In Reuben Jackson's youth, white people seemed to disappear from his block, one family at a time -- kids he used to walk to school with, gone.
Nearly half a century later, white people appear in Jackson's neighborhood, one family at a time.
"Everything's flipped around," says the poet, teacher and researcher, who returned home to Brightwood in Northwest Washington in 2001 after a suburban sojourn in Northern Virginia.
Growing up on Fifth Street NW, "my older brother had friends he walked to school with, and I was the little kid tagging along," Jackson says. "And then one day, the friends were gone, and my mother said they had moved to Laurel or Silver Spring. My mother said it made no sense, because if you were afraid of black people coming into your neighborhood, if you don't move, no one can come in."
But fear and antipathy know no such logic. The whites left and the blacks stayed, and Jackson came to think of Brightwood as a place for people whose skin looked like his.
"As a child, you're hurt if you're playing with someone and then they're gone," he says. "Flip Wilson said, 'First I was a child, and then I was black.' And he's right, but they're like freight train cars -- they're very close to each other."
Now Brightwood and Petworth and other close-in sections of the city are changing once more. Jackson, 49, sees what's there, but also what isn't: the long-lost shops and the families who moved out to Prince George's or down South. "Ghosts," he says, and though he is a youthful middle-aged man, he has come to feel like an old guy in the barbershop, yakking at anyone who will listen about how things used to be. "I'll tell some 25-year-old that they used to run numbers in that place across the street, and they'll look at me like, 'What's numbers?' "
We're sitting in Domku, an Eastern European bar and restaurant on Upshur Street NW that's become a magnet for young newcomers. It's a cleanly designed place, offering music, sofas, an infectious buzz of chatter. The contrast with nearby carryouts, grim places with bulletproof barriers against their customers, is bracing.
We meet at Domku because there are few alternatives nearby and because this is where Jackson feels most alienated by the changes and because it is where he and his friends go to talk and watch. "You have to deal with the paradox and the irony," he says. "This place is for people like myself who have some disposable income. Yet I'm often the only black face in here, and it's surreal, mind-boggling. I'm glad to see some vitality coming to Washington, but the question is, for whom?"
At Domku, Jackson debates race with friends who tell him, " 'That race stuff is so over.' And I think, 'Oh, my gosh, that means I'm over.' Yet it is weird to see luxury condos in and around U Street named after famous -- and dead -- black people," while most of those living in the Langston Lofts or the Ellington are white. "Are those buildings going to have plaques: 'Black people used to live here'?"
Jackson tries to get inside the newcomers' heads: "Do they talk about the fact that there are more white people here than there used to be? Do they say, 'The neighborhood is getting better?' What does 'better' mean? Better businesses? Yes. But does it also mean monochromatic?"
Jackson does not exclude himself from such questions. He knows there's something irrational about street talk of The Plan, the rumored conspiracy to remove blacks from a city that remains majority-black. Even now, at least on his block in Brightwood, there is but one white family. "And everyone wants a neighborhood with good restaurants and coffee places," he says. "The people who own businesses like this can rightly claim they brought this neighborhood back. But look out the window."
We see a young black man in suede Timberland boots staring into Domku. The look on his face is more puzzled than angry, yet both emotions are there. If he stepped inside, he likely would be stared at. Jackson: "He sees me and he wonders, 'What's he doing in there?' and, 'Does that mean it's okay for me to go in?' "
Jackson asks himself: Should I be in here? Even if I know the guys outside call this the place where white people go? "But I like it here. But they're right; it is where a lot of white people go. And then there's an ellipsis. . . ."
Which is what a city is. Like this. . . .
Join me tonight from 7 through the evening to discuss the Virginia election returns at