Can Gentrifiers Be Black?

Natalie Hopkinson
Stan Barouh

Recently, an affluent couple had their eye on what could be their first home: a lovely corner lot in Hillcrest neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

When the previous owners, both Howard graduates, bought the house in 1968, they were the first black family on the block. That was the year that the few remaining white middle-class people still living on the Eastern part of the city began to flee in droves when the city burned black after MLK's assassination. The sellers raised their family over the decades in this quiet, solidly middle-class corner of D.C. Crack wars came and went, but Hillcrest thrived as if encased in a warm bubble that contained exquisitely manicured lawns and property values—if few white faces.


Fast-forward four decades, and gentrification propelled the asking price for the house to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the well-loved ''starter'' home that still needed work.

When the Brown-Andrews family—a Harvard-trained lawyer and her educator husband—made an offer on the house. They thought it was ''worth every penny.''

So were they ''gentrifiers''?

The Brown-Andrews were black. Does this change your answer?

If so, why?

It's a complicated business, buying a house—American Dream and all of that. Throw in race, class and a history of segregation and now, gentrification, and it only gets more fraught. Earlier this year marked an important turning point in the conversation about housing and race when the Chicago playwright Bruce Norris debuted his play, ''Clybourne Park''-an update of the Lorraine Hansberry's classic Raisin in the Sun off-Broadway. (Clybourne Park also recently ended a run at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in D.C. where I appeared on a panel along with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, for one of its excellent post-play discussions.)


The play, which also ran off-Broadway earlier this year, was a thought-provoking take on Hansberry's iconic story of the Youngers, a black family seeking to escape the crowded slums of Chicago to buy a house in a white neighborhood. Raisin was inspired by the real-life Chicago housing segregation Supreme Court case and thus told the larger story of the mass procession of striving black families, who thanks to rising incomes and the end of legal segregation, could be free to live the American Dream, on whatever block they chose.

The scene that best captured some of the modern tensions came when a middle-class black couple with roots in the neighborhood file a legal petition against the new white owners' planned renovation into a McMansion. The black woman assures the white woman that she wasn't questioning her race. ''I'm questioning your taste,'' she explained.


Yes, black people do have good taste.

Many white people feel convicted as a race by terms such as ''gentification,'' when, really they shouldn't be. Displacement of the poor is mostly a show of raw economic and political power that often, but not always, falls along racial lines. And especially in places with strong, black middle-class communities like Chicago and D.C., that does not mean just white power. Denying the black middle class' role in the nationwide urban renaissance is offensive because it gives the false perception that black people lack the agency and means to force progressive ''change'' in a community. In many of these communities, such as Hillcrest, black people have been competitive gardening without white people for quite sometime.


Allison Brown, an attorney (and my BFF and Howard University roommate), said that her black family was embraced by their Hillcrest neighbors, and ''could feel their collective sigh of relief when they saw who was moving in: gentrification coming to Hillcrest but not that kind, not yet,'' she told me.

''We moved in hoping to contribute to our community in a meaningful way and to honor the history we had inherited,'' she continued. ''We look around now and see white folk moving back into the neighborhood. These things are cyclical, as [one Clybourne Park character] says in the play. Many of these white people have young families like us; professional degrees, like us. So, we see ourselves in them, too. Our connection to the community feels different, though, deeper. Just as our black neighbors fully embraced us—we have also fully embraced them … as kinfolk.''


Natalie Hopkinson is The Root's media and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.

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Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter

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