When I lived on the block of 14th and V streets NW seven years ago, I almost became a casualty of that area’s gentrification war.
I left in the summer of 2006 not because I was priced out, but because of being increasingly harassed for perhaps, looking like a gentrifier, even when my bank account didn’t support the assumption.
My dress code wasn’t conservative business casual. Instead, I
rocked well-kempt dreadlocks and usually wore slim-fitting graphic T-shirts, well-fitted denims and sneakers. On cooler days, I would wear a Puma track jacket. I frequently rounded out that look with a bag, carrying either my laptop or a handful of rare jazz and soul LPs.
I often viewed my look as “casual cool,” but when compared to some of others longtime residents, particularly the teenagers, who wore low-hanging jeans and loose, oversized white T-shirts, I looked like a gentrifier. I unconsciously sported other gentrification signifiers too, such as an iPod, a Results gym bag and, sometimes, the latest issue of the New Yorker.Sometimes I came home with a noticeable bottle of wine. And almost every other time, I was silently sized up by some of the longtime residents. They would look at me, up and down, followed up with a sneer and indecipherable grumbling underneath their breath.
Often, when I left my place, the Geno Baroni, to go to the gym and especially to go cycling, some residents looked at me as if I was unicorn. Some of the younger kids even inquired about the bike. Some of the older kids, however, shared their disapproval with scornful stares. Lo and behold, I unwittingly made myself a target.
But I didn’t think of myself all that different than the people who looked me up and down, given that my journalism profession wasn’t bringing in the same income as say a lawyer or a lobbyist. I certainly hadn’t inherited any generational wealth, and I wasn’t a homeowner. I saw myself as someone like a public school teacher, struggling to make ends meet but also trying to participate in healthy lifestyles.
All of this friction during the four years that I lived at Geno Baroni forced me to confront a lot of assumptions I had about myself and about how I felt about urban renewal.
I prided myself as being a well-educated black guy, but I never believed that I couldn’t live with African Americans who had a different experience than me, which, to me, always translated to “I’m better than other blacks.” As a gay person, I also didn’t want to entertain the stereotype that blacks were disproportionately homophobic, therefore I shouldn’t live with them.
Indeed, I had lofty ideals of all the cultural richness a multi-income, multiracial neighborhood could bring. And I wanted to be a part of it in a positive way — somewhat like an urban ambassador, who could help build coalition across racial, socioeconomic, cultural and sexual-orientation lines. I wanted to be down with the people who had already lived there, live in a place that was affordable, and support urban renewal. I also wanted to believe that if I was an African American law-abiding citizen, who paid his taxes regularly and never got in trouble with the law, that I would be receive the same level of attention from the police as my white socioeconomic peers. All of that was upended during my last year at Geno Baroni.
I learned that the conversation regarding gentrification as it relates to economic status and race relations is far more complex and nuanced than whites vs. people of color, the affluent vs. the working class, or newcomers vs. native Washingtonians. The issue touches upon identity politics much deeper than that. It involves how others perceive you, self-awareness and how one relates to people who look or act differently than them. And if you’re someone who doesn’t exactly tilt to any extreme — white, affluent or working-class person of color — you can easily get lost in the crossfire when it comes to your safety, no matter how hard you try to fit in.
Indeed, my arrival to the area Geno Baroni apartments was before Busboys & Poets became a flagship for U Street’s urban renewal. The posh Langston Lofts, Eatonville restaurant and other cultural hot spots, such as Marvin and Blackbyrd, hadn’t arrived either. It was way before the aforementioned places, in the words of Stephen A. Crockett Jr., began “swagger-jacking” black D.C. culture.
Nevertheless, the block of 14 and V was insistently hot.
A decade ago, if you visited that block on a summer afternoon, especially the area around Duke’s Shoe Repair and AM-PM Carry Out, you’d have to navigate through a thicket of people — some playing chess, other talking trash or doing both. Some kids would be shooting hoops, while others hustled, selling bottled water. Some people were visiting the nearby drug and alcohol treatment facility.
Even though some of the activity didn’t sit well with me, I wasn’t completely out of my comfort zone either. (Previously, I lived in the remote, somnolent Eastern Market area, which, at the time, had very little street life.)
I enjoyed chatting with various longtime residents, particularly Irving "Duke" Johnson, owner of the Duke’s Shoe Repair, and Yemi Memgistu, store manager for Universal Gear. Both lived in Geno Baroni, too.
Geno Baroni seemed to be a well-kept secret: In terms of prices, my starting rent was $1,100 per month in late 2002. When I first moved there, many of the residents were black, lower middle class, with professions such as public school teachers, police officers and firefighters. There were a smattering of white residents, too, most of whom, I soon learned, were just waiting there until the opening of the Langston Lofts.
Although I couldn’t afford to live in the Langston Lofts, I welcomed the arrival of Busboys & Poets in September 2005. I loved the young, multicultural patrons that would gather there. Many were like me, plugged into their laptops, either writing, studying or working on some other project. Being a 38-year-old, black, gay man, who thrived in cosmopolitan environments, I fitted in nicely in Busboys & Poets — perhaps too nicely.
The demographic shift around U Street was already at play, as the D.C . Census Track 44 indicates a steady decrease of black residents since 1980 and an influx of whites and Asians in the early 2000s. To me, it became more visible with the opening of the Langston Lofts and soon after, the nearby Ellington Apartments. Then came a new rise of friction between some newcomers and teenagers, who had already lived there. It became an “us against them” situation.
With me patronizing Busboys & Poets, cycling regularly and increasingly looking like a gentrifier, I got lumped in the “them” category by many of the teenagers, even though I had lived there a couple of years and had pretty much gotten along with many of the longtime residents.
About fall 2005, living at Geno Baroni became difficult. Troublemakers began loitering on the steps of the building, or worse inside. They constantly vandalized the main entrance, jamming the locks so that anyone could come through. Geno Baroni’s managers would claim that the agitators didn’t live there but mostly next door at Portner Place. Didn’t matter though.
Soon enough, I was being verbally harassed from some of the kids. One even spat at me once. I dodged the wad of saliva and said something to the effect of it "not being cool," not really thinking, at the time, that he might have reinforcement. That he did as evidenced by the three, much bigger kids, who backed him up. One forcefully telling me, "You can’t talked to my brother like that." I quickly learned that confronting many of the kids was no easy task, because to confront one usually meant that you had to confront a cadre of 10 others.
Calling the police was an ongoing joke, especially given that Third District Station was only three blocks away. The police would dispatch a patrol car; the crowd would scatter, only to return as some of the police left. My numerous attempts at starting a tenants’ association failed, even though some of the other residents shared my angst.
I also began attending the U Street Neighborhood Association, again encouraging many of my concerned neighbors in Geno Baroni to join me to reinforce our concerns. When I suggested having a group of Geno Baroni tenants visit D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), I was left standing alone when it actually came time to meet.
At first, I didn’t think that my worries would be taken as seriously. I feared that to him and the police that I didn’t look like someone who warranted his assistance. If I was indeed a reluctant gentrifier, it didn’t seem as if I was reaping from all the fringe benefits such as dedicated police protection as my white counterparts. That was the crux of much of my frustration.
Nevertheless, I met with Graham about three times. One solution was to designate the area as an anti-loitering/drug free zone – you know, when they install that huge floodlight into the neighborhood.
That did little to quell my discomfort. Eventually, I felt as if Graham was frustrated with my constant visits. He asked, “What more can I do?” In truth, I wanted him to treat the situation as if his mother lived there.
When I asked Graham about our interaction recently, he said that he was not in any way frustrated by my engagement with these issues and that there are dozens of e-mails — and lots of effort on his part — to deal with the issues of concern.
Nonetheless, the pressure eventually took its toll, forcing me to move to calmer grounds at the crossroads of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, which would undergo its own gentrification transformation with the arrival of such major outlets as Target, Best Buy and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Things appear to have settled down around Geno Baroni since 2005. Now that more upscale businesses and residents have moved in, the block seems much cleaner and pedestrian friendly. I also see some teenagers that remind me of those that harassed me. When I passed by them, I bristled on-guard. If something popped off from the continuous turf war, I still would remain unclear as to who would be my allies and what they would look like.
John Murph is a District-based music and arts writer.
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