Most in D.C. say neighborhoods are better, but many say redevelopment helps the rich more

In Bloomingdale, a sliver of a neighborhood in the center of Washington, Murry’s Steaks became a yoga studio, the check-cashing place transformed into a Thai-Japanese eatery, and the liquor store finally opened up the bulletproof plexiglass that separated customers and merchants.

But 10 weeks before the D.C. mayoral primary, it’s hard to find anyone in Bloomingdale who credits — or blames — Mayor Vincent C. Gray for the wholesale remake of the neighborhood, or for the broader economic boom across much of the city.

Stuart Davenport, who moved to the neighborhood a decade ago uneasy about being the rare white guy in an overwhelmingly black area, says the transformation came about when new residents decided to invest in their adopted home, opening businesses, helping police catch street thugs, and banding together across racial and class lines to open a farmers market where crack dealers once gathered.

Michelle McKenzie, who opened a storefront church that has drawn black congregants in an increasingly white part of town, says the demographic shift is the result of The Plan, a decades-old staple of District folklore — a purported drive by powerful white interests to reclaim the city from its long-standing black majority. Some mayors supported The Plan, McKenzie says, and others fought it but without making much difference. “The Plan is The Plan,” she says.

And Victor Metonou, an immigrant from Benin who opened a braiding shop on First Street NW back when Bloomingdale “was all black and customers would walk in all the time,” now finds himself across from a red-hot retail strip, where the Red Hen restaurant offers seared veal sweetbreads with fried egg, pea shoots, bacon and soft polenta. The neighborhood is safer, cleaner and nicer, he says, but for whom? Is it even possible to create a more prosperous city while also protecting people with less? Metonou doesn’t think politicians have much sway over gentrification; he knows only that he may not be able to afford to stay.


The mixed views of redevelopment in the District

Across the District, residents see many neighborhoods thriving as they haven’t in decades, but depending on their income and race, Washingtonians often see that boom benefiting different groups. What many residents do agree on is that the city’s mayor and other elected officials have little ability to ensure that the new prosperity will lift all boats.

Whether Bloomingdale’s new economic reality — house prices have tripled on some blocks over the past decade — is a result of city policy, a cultural shift toward urban centers or the District’s relatively solid job market even through the recession, Washingtonians of all incomes, races and ages agree that their neighborhood is a good place to live.

In a new Washington Post poll, a majority of D.C. residents say their neighborhood has gotten better in recent years — the first time in 26 years of polling that a majority has expressed such optimism. But there is also broad consensus that the city’s surging population, rising affluence and diminished crime are ultimately good for people with money and of little benefit to those without.

After a decade of frenetic demographic change — the population of Bloomingdale’s Zip code, 20001, went from 6 percent white in 2000 to 33 percent white in 2010 — Washingtonians’ views about gentrification are polarized along racial and economic lines: Among whites, 77 percent say redevelopment has been a good thing, but 53 percent of blacks say it has not. Large majorities hail gentrification’s impact in five of the city’s eight wards; only in Wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River, do most people say the changes have been for the worse (Ward 4 is split). Those making $65,000 and more embrace gentrification overwhelmingly; the lowest-income residents decidedly do not.

‘It was cheap’

In a dark but cozy little bar under a Rhode Island Avenue rowhouse, Paul Vivari has created a new community in Bloomingdale. His Showtime Lounge retained the name of the barbershop that preceded him in the space (he even kept the lettering on the window, complete with misspelling: “Walk-Ins Welome”). The bar’s deep-tracks R&B jukebox draws young white hipsters and longtime black residents alike; the $5 beer-and-a-shot special doesn’t hurt.

Vivari, 30, lived upstairs for five years before opening his own business. He moved to the neighborhood “because nothing was going on here, and it was cheap,” he says. He’d lived in Mount Pleasant before, watched as U Street gentrified, then followed the redevelopment eastward.

One day, he came downstairs to see a For Lease sign on the barbershop. He called the landlady right away.

Showtime has been busy since its May opening, but its owner worries about whether he’ll be able to stay in the neighborhood he’s helped turn into a magnet. Three years ago, when he thought about buying his own house, prices were already too steep — half a million, easy. Now, those same houses go for $750,000.

“Once you see the joggers and baby strollers, the neighborhood’s changed,” he says. “Now the question is, where does it stop? If everyone flees because it’s getting too expensive, it becomes another U Street.”

Vivari says Gray didn’t help Bloomingdale blossom; the bar owner had to hire expeditors “and run a shadow campaign of my own” to have a prayer of getting permits from the city’s legendarily difficult bureaucracy.

“I would love to have a real honest mayor who changes things around, but I’m not going to hold my breath,” Vivari says. He hasn’t settled on an alternative to Gray (D), whom he sees as disqualified by the scandals suffusing his 2010 campaign. He views Ward 6 council member Tommy Wells (D) as “the hot new candidate, just like they said about [former mayor Adrian M.] Fenty when he ran.”

In his 2010 campaign, Gray promised to “use every tool that’s available to the city government to be able to maintain a diverse population. . . . We want to make sure people don’t feel pushed out.”

Last month, meeting with black ministers concerned about the impact of gentrification, the mayor repeated that desire and said he plans to help low-income families stay in Washington by investing $187 million in ­affordable-housing initiatives.

If residents credit any mayor with sparking Bloomingdale’s revival, it’s Anthony A. Williams, who set a goal a decade ago of increasing Washington’s population by 100,000 people — a notion that seemed utopian and unattainable. But the D.C. population has leapt by 83,000 since then, led by young people flocking to places such as Bloomingdale.

“We just wanted to restore the city,” says Williams, now chief executive of the nonprofit Federal City Council. “You needed to bring more people in to improve the revenue picture, improve the downtown and the commercial areas, because you’ve got to have the funds to provide services to those in need.” New revenue allowed Williams to invest in his signature programs — mixed-income housing developments in troubled areas on both sides of the Anacostia.

The former mayor gets impatient with those who say gentrification benefits only the rich. “The research shows that a neighborhood with new investment is a neighborhood that provides role models and benefits all residents,” he says. “When I’m on the X2 bus crosstown now, I see a range of incomes. When the mothers on the bus point me out to their kids as the ex-mayor, I’m a role model. How is that not good? How is it not good to have a mix of people in neighborhoods? I’m not getting that.”

To stay or go

“No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.” A clarion soprano, a member of World Missions for Christ Church, belts out the Whitney Houston anthem “Greatest Love of All” through the open door at Randolph Place and First Street NW. For 29 years, JoAnn Perkins’s church has salved the neighborhood with music, prayer and charity giveaways.

Until recently, Perkins says, “the folk in the community were actually the recipients of the toys and the turkey giveaway.” But lately, the people who come for edible and spiritual sustenance are traveling from the city’s outskirts.

“We love Bloomingdale, but our mission is to help people who need the resources,” Perkins says. She is grateful that the new restaurants and bars collect and donate toys, and she’s pleased that affluent newcomers stop by to offer help. But she wonders whether it makes sense to be where her services are no longer so essential.

Perkins wishes the city had found ways to let low-income residents stay where they’ve always lived, but she sees larger economic forces at work, forces beyond the control of a mayor. “It’s all the people’s obligation to equalize the playing field,” she says. “As for Vincent Gray, well, let’s just say he’s a work in progress.”

Michelle McKenzie shares Perkins’s predicament — the African American members of her storefront church increasingly live elsewhere — but doesn’t share Perkins’s diplomatic take on the mayor. In the year she’s been inviting people into her Messianic Covenant Church, McKenzie has met many black residents who say rising rents and taxes are pushing them out to Prince George’s County.

“Mayor Williams put things in motion according to The Plan, because this is the nation’s capital and it shouldn’t look so poor,” McKenzie says. “Vincent Gray may have tried to be more fair, but he wasn’t successful. He just let The Plan continue. So I don’t know who to vote for.”

Neither does Stuart Davenport, who moved from upper Northwest to Bloomingdale a decade ago and now lives above Big Bear Cafe, the coffeehouse he opened in 2007.

The homey cafe, full of young people hunched over their laptops and older residents who use the place as a social hall, is blessedly free of the tensions that Talha Jalal, 25, a new Bloomingdale resident, has felt between young, college-educated professionals and lower-income, longtime residents. Such tensions arise, he says, because government failed to intervene on behalf of “the people who are pushed out. Who is taking care of those moving out?”

The Post poll found blacks and whites agreeing that city residents are divided — but more by income than by race.

Davenport, 40, worries that his employees and customers may not be able to stick around if housing prices keep soaring. “The change is happening so fast, I just wonder if anyone can be in charge of it,” he says. “This neighborhood’s always been in transition. This store was a Jewish Italian corner store originally, and then it was Korean.”

But the transition to affluence left “a lot of the black residents feeling like, ‘Why should I stay when it’s not my neighborhood anymore?’ ” he says. “At first, there was a lot of anger, especially around the time Gray was elected. People felt they were losing something, and Fenty wasn’t doing anything to help.”

“But what can a mayor do?” Davenport wonders. “Do neighborhoods like this have to end up being just for millionaires like in New York? A lot of us moved here because we didn’t want to live in divided places.”

He says Gray has supported small businesses, but “I don’t know what his goals are for the city. Does he want the whole city to look like NoMa or the ballpark and we’ll all live in high-rises over Harris Teeter? What’s the vision?”

Scott Clement, Peyton M. Craighill and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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