Bittersweet memories of “Chocolate City”
By Courtland Milloy,
So “Chocolate City” is melting, getting a vanilla swirl, turning into a white chocolate macadamia nut cocoa ball. Oh, so bittersweet.
Except that Chocolate City hasn’t existed since the 1990s. The latest census showing the District on the verge of losing its black-majority status is just numbers. More whites, Asians and Hispanics are moving in; more blacks are moving out.
More than 300,000 blacks still live in the city.
But Chocolate City was not just about numbers. It was a feeling, a state of mind, a taste and tempo unique to a place and time. Roberta Flack at Mr. Henry’s, Smokey Robinson at the Carter Barron, late nights at the Foxtrappe Club.
In the 1970s, black residents in a post-riot town made their move from the “streets to the suites,” while Parliament Funkadelic captured the pride, power and sense of newfound freedom in a song called “Chocolate City.”
All of that is long gone.
One of the best eulogies for Chocolate City was penned by D.C. writer Kenneth Carroll back in 1998.
“Chocolate City was a cultural muscularity flexing itself in images like Gaston Neal and the New School of African American Thought hosting Sun Ra in the middle of 14th Street,” Carroll wrote in The Washington Post. “It was Robert Hooks and the D.C. Black Repertory Theater. It was Shirley Horne, Buck Hill and Carter Jefferson on sax, Bobby Sanchez on trumpet and Fred Foss on alto at Twins. It was Bill Harris on guitar at the Pigfoot, Butch Warren on bass anywhere; it was Chuck Brown at the Maverick Room on Wednesday night; Billy Stewart at the Koko Club at 8th and H; Trouble Funk at the Coliseum, Experience Unlimited at the Panorama Room, and Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘H2O Watergate Blues’ in regular rotation on black radio.”
That was the soul of the city, and such a loss could never be captured in census data.
“By the end of the decade, Chocolate City was losing its magic for much of the aspiring black middle class,” Carroll wrote. “Reality was not measuring up to the vision. The city’s black elected officials were finding Congress a mighty hindrance in running things, and the black voters were finding that those black elected officials were only slightly better than the former appointees.”
What a mess chocolate makes when it melts.
For the most part, the new arrivals are being welcomed with open arms — complaints from low-income people about being displaced by gentrification notwithstanding.
The reasons might surprise you.
“Surveys show that when asked, blacks, on average, say the ‘ideal’ neighborhood racial composition would be about 30 to 35 percent black,” said Roderick J. Harrison, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Howard University.
Why? Because blacks derive significant benefits from living among middle-class white people, such as better city services, better schools and higher-quality stores.
Moreover, 30 percent is large enough for blacks to create a comfort zone that blunts the effects of white prejudice but small enough not to trigger white flight.
A 2009 study by researchers at New York University noted that “the strongest predictor of resistance to racial integration among whites is prejudice, whereas the strongest predictor of black avoidance of white neighborhoods is fear of discrimination.”
It’ll be interesting to see what comes of the racial recipe in the District’s changing neighborhoods.
“The changes that are occurring in the District are not just making the city economically richer but more culturally diverse,” said Margaret Simms, a fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington. “There will be a lot more opportunities to learn about other cultures and the potential for a lot more interaction between people who otherwise might not get together. The challenge is how to make the benefits work for everybody in the city.”
No need to cry for Chocolate City. Been there; done that.
All that’s left to do now is tell the grandkids how it was back in the day, when we used to listen to a wild and crazy group called Funkadelic on pressed wax discs called albums.