Are Gentrified Cities Too Greedy?

Urban renewal works in D.C. and New Orleans. But the needs of the vulnerable shouldn't be ignored.

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Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images; Stacy Revere/WireImage/Getty Images

(The Root) -- Several weeks ago I was a guest on a New Orleans radio station talking about culture, gentrification and parallels between two Chocolate Cities: Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. I spoke of police antagonism toward Washington's indigenous go-go music and the cultural impact of gentrification on historically black neighborhoods like the area around U Street. The host, Chuck Perkins, and another guest, Loyola University's Andre Perry, spoke of the police antagonism toward Mardi Gras Indians and New Orleans' Second Line culture, and the cultural impact of gentrification in historically black neighborhoods like Treme.

We marveled at the parallels between the two cities -- each with oversized black populations, airports named after black historic figures and a rich culture and history born of slavery and ongoing struggle. In the era of the urban Great Inversion, longtime residents of both cities were trying to figure out what to do when cultures as organic as the birds and the trees are suddenly forced to justify their right to just be. As one New Orleans call-in listener eloquently put it that morning: "They want to turn this place into a big ole Disneyland," he thundered. "They can't do that. That's our blood that spilled on Congo Square."

Arts and culture are early-warning systems. They foretell what happens on the policy side, and what eventually will be the new reality. In a long and thoughtful post on the Atlantic's website, Garance Franke-Ruta points out that a parade of black elected leaders, from Marion Barry onward, have been scheming for a way for affluent white residents to come back into D.C. It worked. And now she, like many newcomers, would like everyone to shut up about it. "Is bemoaning the gentrification of Washington, D.C., a genre past its prime?" she writes.

That answer really depends on whether you care about history and culture, and the basic morality of urban renewal. I personally don't spend much time worrying about U Street hipsters "swagger-jacking" black culture and turning it to kitsch, as Stephen A. Crockett Jr. so colorfully put it. But I do worry about enduring segregation inside the city. I'm worried that we are developing the city to an economic tipping point of no return. I'm worried about the train that Barry et al put into motion, and whether it can be stopped short of running over Grandma.

Changing a City's Flavor

D.C.'s pro-gentrification policies were forged of desperation in a city that since becoming majority-black in 1957, had assumed more than its fair share of the burdens of the legacy of slavery and bad urban planning. As a result, local and federal government wrote policies to reel the people with money back.

Today, four decades after the fiery riots of 1968 devastated many parts of the district, it worked. The population is back up. Trends point to a wealthier city with coffers flush with cash. Goodbye, Chocolate City. Hello, Neapolitan City.

The city is more integrated than it's been in generations, but this is no time for victory laps. Not when there is so much more work to be done mitigating the impact on vulnerable populations and maintaining an environment safe for indigenous culture.

Let's start with the outsourcing of public education -- an effort for which both Chocolate Cities have served as America's lab rats. New Orleans leads the nation in the percentage of privately managed charter schools (about 70), with D.C. right behind it (just less than half). When public education is dismantled, it frays the bonds of community where culture grows. It also creates a transportation nightmare that robs us of the opportunity to let economic and racial integration do its work on neighborhood schools. The New Orleans "experiment" is getting mixed marks. In the era of so-called "choice," D.C. schools are becoming more segregated than ever.

Then there is the issue of development. Despite its success bringing in billions to develop inner-city D.C., the city keeps cooking up new ways to lure in developers as though it were 1968 and we were having a party and were worried that no one would show up. There is a push to raise the city's quirky building-height limit. We are seeing proposals, unheard of in the Chocolate era, from Republicans in Congress who want D.C. to get a commuter tax.