Black People Are Fighting Against Gentrification and for the Heart and Soul of Their Cities

Judith A. Browne Dianis
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Last week at the corner of 14 and U, a throng of mostly black people swayed in unison to the beat of a live go-go band. The drums and horns blasted as people walked from near and far to not only hear their indigenous music but also to join the resistance. The band and its audience were protesting in response to a nearby Metro PCS shutting off its outdoor go-go music due to a complaint from a neighbor. The store and its music were not the issues, but the instance of this complaint highlighted a larger problem.

As the demographics of D.C. have changed, so too has the culture. This change is a result of the displacement of black people, forced and otherwise.

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In the 1990s my husband, then boyfriend, owned Heart and Soul Café on Capitol Hill. His restaurant was the target of a similar cultural shakedown. At the time, Capitol Hill was changing rapidly to majority white but still had pockets of black residents and low-income families. On a couple of evenings throughout the week, the Cajun and Soul Food restaurant featured live go-go bands. Back then, go-go was in its waning days, but Heart and Soul gave it a rebirth. Some of go-go’s best musicians performed on its stage, including Sugar Bear (“Da Butt”), Lil Benny and Donnell Floyd (formerly of Rare Essence). It became so popular that out-of-town celebrities would visit. From Steve Harvey, who talked about it on his radio show for weeks after, to Shaquille O’Neal, who got on stage and rapped with the band. There was a good time to be had, but the white neighbors hated it. They hated black people flocking to “their community.” They maliciously organized against Heart and Soul.

Knowing that the key to killing a restaurant is revocation of its liquor license, they strategically put us in front of the board with their complaints. They fabricated their claims in a number of ways, including calling the police to complain about loud music on nights we were closed. Too many complaints trigger a liquor board hearing. The liquor board took the bait, catering to the white residents and created new rules that we jokingly called the “Heart and Soul Rules.”

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Black churches have also been squeezed out the city by new white residents. For example, due to limited city parking, church congregants were permitted to double-park during Sunday service. This was allowed for years. However, new residents fought this and thereby made it harder for people to attend their churches. In one instance, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church near RFK Stadium proposed building multi-family housing for the church elders. Upon the church’s proposal, they were met with opposition by white residents in its changing neighborhood.

I could go on with more examples, but my point is made.

That’s why as one drives through D.C., it becomes clear that Chocolate City is gone. New, mostly white residents feel they get a bad rap as gentrifiers because they think they just got a good deal on a house or moved to a convenient rental. But it’s not that simple.

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There is a history of intentional removal of people of color dating back to the arrival of white people in North America and the taking of Native lands. While that is different, in part, because of the gruesome violence that was executed, there are some similarities. There was also a period in the 1960s and ‘70s called Negro Removal, where black families were moved out of cities for so-called revitalization. What is happening today mirrors that as well. In each of these time periods, white people didn’t just show up and innocently use their capital, giving people of color a good deal to take and leave. No. Instead, these takings were enforced by way of government action through zoning, permitting, tax laws and other mechanisms.

The new white settlers in our cities are not just new neighbors, they are colonizers, settling and establishing control over land and existing ways of life. Whether it’s go-go in D.C. or black religion, our local governments have been complicit in, and in many instances hastened, the removal of people of color from neighborhoods they have, in many cases, built from the ground up. While the owners of the Metro PCS store have restored their go-go music, the people dancing on the corner of 14 and U last week know it’s bigger than that.

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People of color across the country are fighting for the hearts and souls of their cities.

Browne Dianis is executive director of Advancement Project.

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