D.C.: Less Black, More Green

In the second of a three-part series profiling the nation's capital, The Root takes a look at who really holds the purse strings in the rapidly gentrifying (and not-so) Chocolate City.

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Future President of BET Debra Lee and BET founder Robert Johnson at 2005 BET
Awards. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Hey, uh, we didn't get our 40 acres and a mule
But we did get you, CC, heh, yeah
--From the song "Chocolate City" (1975) by Parliament

Two local disc jockeys first anointed Washington, D.C., "Chocolate City" in the early 1970s. White flight to the suburbs after the 1968 riots had left the nation's capital with an African-American majority. But the city's roots as a showcase community for the black middle class were planted more than a century earlier, when tobacco farmers in neighboring Virginia and Maryland, their exhausted soils producing smaller and smaller crop yields, discovered that they had an oversupply of slaves on their plantations.

They leased their slaves to craftsmen and artisans in the District and Baltimore, where they learned carpentry, ironwork and other skilled trades, and many even managed to earn enough to buy their freedom. By the time Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, there were more Negroes than whites in the skilled trades in Washington, D.C.

From this antebellum black middle class emerged storied institutions like Howard University and Dunbar High School, pioneers like Duke Ellington and a population of black professionals that was second only to Harlem, N.Y., until World War II. By the time Ellington died in 1974, the best and brightest African Americans in the post-civil rights generation were pouring into the District for good-paying jobs in government, journalism, law and medicine. But at the same time, much like the protagonist in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, the black working class in D.C. and across the nation was going broke -- "gradually at first, and then suddenly."

Chocolate City is a lot less chocolate these days, and the term seems quaint, almost mocking, now. What was once black America's imperfect piece of the pie, its gritty Promised Land, has evolved into the model of the polarized, postindustrial city, its transformation so stark that it represents a cautionary tale for the new Gilded Age. With the end of Jim Crow; the new doors opened by the civil rights movement; and a refashioning of labor, trade, education and health policies that began to take hold in the Carter administration, many sociologists believe that income disparities within the black community have never been wider.

Nowhere is that truer than in the District, a city on the make, serving first and foremost the needs of speculators rather than its indigenous population, by supplying bricks and mortar and other raw materials required by Wall Street for its reckless gambits.

Washington, D.C., has, over the past decade, embarked upon what is essentially a liquidation sale of its assets, closing schools, firehouses, tenements, abandoned properties, college-campus buildings, the city's only public hospital, a homeless shelter, a home for battered women and another for abused children.

But it was clear from the start that the flood of money pouring into the city wouldn't just cleanse the grime and remove the dirt; it would wash away some people as well. Until Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the District led the nation in the number of its schoolchildren attending privately managed charter schools, which, generally speaking, have not produced any better educational outcomes than public schools.

Giddings Elementary School in northwest D.C. was converted into a private health club where memberships start at $100 per month. William Syphax Elementary School in southwest D.C., built in 1910 and named for a Reconstruction-era educator renowned for his efforts to improve the District's African-American public schools, reopened as Syphax Village -- where condos and town houses sold for upwards of $400,000 at the peak of the housing bubble. The nearly 150-year-old schoolhouse in Logan Circle, Berret Elementary, is now the Berret School Lofts, offering high ceilings, cityscape views and as many as 1,700 square feet for $385,000 and up.

Bulldozers demolished more than 1,100 public housing units in southeast Washington to clear the way for a taxpayer-financed, $611 million major-league baseball stadium. Corridors plunged into darkness by seething mobs 42 years ago are now neon-lit pathways lined with bars, nightclubs and restaurants serving fusion cuisine to K Street lawyers and Hill staffers. Menacing, boarded-up husks have given way to loft apartments, Starbucks and Whole Foods. The new convention center opened in 2003, a new sports arena in neighboring Chinatown a few months later.

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