February 10, 2012

I am white. I am 29. And I earned my college degree from the University of Maryland in 2005. I am the exact type of person that Carl Foster [“Gentrification in black and white,” Local Opinions, Feb. 5] says is ruining his neighborhood.

I’m happy to report that Mr. Foster doesn’t speak for all black D.C. residents, especially those who live in Capitol Hill East. In August, my wife and I bought a house in a historically African American neighborhood next to RFK Stadium. We had rented in the city, and we chose to buy a home here and start a family because we like the idea of living in a close-knit community.

Nevertheless, we were a little nervous about how we would be received. In 2010, Post columnist Courtland Milloy described people like us as “myopic little twits.” Watching the divisive mayoral election and occasionally encountering opinions like Mr. Foster’s left us wondering if longtime residents would shun us.

Quite the opposite. Over the week we moved in, which happened to be the week when Tropical Storm Irene hit, neighbors came by to introduce themselves and welcome us. Many told us how thankful they were to have a new family living in our house, which had been vacant for months.

My wife and I grew up in the suburbs; she in Columbia and I in Emmaus, Pa. Living in the city is different. The community is tighter-knit. When we walk the dog, everyone stops to say hello. In the evenings, neighbors sit on their porches and talk about the Redskins or holiday plans. That doesn’t happen as much in the suburbs, where the houses are farther apart. There, you can leave your home, get in your car and drive to work without seeing any of your neighbors. That’s not possible here.

Neighbors look out for each other. An example from last week: A spate of car burglaries recently hit the neighborhood. Immediately, neighbors — black and white — went door-to-door to discuss how to better monitor the street. Crime is a reality of living in a city, but we feel safe living here because of how each neighbor worries about the others.

In his piece, Mr. Foster told of being offended by a neighbor who offered him money after Mr. Foster helped him push his car out of the snow. I bet that D.C. transplant was surprised to have a neighbor come to his aid. If he grew up in the suburbs, maybe he wasn’t used to that type of kindness and didn’t know how to react. Sadly, Mr. Foster’s rude response probably only generated more of the “hard looks” he said he gets from the newcomers.

Yes, the city is changing. But it’s too easy to call those changes negative just because your neighbors are of a different race than you are. Why not take the time to get to know them? The culturally rich D.C. neighborhoods are a big reason why many former suburbanites want to live in the city. There’s plenty of room for both the Hoffmans and the Fosters.

Michael Hoffman, Washington

I had always heard that the District was a small town, but despite living in a white D.C. neighborhood during college, I didn’t know why — until my husband and I lived for six years as the only white people on a block in a black neighborhood.

When we moved in, I couldn’t believe how many people came up and introduced themselves and offered any assistance we might need. Whenever we saw anyone on the street, they greeted us, whether we knew them or not. The number of times my neighbors mentioned something that I assumed had gone unnoticed made me realize that, even if I never saw them or talked to them, their eyes were on that block — and on me. At first it was disconcerting, but eventually it became comforting. They had my back. It was classic small-town America.

And we got used to it — more than we knew. We just moved to a mostly white neighborhood, and now it seems odd that everyone pretty much goes about their lives without interacting, even just to say hello. It’s not a question of hostility or unfriendliness, but just that everyone is busy, and that’s just the way it is here.

Perhaps this is a common problem in diversifying neighborhoods: People may have different expectations of what “neighborly” means. It’s easy to take offense (on both sides), but it’s much harder to ask why.

Instead of getting angry the next time a neighbor does something like offering to pay for help pushing his car out of the snow, Mr. Foster could say “no thanks” and explain that, in this neighborhood, people help each other for everyone’s benefit. Maybe the newcomer could apologize and explain that, where he grew up, you pay someone who helps you. Maybe the next such encounter could be met with “Thanks for your help. Got time for coffee?” How’s that for classic small-town America?

Sarah Lanning, Silver Spring

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