Editor’s note: This blog post has been updated to include a link to previous Washingon Post mentions to “nouveau-Columbusing.”
More than 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus showed up on the shores of the Bahamas. For many years, the Italian explorer was
credited with “discovering” the New World. It’s understood now that his arrival was more invasion than discovery. The fact that Columbus is celebrated as a hero is widely protested in many places on this day.
And that act of “nouveau-Columbusing” — showing up someplace and acting as if history started the moment you arrived as mentioned here — is directly germane to the discussion of gentrification in the District.
Over the past month, I’ve sat on three panels discussing differentaspects of the changing qualities of Washington. And what’s clear to me is that, although the sting of displacement is understandably harsh, too many black Washingtonians are doing their own brand of nouveau-Columbusing when it comes to the history of the city. Too often I heard claims of how newcomers were not respecting the history of neighborhoods they moved into. Or people throwing around words like “yours” and “ours” when referencing certain blocks. Every once in a while someone would approach me with a lengthy description of “The Plan,” the long standing conspiracy theory I’ve heard about since I was a kid that the current gentrification trends are part of a diabolical scheme cooked up by shadow power brokers.
But the wildest is the claim I heard that the District’s been Chocolate City “forever.” Actually, Washington’s demographic status as majority black, by strict percentage points, only goes back about 50 years.
Before that, the District was a segregated place, with blacks as the minority. But black communities strived on their own in many ways. When the Brown v. Board of Education decision led to the integration of public schools, white families took flight. Years later, after the 1968 riots, many neighborhoods that were once home to Jewish families and those of working-class white families became black enclaves.
But for too many black people, it seems the history of the city starts there: After white people decided to leave. But that’s not a realistic view of what came before the flight, and it ignores the rich history of other ethnic and religious groups in the city.
Take for example the Fisherman of Men Church on Georgia Avenue in Parkview. The Post’s Hamil R. Harris reported that there is currently a battle of histories unfolding there. On the one hand, you’ve got a group of people that have owned the church for 25 years. And it’s been a church in one way or another for nearly 60 years.
You also have Kent Boese, the secretary of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A, who wants to have the building designated as historic because, before that neighborhood became majority black in the ’50s, it was a silent movie theater in what was a white neighborhood.
So, whose history counts more? How do you qualify how history is recorded for a place that’s seen so much change? Does the scourge of the racism behind white flight and urban renewal give black families an inalienable right to claim history as they see fit on certain turf?
Or take a look at Men’s Fashion Center on H Street. The haberdashery shop that was long a mecca for black Washington to buy suits, shoes and other fashions is closing, as The Post’s Paul Schwartzman reported last month. While H Street does its best to recover from the post-riot years, the store can’t do enough business. People frequently argue that H street is the latest victim of the District’s gentrification battle.
If a once-Jewish-owned clothing surplus store that turned into a black suit shop evolves in to something else in the next few years, when do you decide the damage is being done? Or is it just another example of the life cycle of a business in the city?
Native Washingtonians need to stop being so naive about the extended history of the city for the purposes of making a political point. There was a time when Anacostia was primarily all white and Georgetown had a thriving black community. Obviously, things change.
And though the the burn felt from years of neglect and disinterest is impossible to ignore as white faces move back into communities, you can’t just ignore the past. The multitude of motivations for how the most recent chapter of the city has unfolded are too complicated to pigeonhole as a matter of black versus white.
Columbus most definitely did change the way that trade was conducted around the globe for better or worse. But it did this country a lot of good when the story of Columbus as swashbuckling explorer with a mind for discovery was unmasked as largely a glorification tale.
And maybe the same could be said for the days of Washington as a majority black city. There were highs, there were lows. The reality we’re left with is the one we face now. If black Washington isn’t willing to remember anyone else’s history, we certainly can’t expect anyone else to care about ours.
More from The Root DC