‘Gentrification’ covers black and white middle-class home buyers in the District

July 28, 2011

A group of young black professionals in Anacostia has gathered over spinach-strawberry salad and white wine, when the conversation turns, as if often does, to what they call the “G-word”: gentrification.

“I used to think it was about race — when white people moved into a black neighborhood,” said lawyer Charles Wilson, 35, who lost to Marion Barry in the 2008 Ward 8 D.C. Council race. “Then, I looked up the word. It’s when a middle-class person moves into a poor neighborhood. And I realized: I am a gentrifier. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t like that word. It makes so many people uncomfortable.”

“Actually, I thought it was if you see a white guy in Anacostia, listening to an iPod, jogging or walking a dog!” joked Sariane Leigh, 33, who writes a blog called Anacostia Yogi, putting her hand on her hip and waving a sweet-potato fry for emphasis.

The friends fold into laughter. They agree not to use the G-word, at least for one night.

Gentrification is always a delicate topic, especially in a city where it usually has meant well-to-do whites buying up affordable houses in predominantly black neighborhoods. The trend is reflected in recent census figures that show that the District is no longer a majority-black city and by ever-whiter neighborhoods such as Shaw and H Street Northeast.

But black gentrification is increasingly redefining the G-word and changing the economics of places like Anacostia.

Many older, middle-class black residents say they are proud that successful and wealthy black professionals are increasingly choosing to live in black communities. They feel confident that they won’t be standoffish to black neighbors, especially in a city with a bitter history of racial discrimination and segregation in housing.

Many said they too want the safer neighborhoods and better-quality stores that development brings. There are also long-established black middle-class enclaves east of the river, such as Hillcrest, where residents are also happy to see more well-to-do black neighbors.

“I have to admit that when I see a house for sale, I wonder if my new neighbor will be black or white. There is an extra sense of excitement when I find out it’s a young black professional,” said Wilson, who started a civic group, the Historic Anacostia Block Association.

“I want to see more of us take advantage of the American dream of homeownership,” he said. “But I know that when people see white residents moving in, they assume that, ‘Oh the real estate value is going to go up, my neighborhood is going to get better.’ But my mission is that the neighborhood can improve with the people who are currently here.”

Living in Anacostia

On a recent sticky summer day, the skies opened and Courtney Davis rushed into the gleaming new Anacostia Library. Davis recently published “A is for Anacostia,” the first children’s book to depict daily life in the neighborhood. She said it was an attempt to portray local kids positively.

Davis wears red-frame glasses and lives with her dog in an A-frame home near the library. She grew up in Chicago, has a doctorate in special education from the University of Virginia and is an administrator at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington.

She used to live in a Falls Church high-rise where she didn’t know any of her neighbors. But she feels much more at home amid the tree-lined streets and bungalows of historic Anacostia.

Recently, some of her students saw her going to the Anacostia Metro. They told a friend, “ ‘Dr. Davis lives here,’ ” she said. “He repeated it, as in, ‘Really? Dr. Davis lives here?’ I was proud to say, ‘Yes, yes, I do.’ ”

She said she realized that what the students were asking was more a question of class than race: If she could afford to live elsewhere, why wouldn’t she?

“I’m fighting for this neighborhood,” Davis said. “It still has some work to do. But I’m not here to make a quick buck and run off.”

She and other black professionals could afford rowhouses in nearby Capitol Hill or condos along U Street or in Adams Morgan. But they chose to live in Ward 8, a neighborhood still dogged by poverty, drugs and violence, but one whose skyline is slowly changing with rising office projects, condos and retail shops.

Anacostia’s detached renovated homes, many larger than 2,000 square feet, often sell for $200,000 to $250,000, have porches with a view of the Capitol dome and are a quick Metro ride or drive from downtown. Similar-size homes in Mount Pleasant or Shaw sell for more than $800,000, said Darrin Davis, owner of Anacostia River Realty.

But black professionals said more than bargain-hunting is drawing them to the area. They prefer to live east of the river, they said, because they feel at home in the black community and they like investing there.

Still, skin color alone has not been enough to inoculate them against criticism that they are outsiders and interlopers. Anacostia has benefited from development brought by investment, but the G-word is still freighted with racial and class sensitivities. Some black gentrifiers said they feel some of the friction felt by whites when buying property in the area.

About 3.3 percent of Ward 8’s 70,712 people are white non-Hispanics, according to 2010 Census data. That number is growing as more white professionals move in, Davis said.

He said many “For Sale” signs in historic Anacostia are tagged with the graffiti, “No Whites,” which “means that a small minority fear being pushed out of their homes” by gentrification.

“We have come across many of our posts defaced with the words ‘No Whites,’ ” Davis said. “We have had to fix them. But I think it’s just as wrong to discriminate against black people as it is to discriminate against whites.”

Many longtime residents said some of the investment flowing into Anacostia seems intimidating and unnecessary. They said they need jobs and better low-income housing, not luxury housing or office space.

“The new owners — both black and white professionals — who are moving in are demanding regular police patrols, and now we have policeman on bicycles,” said Davis, who is black and has been working in the area for 10 years. “You know the area is changing, the city is changing. It’s just going to happen.”

Butch Hopkins, president of the nonprofit Anacostia Economic Development Corp., said he is hopeful that the renovation of St. Elizabeths Hospital — slated to become headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security — will bring even more new faces to Anacostia.

More than 14,000 federal workers are expected to come to the new complex, and a 281,000-square-foot office and retail development is planned for across the street.

“We hope that, over time, a lot of the folks who commute here will begin to see how lovely the neighborhood is, get sick of that long commute and realize that Anacostia is actually a nice place to live,” Hopkins said.

Coming back home

At 7 o’clock on a recent morning, Rebecca Renard watched as construction workers razed the termite-infested 19th-century Victorian house where she and her brother grew up.

A woman on her way to work pulled her car to the side of road and watched. She saw Rebecca and called out, “Hey, I know you? Did you go to Banneker? Are you gonna live here?”

“I am!” Renard said.

“Oh, thank God. I’m sick of seeing condos go up,” she said.

For Renard, 35, returning to this plot of land was far more than a real estate deal. She grew up as a “Ward 8 girl.”

Her parents were civil rights activists. Her father was white, a teacher and former Catholic priest. Her mother was a black nurse, and they made their home in the affordable and historic Anacostia of the 1980s.

Soon after, crack ravaged the neighborhood. Her older brother was mugged at the bus stop. Drugged-out people slumped outside the corner store.

“It was the heyday of crack, and my parents wouldn’t let us do anything,” she said. “We had to take the bus across the river to go to the library.”

Her father felt worse and worse about having moved his family into the middle of an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. Renard went on to attend Oberlin College and NYU for her graduate degree. Her parents left the property about 1996 and went to live in Southwest, near Arena Stage; they kept the Anacostia house, but it sat empty and decaying.

Renard moved back to the District in 2004 to work for the D.C. library system.

“I was tired of seeing all these signs for condos with granite countertops,” she said of her changing neighborhood. “I knew I wanted to do something with this land.”

Developers made several offers for her property, on a leafy stretch of Historic Anacostia on Talbert Road and Mount View Place SE. But she refused to sell. Instead she got estimates from a structural engineer, who told her the damage was so bad it would be cheaper to tear the house down and start fresh. She found a design she liked online, and she’s rebuilding from scratch.

“It was so important to me that I make it right with this house,” she said. “I want to make sure that there’s legacy for the family. I know my dad felt he couldn’t give us this Cosby-Huxtable family experience we all watched on TV because we had this dingy house in a crack-y neighborhood. I wanted to say now, ‘Look, Dad, you didn’t make a bad decision. This is a nice place.’ ”

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