Sunday, February 12, 2012


When looking at the changing demographic patterns in urban centers across the United States, I rarely use the term gentrification. I tend to always say “regentrification.” This may or may not be correct depending on how you define it. But, in part, the reason I say it is that these migration patterns into and out of the city have happened before. If you go further back in time, you find that the demographics had changed again, earlier. Let’s look at DC.

The District of Columbia is poised to lose its Black majority probably sometime next year in 2012. This is interesting to me, especially in a city known to African Americans as “Chocolate City.” The loss of the Black majority is due to gentrification—the process where majority/white or richer people move into an area dominated by poorer people and the poorer people begin to decline in numbers or percentages. Suburban people are moving back into the city of Washington, D.C. in seemingly record numbers. Neighborhoods that people would never have gone into 10 years ago are now attractive hubs for dining, clubs, events, and meetings. Neighborhoods, that were once majority-minority, are now majority-majority or an even mix of cultures—white, brown, black, and others.

And here I am. I arrive and end up in a gentrified part of Capitol Hill that used to belong to the domain of middle class Blacks (not lower-class) according to neighborhood lore. The process is so dynamic that I can actually see it sweep through the neighborhood. To the west of my house towards the Capitol, the houses are majority-majority; however, east of my house the numbers of minority slowly increase until you have neighborhoods with beautiful mix and continue to rise until you arrive in Anacostia where it is majority-minority. Just as the changing colors of the trees literally sweeps north through the trees of Maine in autumn, you can actually see dividing swirl-lines of demographic changes in my neighborhood. People will actually tell you “Do not go pass this street. It’s dangerous there. There is a quadrant inside of which you are safe. But if you go pass the borders of it, you’re on your own.” The only thing I don’t like about such statements is that usually the unsafe neighborhoods to which people refer are neighborhoods full of people that look like me; the second thing I don’t like about such statements is that some people actually do live there. It’s not that everyone stays away; some call it there home. And some don’t have a choice. My a capella group rehearses in Anacostia (a place where people tell you to avoid).

The debate over regentrification seems to revolve around whether it is good or bad or has been good or bad. The problem or confusion is that it is both. There are definitely benefits, and there are definitely curses. It depends on your perspective. Some of the poorer people who were able to retain their houses benefit from nicer-looking neighborhoods with new businesses and services. But the overwhelming negative aspect of it is that poorer people eventually are forced out through a variety of mechanisms. The one most talked about is the gradual raising of property taxes to the point where poorer people can no longer afford it and are forced to leave or sell.

There are benefits to gentrification and urban regentrification. But whatever the benefits, whether nicer looking and cleaner neighborhoods with new businesses and restaurants, the benefits only deal with a symptom of the problem—the lack of businesses like grocery stores, the unsightly buildings, etc. Urban regentrification does nothing about the plight of poorer people. They simply end up moving elsewhere. And the plight of poorer people is something that concerns me more and more as my lens and perspective of the whole human family widens and I learn what love is. It’s a bit similar to a mice problem we had in our house in the winter of 2009-2010. We spoke with neighbors two houses down about it, and they told us they had the same problem.

“Yeah, we put stuff in the pipes and drove them out of our house down to your house.” They laughed. I wasn’t laughing.

It’s similar to the police lieutenant in charge of the precinct in which our house lies. In our annual neighborhood meeting after 2 attempted break-ins, we had a special security meeting with him. He explained how the problem used to be worse. He explained where the kids come from who are committing these acts.

“We need your help. These criminal acts are mostly due to youth from the Potomac Gardens area. If everyone one of you takes action, keeps your lights on, is vigilant, and notifies us when you see an open garage door or someone strange, we will do our best to take care of the problem. We don’t care about actually stopping them or eliminating the problem. Our only concern is that we push the crime further southeast. They used to be west of us, and then those people pushed the crime into our area because they got smart and used great community coordination and action. We need to do the same. We want to push their activities east of us, send ‘em elsewhere. And we’ll be fine.”

This was the police, mind you. The police. Coincidentally some of his statements backfired on me. Someone in my housing association called the cops on me when I was outside of my own house. A second time while waiting for the police to come inspect a neighbor’s house with an open garage, the police thought I was the suspect even though I tried to explain I was there to show them the house. It didn’t help that it was cold and my hands were in my pockets. They asked me to remove them slowly.
The mechanism that most interests me these days is the regentrification-related process in my neighborhood. The nice version is that a prognosticating person who recognizes regentrification earlier (or just has knowledge of city development plans) will offer to buy houses. The price might seem really good, but the unsuspecting owner doesn’t realize how much the house will be worth in a few years as the area undergoes development and a renaissance. So they sell their house, and the buyer reaps the benefits of renting it out as the demand for housing in the area increases.

The nasty version looks like this. Someone walks around my neighborhood looking for elderly people. This someone may notice an elderly person and take note of his routine, or he may approach him on the day of notice. This person will offer to help the elderly person with his bags. The elderly man agrees as his muscles are not what they used to be. So she helps him with his bags. They talk briefly and she leaves. She walks by another day and sees him trying to mow his lawn. She offers to help again. He remembers her from before, and he enjoys the company. He talks to her about D.C. and about her brother that she mentioned when helping with groceries. Slowly but surely this chance occurrences increase, until she agrees to just help him regularly with shopping or other errands. Finally one day after they have known each other for a good while and developed a solid relationship, she brings a piece of paper to him. She explains that the paper is an agreement that the DC government is requiring of all people who want to take advantage of new low property tax laws in that area. His eyesight is bad, and he tries to read the gist of the document ignoring the fine print and missing a lot of the big print. He profusely thanks her for her attention to D.C. news and for her consideration of him.

“A lot of people are out there to get you and cheat you. So it’s just nice to know that someone cares and is looking out for your interests. My wife used to do that before she passed, and my kids and grandkids are so busy these days. So I’m really thankful for you and your friendship. Thanks, Lucy.”

What he doesn’t know is that Lucy had really drawn up a contract that transferred ownership of the house to Lucy upon his death. The man dies, the funeral happens which Lucy attends, and then there is the reading of the will. The expecting children believe they will get the house, but there is a catch. Lucy has a contract that overrides the will and she even presents it to the lawyer officiating the will proceedings. It’s legal and true. And it’s signed by Mr. Woolover. So there’s nothing the family can do. And Lucy has a house that she can rent out for increasing value as urban regentrification continues.

No lie. In fact, on the day I wrote this section, I got a call from someone I don’t know asking if I would be interested in selling my house. . . . I don’t even own it.

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