In Washington, D.C., as in many cities undergoing extreme urban makeovers, if you miss a week of moving about in certain neighborhoods, you’ll miss a whole heck of a lot. Sad times for you if you’re a landmark driver like I am, when even a short trip on familiar streets can induce a fog of confusion. Buildings go down and buildings go up on blocks so quickly, you can be a whole mile out of your way before you realize you’ve been waiting to hook a left at a corner store that is no more.
Besides creating in me a deep regret for not going to college to enjoy what seems like an inevitably profitable career in real estate development, gentrification has impressed me with its swiftness. I don’t pretend or profess to understand the complete politics of it—I’m certain that money is the bottom line and power is the impetus—but I know the bastions of urban-conquer waste no time claiming an area as “up and coming” and then following that up with epic levels of condo-and-coffeehouse building.
What that essentially means: The people already living there are fittin’ to be economically priced out and residentially pushed out. That I’ve learned. In the meantime, there’s a shift to accommodate the newcomers, rarely an effort by the newcomers to adjust to the existing dynamic of a community. The boundless, ceaseless imagination of privilege does it again and again.
Georgia Avenue, the stretch of street that hugs the campus of Howard University, used to be quintessential D.C., full of contagious energy and all-black everything: barbershops and beauty salons, mom-and-pop stores, insurance agencies, restaurants. But you know how it goes: Powers discover that an area is gold, see its potential, put it in their construction crosshairs and start plucking off anything, one by one, that doesn’t fit into the blueprint for their new, improved iteration.
Anyone resilient or fortunate enough to remain needs to adjust in order to survive. Such is the case of Fish in the ’Hood, a beloved institution for college students and local lovers of soulful dining that, in 2012, was christened with a new storefront sign indicative of the changing surroundings: Fish in the Neighborhood. A new name on a 15-year-old restaurant is telltale, but there are more indicators that change is gonna come:
1. Neighborhood boundary lines will be strategically reconfigured, and your new redistricted area will be outfitted with catchy, cutesy names.
2. Lighting will crop up. Y’all lived for years in near-apocalyptic darkness as existing street lights went long malfunctioning. Now the block is lit up like a night game at FedExField. Magical.
3. “Liquor stores” will be euphemistically renamed “wine and spirits shops.”
4. Cops will dutifully patrol your neighborhood in nonemergency situations. On foot, bike and vehicle patrols, sometimes even horses. No one has to call them. They’re already there.
5. You find out that the way you’ve been living is no longer “current.”
6. You get a store that stays open 24 hours. Up until now, you had to scream your pump number and request for soda and sunflower seeds through three layers of Plexiglas at the neighborhood gas station. Now doors are allowed to stay open 24-7.
7. These show up, along with allocated lanes to ride them in the streets. It’s always a sign when people trust the community to borrow stuff and bring it back. (See also: Zipcar.)
8. Your block is equipped with speed bumps. Amazingly, they are much more effective than your disapproving scowl in slowing drivers down.
9. Parking starts getting real exclusive, and you’ll be needing an advanced degree in urban planning to understand when and where you can do it. Also, violations will become more expensive and more frequent.
10. Wal-Mart will come calling.
11. White people will show up. At first a pioneering few will forage the land, and once the signal goes up, that trickle will become a full-on influx. I have seen folks who would have taken terror steps through my neighborhood just a few months ago now frolicking in it. At night.
Dressed up in prettier terms like “redevelopment” and “renewal,” gentrification moves with the swiftness of a swarm of locusts and the ferocity of a band of gangsters. It comes with community upgrades that, in many cases, are long overdue. Not that they’re not good things. It’s just that they come at the expense of people who aren’t intended to enjoy them.