On H Street, gentrification not as simple as black and white


Frank Bryant stands in the garden next to the home on Wylie Street NE that he’s owned and lived in for 35 years. This photo is part of an American University project which is being published by The Washington Post. (David Schultz)
March 6, 2012

Frank Bryant said his neighborhood, the H Street corridor in northeast Washington, has changed a lot since he moved into a modest rowhouse here 35 years ago — for the better.

Why? Bryant doesn’t sugarcoat it:

“This was all black,” he said, standing in a small garden next to his house and pointing to his neighbors’ homes. “Now it’s mostly white. . .It makes you feel safer.”

If Bryant were white, his words could come across as insensitive and even racist.

But Bryant is not white. He’s black.

And yet the 74-year-old retired chef, whose gray hair peeks out beneath his old-school Redskins cap, openly admits that he prefers to live among white people. He said this neighborhood was plagued by crime when it was majority-black.

“It was terrible,” Bryant said. “That house across the street — nothing but drug addicts. . .They busted into my car twice.”

Now, things have changed.

“It’s a brand new place to live,” Bryant’s neighbor, Sam Johnson, also an African American, said.

These sentiments fly in the face of the often-told D.C. gentrification story — young white people move into a middle- or low-income neighborhood, property values rise, longtime residents get priced out and the ones who stay resent the newcomers.

In reality, things are never that simple.

Elahe Izadi, a blogger who writes about race and class issues for the Web site DCentric, said the issue of gentrification in the District is always racially charged because, in this city, race and class are so inextricably linked. More than 70 percent of the city’s unemployed workers are African American, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Izadi said, unlike other cities, the District doesn’t have a predominantly white working class neighborhood. So when whites are looking for affordable housing in D.C., they often choose neighborhoods that have long been majority black.

There’s no better example of this trend, Izadi points out, than the H Street neighborhood, which, in the past five years, has undergone a dizzying transformation. It was long considered one of the worst casualties of the post-Martin Luther King Jr. assassination riots of 1968, during which fires and flying bricks destroyed dozens of small businesses. Many whites and middle- and upper-class blacks stayed away from the area — and, more generally, from the District — for decades afterward.

“This was a somewhat drug-infested area when we first moved here,” Johnson said.

But then, trends started to change. The so-called “white flight” that characterized the 1960s and ‘70s began to reverse. The District’s population started increasing again after years of decline. The census tract where Johnson and Bryant live went from 94 percent black in 1990, to 63 percent in 2010.

“That neighborhood has been labeled ‘desirable,’” Izadi said. “Many middle-income professionals want to settle in it.”

Johnson said many young families have moved to the area.

Johnson, 60, and a retired federal worker, lives in a home he and his wife have owned for 15 years. He’s now trying to turn his home into a small church that will help people in the neighborhood who are going through tough times.

He said, contrary to what some people might assume, longtime black residents in this neighborhood don’t resent the white newcomers.

“The racial dynamic has changed, but everyone gets along,” he said.

Not quite everyone.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post published a letter to the editor from Carl Foster, an African-American D.C. resident who feels the young, white people who have moved to his neighborhood don’t respect its longtime residents. As an example, he cites the time one of his new, white neighbors offered him cash after he finished shoveling snow off their sidewalk.

“He was asking if I wanted to earn some pocket change while I was wearing my $500 Polo jacket,” Foster said wrote. “Good news, though: I didn’t hit him with the shovel.”

In addition to the new residents, there are also a lot of new businesses. The District Department of Transportation is building a long-in-the-works streetcar line on H Street, scheduled to begin running next year. In anticipation, developers have been gobbling up nearly every empty storefront along the neighborhood’s main drag and filling them with new, hip establishments:

·        A dance studio

·        A playhouse

·        At least three bars/concert halls

·        A gourmet pie shop

·        A wine/coffee bar

·       A Vietnamese grill

·        A Belgian gastropub

And that’s just on one block of H Street, between 13th and 14th streets.

It’s this kind of activity and energy that brought Eileen Yam, a young PhD student, to H Street. She just moved into her fiancé’s well-decorated rowhouse in the neighborhood.

“It’s exciting to live somewhere that’s changing so fast,” she said.

Yam has only been living in H Street for a few months, but she said she hasn’t felt any of the racial animosity expressed in Foster’s letter. In fact, she sums up her feeling about the racial climate of her new neighborhood this way:

“Our neighbors across the street are the owners of [the food truck] Curbside Cupcakes. Last year, at the H Street festival, they debuted a cupcake called ‘The H Street.’ It was a chocolate and vanilla swirl. That kind of epitomizes what the mix is like [here].”

Yam said that whatever H Street used to be, it’s now defined by its diversity. As if to prove this point, Yam pointed out that she’s Asian American and her fiancé is black.

“If there’s an H Street cupcake, we’re part of it,” she said.

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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