Chocolate City Revisted

I last wrote about Washington DC on this blog about two years ago.  I’m back again and finding the contrasts and contradictions are sharper than in 2012.  Most cities have experienced gentrification, but DC is doing it on speed.  In other places, a particular area may be subject to the passing whims of property-market fueled fashion, but here it’s happening on a city-wide scale.  The peculiarities of Washington’s socio-economic geography make this possible.  This can feel like a walled city without walls.  The statutory limitations on growth inevitably mean that population increases and shifts lead to distortion and displacement, the key feature of which is that Chocolate City is becoming White Washington.  With the exception of the south-east segment across the Anacostia river (and I gather even this is changing) it appears that every part of DC is undergoing redesign and redevelopment in the image of a young, hip, affluent urban elite.  The latter, of course, is a defining feature of gentrification, but it assumes a particular resonance in a city whose history is replete with paradox.  In some respects, DC is a company town, but the artifice of government power and grandeur conceals a visually charming, but socially divided place.  The Shaw neighbourhood, for example, was the residential and cultural heart of DC’s African-American community from the end of the Civil War, through segregation, the 1968 riots and the urban decay that followed.  When I first visited Shaw about ten years ago it was still predominantly poor and black, but with the tell-tale harbingers of gentrification beginning to show.  Now it’s a hive of trendy clubs, restaurants, bars and luxury apartments.  Its new population is not uniformly white, but it is uniformly well-off.  Not far away and only five minutes from The White House, Franklin Square is one of the many public spaces designed to make Washington a ‘beautiful city’ capable of rivaling its European forerunners.  When I walked through it yesterday morning there were at least 100 homeless people in it, some of them queuing up at a soup kitchen, almost all of them black.  When I passed-by in the evening there was a small group of religious fanatics with signs reading ‘God Hates Fags’.  They were black too.  I’m not sure what (if any) connection there is between these observations, beyond a profound sense of social dislocation within which skin colour (and sexuality?) act as a proxy for class.

Today is the opening session of the annual National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) conference – the main reason why I’m here.  NAHT is a national campaign organisation representing low-income tenants living in government subsidised rental housing, most of it in the private sector.  There are delegates here from the states of New York, California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois, Washington, Georgia, Maryland and Oklahoma, as well as locals from DC (which isn’t a state).  NAHT is hard-boiled and gritty, necessary characteristics for dealing with government and private agencies who generally fail to respect its members.  I always find it an inspiring event and will say more soon.

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