New mixture, new questions in Petworth

D.C. neighborhoods begin underground. At the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro stop in Northwest, a mixture of young and old, black, Latino and white, professional and working class, file off the train and past Homage to a Community,” a mural honoring the neighborhood’s historic black community.

The painting’s red and brown motion mirrors the dynamism above ground. While the neighborhood retains a strong black identity, its population is growing, becoming more diverse and raising new questions about who will be able to afford Petworth down the road.

Jerk chicken is the first thing you smell atop the escalator. Across the street Sweet Mango Cafe broadcasts its enticing smoke onto the intersection of Georgia and New Hampshire avenues. The Jamaican mainstay is part of a diverse neighborhood mash-up featuring hipster hangouts, luxury liquor stores, the 75-year-old Zion Hill Baptist Church and an old-school Safeway poised for overhaul.

Inside Sweet Mango, I run into Long & Foster Realtor Luis “Lou” Vivas who says business in Petworth has been great this year, as the neighborhood becomes a new hotspot for young professional couples. “We have some condos up the road that are going like hotcakes,” he said.

Rising housing prices through the 2000s, and a rising average family income, have Petworth’s working-class residents searching for ways to preserve affordable housing.  

According to the Urban Institute, the area’s black population has dropped in the past two decades. Black residents made up 88 percent of Petworth community in 1990, while today they constitute 61 percent of its residents. White residents used to make up only 5 percent of Petworth and now constitute 13 percent of the neighborhood.

The foreign-born communities that were 6 percent of Petworth residents in 1980 now constitute a fifth of the population.  

In the last decade, Petworth became a refuge for the Latino community moving north from a rapidly gentrifying Columbia Heights neighborhood, said Ash Kosiewicz of the Latino Economic Development Coalition. Hispanic people now constitute a quarter of Petworth’s residents, up from 16 percent a decade ago.

In Petworth, Latino residents have found more affordable communities, and now they’re fighting to hold on as demand for upscale housing filters north and east across the District. LEDC organizes with tenants in Petworth, relying on D.C.’s tenant law that provides residents a  chance to buy buildings before redevelopers who could price them out of their homes.  

Tenants at several buildings along Petworth’s Georgia Avenue corridor are following the example of nearby Brightwood Gardens apartments. Residents there formed a coop last year and, with help from city affordable housing grants, bought their building.

“Petworth could be the next Columbia Heights,” Kosiewicz said. “There is a lot of opportunity right now for fair development here.”

This story is part of a partnership between The Washington Post and students from American University. To read more stories from this collaboration, click here.

 
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