip" is to be in-demand, to be desired, to be cool --  without a caveat. For me, it is  probably defined as where I go and what I do when I want to have a good time -- not neccesarily when I want to be a good person. Cost is not a factor, I will pay for a really good event versus getting free tickets to an average one.

That got me thinking. 

What is "hip" about Ward 8? Do we even want to be "hip" and if not why?

Historic Anacostia is developing a reputation as an emerging arts district -- just last Friday nearly 400 people attended an evening art and pop-up restaurant opening at the Anacostia Arts Center. And with ever-growing retail and dining options, Anacostia is definitely rising on DC's spectrum of cool. The for sale housing market in Anacostia bears that premise out. Anacostia is definitely a place you want to be, so much so I am seeing people try to quantify or justify their closeness to Anacostia as a selling feature. Oh my how the times they are a changin'!

Last year's Yelp! event in Anacostia had people literally lined up around the block!
On a Sunday!

Shoppers enjoy the wares at Nubian Hueman, a minority-owned boutique
in the Anacostia Arts Center.

Congress Heights on the other hand, while close in geographic proximity to Anacostia has yet to be officially invited to the "cool" kids table. We are trying on different outfits and making plans for next year when we get our growth spurt but we aren't really there yet, the tipping point is still just out of our reach. And for other worthy and charming Ward 8 neighborhoods such as Bellevue and Washington Highlands,  they are still located on the fringes of public acceptance and hype. Both very worthy neighborhoods but still lacking that "thing" that will launch them into DC's consciousness as neighborhoods to watch.

This of course is based on the overly simplified premise that every neighborhood (or any neighborhood) wants to be considered popular or desired. What some east of the river residents like most about their neighborhoods are their "hidden gem" status. Those residents don't suffer from traffic, parking meters and sky-high rents that one would expect in trendy neighborhoods like H Street or U Street. 

But as in everything (except my diet) there is a need for moderation. For a community where "underserved" almost feels like a surname, there is a need in Ward 8 for excitement and to be in demand. Contrary to the saying, it is in fact not cool to be square.

People want to go where other people are and without quality dining, retail and entertainment options that is a hard sell. Without a significant number of  middle-class east of the river residents our disposable income is weak at best. We need visitors as potential customers, ticket buyers and investors to increase the amenities and neighborhood goods and services (and jobs!!!!)  that we are currently lacking. We need outside brand ambassadors in addition to our neighborhood boosters to spread the good word about east of the river and to spend money here. That means taking a hard and honest look at how our rescources stack up. All the free hot dogs and free events in the world aren't going to make someone go someplace consistentialy if it is not engaging.

Congress Heights retail leaves much to be desired. 

Part of the struggle is the narrative. I know of some well-meaning nonprofits who try at all costs to avoid the "hip factor." There is a feeling that with acceptance will come a lack of funding and that a place can't be in-demand yet still in-need. That dichotomy is why many a Ward 8 main street feels more like a cemetery than a business district. Residents have been advocating for years for more diversity in commercial and residential real estate and I suspect the reason is to change the narrative so it is not so heavily stacked in any one direction. Ward 8 neighborhoods don't want to be the next U Street but they do want to be able to walk to some quality food and retail options. 

So to go back to the beginning. What is the Ward 8 "hip factor" and is it something we should be running toward or running away from? And if it is the latter, how do we move from underserved to independent without some incentives? 

1 comment:

H st ll said...

Excellent op-ed. Well said