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How I Changed The Face of Washington Forever

By Matthew Yglesias  

"How I Changed The Face of Washington Forever"

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From Shani Hilton’s excellent “Confessions of a Black DC Gentrifier”:

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. The shift was happening even when I was in school, and it was quite noticeable then. A college friend noted at some point between freshman and senior year—after 2003, when Magic Johnson opened a Starbucks connected to the Howard University Bookstore on Georgia Avenue as part of a community development program called “Urban Coffee Opportunities”—that there were, as she put it, “just more white people around.”

Note that this is exactly when I moved to the neighborhood—specifically 10th Street just north of U,. The key thing bringing me to that particular block at the time was less the Starbucks than the (no longer extant) Five Guys, which opened just before the chain went into its explosive growth phase. In retrospect, though, it seems to me that the real seminal event was not me moving to the neighborhood or the Five Guys opening, but the opening of the Columbia Heights and Petworth Metro stations in 1999 connecting the two stubs of the Green Line. That created a powerful north-south axis of gentrification extending from Chinatown all the way up to Looking Glass Lounge. None of this idle chatter should, however, distract from Shani’s actual point which is to complicate the narrative in which “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.”

One point I do want to emphasize, however, is that gentrification isn’t really all about “displacing” former residents. The building I live in is on the site of what was the Northern Liberty Market until it was devastated by a fire in 1946. Then from 1965-1978 it was the home of the National Historic Wax Museum. It then stood vacant until the mid-1980s when it was torn down to become an open air parking lot. It retained that status for over twenty years until achieving its current status as a high-density mixed use residential development. We who live there (including, per Shani, many non-poor black people) are clearly gentrifiers, but we’re also the only people to have ever lived in this location.

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