Contest Winners Bear Witness to a Shifting Washington

Maria Galarce Crain has classmates whose families moved from their Columbia Heights neighborhood because they could no longer afford to live in the swiftly changing area.
Maria Galarce Crain has classmates whose families moved from their Columbia Heights neighborhood because they could no longer afford to live in the swiftly changing area. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

Maria Galarce Crain sees the construction cranes around her school and remembers classmates who have moved away because their families can't afford rising rents in Columbia Heights. About two miles away, Monique Brevard walks past the rehabilitated rowhouses on her block in Brightwood and feels a new sense of safety on a once scary street.

The girls, both 12, are experiencing in different ways the great physical and economic changes taking place across their city. And their questions and opinions, posed in their tender voices, echo the citywide debate that adults are having on front stoops, at construction sites and in municipal offices across the District. The issue has grown so pervasive, it has seeped into the sixth grade.

The girls were among the winners of a citywide essay contest about gentrification sponsored by Higher Achievement, a private after-school program that operates in many D.C. schools. Before the contest, neither girl had even heard of the term "gentrification." But they were familiar with it. "Gentrification is really happening in my neighborhood," Monique said. "It was right before my eyes; I just didn't know what it's called."

Now when they see the construction sites that are multiplying across the District, the girls are filled with questions: Who lived or worked in the buildings that were razed? Where did these people go? What is coming in, and how will it affect the neighborhood around it?

The changes in the 5000 block of 13th Street NW, where Monique lives in a modest brick rowhouse with her parents and sister, began about three years ago. Since then, five homes have been renovated, including a three-bedroom house that was once in such a state of disrepair it frightened Monique.

"Some of them looked kind of trashy, to be honest," said the soft-spoken girl with a head of bouncy curls. "On one of them, half the roof was down, and it gave me the heebie-jeebies when I walked past on my way to school. The man stopped paying his money, and one day the marshals came and put him out. All his stuff was on the street."

New owners plowed money and care into the property and have listed it for sale at $614,900. "They had the steps redone, the grass cut, new door, everything," Monique said. "Now it's really nice."

Spruced up houses have also attracted new neighbors, Monique said. "Now there are Asians, Hispanics and a few Caucasians on my block, whereas before it was predominantly African American," she said. "So it's brought more diversity to the neighborhood."

Maria Galarce Crain sees displacement as the biggest downside of gentrification. A friend's family moved to Maryland because the family no longer could afford the rising rents in Columbia Heights, where Maria attends a charter school. "Now, she stays here with a grandmother during the week so she can stay in school, but the rest of her family is in Maryland," Maria said. "It's hard for her." Another classmate moved to Maryland last year; Maria hasn't heard from her since.

Two blocks from Maria's school is the massive redevelopment around the Columbia Heights Metro station. Three of the four corners are huge construction sites with such major retailers as Target and Best Buy planning stores.

Although Maria said she loves to shop, she thinks the earth movers and the crews in hard hats are trampling the past and destroying the fabric of the neighborhood. "They're tearing down some of the history," she said. "The first businesses that were started there are being torn down to put in a Target."

The advance of the national chains means the demise of local shopkeepers, she said.

"There are going to be no more of the little businesses that everybody knows, that care about the community," said Maria, who dreams of becoming an environmental lawyer so she can defend the physical world. "The people in Starbucks don't care about the people living in the neighborhood. All they care about is making money."

Tamika Sanders, another essay contest winner, said government should protect residents from the harsher outcomes of gentrification.

Not far from the school in Southeast where Tamika participates in Higher Achievement, Capitol Gateway Estates project is under construction. Acres of townhouses, condominium buildings and single-family houses are being built on land that was once home to the East Capitol Dwellings public housing project, which was notorious for drugs and crime.

The project's marketing materials boast of master baths with soaking tubs, vaulted ceilings and walk-in closets. But the community springing up will be home to market-rate renters and buyers as well as low-income residents who receive government subsidies -- just the kind of tool Tamika said is needed in a city in which real estate values have been skyrocketing.

"That way you make sure you have a wide range of income levels in some of the new housing developments," said Tamika, who is 11 and lives in Fort Washington.

As Maria, Tamika and Monique started thinking about gentrification, they grasped the complexity of the phenomenon. "It's really case by case," Maria said. "It's not always bad and not always good. It really depends on how you look at it."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company