When I arrived in Washington, D.C., more than two decades ago to attend Howard University, one of the first things I noticed was the diversity of black people, all different kinds: rich ones, poor ones, bougie ones and the natives, born and raised in D.C., who introduced me to mambo sauce, go-go music and New Balance sneakers. Nicknamed “Chocolate City,” D.C. was blackity black, made possible by arguably one of the blackest mayors of all time, Marion Barry. It felt like home. But not anymore.
Today when I stroll the streets, I feel like an imposter, as if I don’t belong. The famed U Street corridor, home to Ben’s Chili Bowl and former Black Broadway, feels like something out of a J.Crew catalog or a scene from the HBO series Girls. Yes, some of the flavor is still there, hidden in the nooks and crannies of the corridor—shoutout to Marvin’s, Lee’s Flower Shop, and Oohs and Aahhs for still holding it down—but it is not the same. Where have all the black people gone? I wonder to myself as I elbow my way through the melanin-free crowded streets.
Recently, Washingtonian magazine ran a campaign aimed at millennials titled, “I am Not a Tourist. I Live Here.” The campaign featured D.C. residents in T-shirts posed in front of famous landmarks. The only problem: There were no black people featured in any of the photos. All of the “residents” were white. Excuse me—these gentrifiers really tried it.
But despite efforts to depict the city as otherwise, D.C. is still predominantly black. According to the U.S. census, the city’s population is 47.7 percent black and 44.6 percent white.
The campaign did not go unnoticed. Native D.C. residents Tony Lewis Jr. and small-business owner and third-generation Washingtonian Angel Anderson caught wind of the campaign and decided to create a countercampaign featuring native D.C. residents, the majority of them black. The campaign, “Native, I’m From Here,” sought to make visible the people whose families built the city and remained there even when it was at its worst.
The efforts of native Washingtonians are connected to others happening across the country to resist both subtle and hostile takeovers of cities and communities of color. From salad-bar bro to #BBQBecky, crusading gentrifiers and entitled white folks are catching heat for making claims to cities and thriving neighborhoods that existed long before they arrived.
In Oakland, Calif., last week, about 2,000 people set up lawn chairs and barbecue grills and played dominoes next to the lake along Lakeshore Avenue, the site where police were called to enforce a rarely enforced law against charcoal grilling in the park. In New York City, a dance-party protest, complete with a mariachi band, serenaded lawyer Aaron Schlossberg, who insisted that only English be spoken in his country while ordering a lunch.
Let’s be clear: Gentrifiers don’t want to share neighborhoods with people of color; they want to take them over. The two chief ways of doing this are 1) to erase the representation of groups in citywide campaigns aimed at attracting new residents to the city, and 2) to use law enforcement to enforce “quality of life” ordinances and laws.
The revitalization of neighborhoods is a good thing, but pushing people of color and entire generations out of communities is not. The formula has become all too familiar: Whole Foods, Starbucks, new restaurants and luxury high-rises move in, and people of color move out. Rents also skyrocket, and low- and moderate-income families can no longer afford to stay and are displaced.
News flash: Black people also like and deserve high-functioning, well-resourced neighborhoods and communities. We, too, enjoy nice roads, ample street lighting, coffee shops, modern living quarters and a good glass of merlot after work.
There is still much work to do, but today, black people from Oakland to D.C. said, “I can show you better than I can tell you—we will not be erased.” White Chocolate City? No, thank you.