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Colbert I. King

Turning a Deaf Ear to the Displaced

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page A19

Drive-by news gathering, which passes as journalism today, conveys a superficial and misleading picture of gentrification in the nation's capital. The stories tell nothing of the wrenching consequences of people being pushed out of their neighborhoods. But how would those journalists know? They've never lived through the process of gentrification, and they don't spend nearly enough time in the community getting to know what they write about. Facile writers with clueless editors can get away with anything.

The tragedy is that this benign view of what's taking place in the city is also shared in top D.C. government circles, where our town's tightly drawn class and racial fault lines -- and those established residents who have been made to feel marginalized -- are ignored.

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But why worry about any of that? The city's growing tax base of middle-class couples and singles makes D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams giddy. The sight of "undesirable" neighborhoods being rapidly transformed into places where wealthier folks want to live makes Williams go weak in the knees. These changes are just what the mayor, his economic planners and his business friends ordered. Besides, there's no time for the displaced. The mayor's too busy with the National League of Cities and, when he's home, being wined and dined in glitzy downtown restaurants, Georgetown salons and the homes of folks he never thought he would meet when he was laboring as an Agriculture Department bureaucrat. The whole thing has turned his head. So what if booming property values and a richer downtown cultural life aren't doing much for renters or the evicted?

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for growth and economic development. But not the kind that forces people out of their neighborhoods or across the D.C. line. Empathy for people about to lose their homes? Not today's Tony Williams. He is much like the fabled senior black Army officer who, when confronted by overly familiar black enlisted men who thought they had something in common with him, put them in their place with the gibe, "I'm your color, not your kind."

Besides, the mayor will tell you, it's not as if he's doing nothing. He touts the Housing Production Trust Fund and his plans to transform homeless shelters and spruce up public housing for the poor. And, as he and his minions will tell you, the pushed-out -- at least some of them -- will have somewhere else to go when the city gets some affordable housing up and running in other parts of the city.

But if he really wanted to prove he doesn't want a District of Columbia of just the rich, he could support adoption of a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy to make sure new and rehabilitated residential developments include a certain minimum percentage of housing that low- and moderate-income folks can afford. D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp has proposed such legislation to make certain current residents can afford to stay in the city. The mayor should seek permission from his developer friends to support the Cropp bill. Fat chance.

But city life is more than having a roof over your head -- a point lost on Williams and his minions.

Today's gentrified West End is much more to the mayor's taste. He even lives in Foggy Bottom. And what's not to like? The area is blessed with good transportation, nice restaurants, well-kept rental apartments and condos, less crime, fewer large families with children, and more middle-class dwellers. Not like when I lived there. Back in the 1940s and '50s, employees arriving for work at the U.S. Weather Bureau at 24th and M Streets NW, or ambulatory patients and workers entering the Columbia Hospital for Women at 24th and L Streets NW, had to pass through my West End neighborhood, which bordered Foggy Bottom. To those outsiders, we were just a working-class community on the edge of Rock Creek Park.

Some of that was right. Words such as "new" or "modern" were seldom spoken in our neighborhood. Everything was old: the corner grocery store, the churches on every other block, the schools and playground equipment. Our clothes were clean, but they were old, too. Most adults were working-class people: domestics, laborers, elevator operators, porters and the like. Those in the Weather Bureau's white-collar workforce hardly gave us a second look, except maybe when they were forced to step around us as we played on the sidewalk.

But when gentrification came to the West End and Foggy Bottom, the character of our community died. To the new arrivals, tenants being kicked out were just faceless renters, women who cleaned other people's houses or cared for other people's children. Men who dug ditches and hauled trash, and who, when they had to, scratched when nothing itched, and laughed when nothing was funny. They went off to work in homes and on jobs where they were called by their first names, even by tots who hardly knew their own names.

But those same men and women, at least to kids in my neighborhood, were community pillars. They served as deacons and deaconesses in our churches, taught Sunday school and sang in the choir. They grew up with our parents and disciplined us as if we were their own. We knew them as the respected "Mr." or "Mrs." So-and-So, or as Sister Johnson or Brother Jones. It was disrespectful for a child to call a grown-up by his or her first name.

It was a community where a child could walk three blocks and run into someone, a relative or friend, who was known to the family. Financially embattled, yes. But no one went hungry. Neighbors, black and white -- like the Jones family down the block -- didn't let neighbors starve. People looked each other squarely in the eye. They spoke on the streets. We weren't afraid of each other. We enjoyed the same kind of food and music, and played the same childhood games. We were the community.

Gentrification didn't care about any of that stuff. Once our neighborhood got "discovered" -- as when Columbus "discovered" America -- all we shared and held dear was destroyed. Families, churches and lifelong friendships were ripped from their moorings and scattered. That explains why Liberty Baptist Church on 23rd Street NW ended up on Kentucky Avenue SE; why 19th Street Baptist Church at 19th and I Streets NW is now on upper 16th Street NW; why Rock Creek Baptist Church in Foggy Bottom is now east of Georgia Avenue on Eighth Street NW.

Oh, most of us managed to keep roofs over our heads. We grew up and moved on. But lost forever was the sense of community and belonging that we once had. That is what's happening today in our city. The mayor and drive-by journalists can't see it. Or they see it and simply don't care.


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