When we, as a newly married couple, bought our first home in Baltimore, it was located as far away from the inner city -- where my husband had lived all of his life (Pressman, Platt and Payson streets) -- as we could afford without moving out of the city. The year was 1963, a time when, as a sign that desegregation was working, young black professionals began moving into integrated communities. Our neighbors on either side of our detached brick colonial were white. Both families then quickly moved -- as did every white family on both sides of the block.
Twenty-two years later, young black professionals are doing the same thing: running away from the sights and sounds of black urban life and culture and from the perceived problems -- congestion, noise and blight -- associated with living in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Both Jesse Jackson and James Meredith have been speaking recently from different public platforms, urging upwardly mobile blacks to take a second look at why most of them choose to run from the familiar. In urging blacks to implant themselves smack in the middle of their own people, Jackson reminisces about his childhood in Greenville, S.C., when the schoolteacher, the doctor and the lawyer lived next door to the domestic and the porter. Meredith is a little meaner about it. He said recently that successful blacks, more than other racial groups, abandon their neighborhoods as well as their neighbors -- a public rejection of self.
I don't suppose it's fair to expect blacks to handle housing patterns any differently from the way other Americans do: they move frequently -- every seven years on average -- usually to improved quarters and directly related to increased incomes. I've talked to some people about this, and they don't feel they should be expected to combine their social consciousness with their personal residences.
But they should consider it -- even if they have to shift the argument from one of social consciousness to investment potential. There are many young professionals who are not yet committed to living in high-rise towers above shopping malls. Many are talking about investments. Living in the inner city, especially in the areas designated by the local governments for special financial help, is a way to make their dollars work for them.
The residual resentment among many blacks in this city lingers because they were pushed out of certain neighborhoods -- Georgetown, Capitol Hill and Dupont Circle in particular -- when extensive restoration took place. They are quick to state that these neighborhoods are not within their reach because of inflated prices.
But of course Jackson isn't talking about these neighborhoods. He's talking about neighborhoods that haven't been touched by rehabilitation -- where much of the housing is boarded up, where places have not yet been claimed by white urban pioneers. He is talking about affordable shells where the equity increases in proportion to one's ability to roll up sleeves and spend weekends and evenings gutting units and stripping woodwork. He is talking about areas in Washington where poor blacks live, such as Anacostia, LeDroit Park and Shaw, which have the mix of ingredients proven necessary for substantial rehabilitation: historic designations, tax benefits and low-income loans.
Anacostia, more than any area in this city, waits for the influx of newcomers -- promised for 15 years -- to end the desolation. Few buildings have been disturbed by progple who migrate to Anacostia do so because of dire circumstances and thus occupy the properties begrudgingly. What others seem not to realize is that although Anacostia is a long way from Capitol Hill in developmental terms, it is only 35 seconds across the Martin Luther King bridge by car and five minutes by foot.
Still, the stark isolation of Anacostia will not change without an injection of new blood unburdened by negative memories. And the neighborhood leaders there know this. Shopkeepers and homeowners are reluctantly admitting that, more than likely, it will not be blacks who one day will come, hammers in hand, and begin the hard job of reclaiming the commercial and residential properties that sit on high hills and peer down on the Federal Triangle. When that happens, these neighbors agree, blacks will believe that they have somehow been tricked out of one of the most potentially beautiful and oldest areas in Washington.
LeDroit Park should be most appealing to many because it is bulging with black history. It sits at the foot of Howard University (which, by the way, already has claimed many of the old Victorian mansions that are now vacant, vandalized and terrible eyesores). A restoration/community association is in place, standing guard over what little development is in prog
Then there is Shaw, always engaged in one conflict or another as local activists stake claims on every block of an area they believe one day will be a contender for elaborate restoration. Its hundreds of multi-story, red brick rowhouses are near downtown, near Metro's Green Line and near the Convention Center. Jackson believes that the government should provide some special incentives to attract middle-income blacks into these areas. But in this town, the incentives are already in place for anyone of any color who is willing to incur the short- term risks of fix-up projects that only glitter after long hours of back-breaking work.
The city's department of housing and community development has in place several programs (housing purchase assistance, rental rehabilitation, Section 8 rehabilitation; co-op conversions; single-family homeowner) that offer low-interest loans or downpayments with plenty of technical help.
If the pattern of equity growth -- once substantial rehabilitation is complete -- in inner-city neighborhoods continues, these properties will appreciate, making the whole process worthwhile. It will also entice more successful blacks back into closer day- to-day association with poorer blacks in need of concrete inspiration.