Last September, my husband and I signed a stack of papers at our real estate agent's office. The documents spelled out in mind-numbing detail how we would acquire our first home, a Victorian rowhouse in the District's Bloomingdale section just off North Capitol Street, and pay for it over the next 30 years.
But there were many more important messages between the lines.
The house's inflated price, the result of two rounds of bidding, said: "Yes, we are buppies." The inner-city neighborhood, with its rich social and economic diversity, said: "But we are still down."
That we didn't flinch at the occasional crackhead, prostitute and pack of idling men roaming our new block said: "We won't let a few bad actors make us afraid of our own people."
And the fact that we had emerged victorious from a six-month battle at the height of the District real estate wars -- skirmishes in which we were often the lone black faces vying for homes in historically black neighborhoods -- said something else:
"We damn sure are not about to let white folks buy up all the property in D.C."
Real estate has been on my mind a lot lately, because of the District's decision to accept a donation of $50 million to give Tony Williams and/or his successors a mansion to call their own on Foxhall Road. Given the demographic profile of your average D.C. mayor, the project is likely to put one black family, at least, in that posh Northwest neighborhood. Some would call this progress. But it's not what my husband and I are trying to do.
In the small act of choosing to buy our home where we did, I believe that we became part of a growing group of African Americans who are picking up where the civil rights movement left off. From our perspective, integration is overrated. It's time to reverse an earlier generation's hopeful migration into white communities and attend to some unfinished business in the 'hood.
With an urban renaissance raging and white gentrifiers flocking to previously scorned sections of the Chocolate City, the stakes are rising every day, presenting an added challenge to what W.E.B. Dubois called the "Talented Tenth" of black Americans: We not only have to invest in the inner city, but we can't let white people beat us to it.
My husband and I are both twentysomethings who were raised in neighborhoods where there were few black families. Moving to the suburbs had been a natural progression for our parents. A lot of blood and sweat went into getting fair housing laws on the books and integrating schools. So our parents understandably saw being the first blacks on their blocks as an honor, the manifestation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.
But there was a pernicious side to pioneer integrationism. After my family moved in the late 1980s to Beech Grove, just outside Indianapolis, I lived in a state of perpetual tension.
Sometimes it felt like the '60s had never happened there. The first people my parents tried to buy from pulled out of the deal, due to pressure from neighbors. Finally settled into a rental, we got harassing phone calls. One time a band of teenagers chased my cousin, screaming "The KKK's gonna get you, nigger!" Most painful for a little kid were those steely glares that seemed constantly to demand, "What are you doing here?" At age 9, I tried to contort myself to appear smaller, hoping that no one would notice me and be offended.
Seven hundred miles away, my husband was going through a similar experience in suburban New Orleans, where a favorite playground jeer from white kids was, "My grandfather used to own your grandfather!"
Of course, that's not the whole picture: One could easily argue that we thrived in those settings. The schools our parents worked so hard to get us into were, in fact, excellent (and my life took a turn for the better when, after two years, we moved into a neighborhood with a few more black families). My husband and I both did well academically, went to college, got advanced degrees, launched promising careers. We got ours.
Now working out of The Post bureau in Prince George's County, I see every day another benefit of that black migration: A second generation of African Americans is growing up in a prosperous, predominantly black suburb. Instead of the kind of racism I experienced in Indiana, they are able to see a culture of wealth, achievement and stability in black communities.
Unfortunately, you can't say the same for the black children who got left behind in downtown Indianapolis, New Orleans, Washington and a lot of other places. When ambitious and progressive black people moved out of the inner city, they took many of the gains secured by the civil rights movement -- from education to job opportunities -- with them.
As a result, the African Americans who are best able to carry out the type of activism and involvement necessary to make schools and government work properly haven't been present in those communities. That has had a disastrous impact on inner cities.
Today's robust market in urban housing is shaking up the system. Communities are playing a game of racial and socioeconomic musical chairs. Black neighborhoods are turning whiter. Poor neighborhoods are turning richer, some suburban areas turning poorer. But the shake-up may lead to nothing more than a shake-out, with the same old winners and losers.
My husband and I saw this process playing out in the District last summer. The majority of the homes we looked at had recently been inhabited by black renters. The owners, both black and white, saw an opportunity to cash in on the booming market, so they drove out the former occupants. At open houses, most of the other potential buyers we ran into were white.
Our feeling that black families were being displaced by whites was reinforced by a Census report published on The Post's front page in August. In just one year, between 1998 and 1999, the city's white population grew by nearly 3,000 -- and this in a city whose population overall has been shrinking. Meanwhile, the number of blacks, who at one time made up 71 percent of the city's population, dropped to 61 percent.
Although those figures may be small, my husband and I knew the economic impact was big and an indication of things to come. We stepped up the search. We wanted to hold a line, stake out our turf.
I know that, given our background and good jobs, we can be seen as gentrifiers, too. But I still think we bring a different sensibility and commitment to the block. As black middle-class parents, for example, we may be more open to the idea of sending our children to public schools. If we have faith in our efficacy as a group, we can badger, cajole and volunteer our way to better schools.
I'd like to think I can use my own experience and help create an environment similar to what I enjoyed in suburban schools, where learning was such a powerful focus that students had no choice but to fall in line.
Frankly, I'm the last person willing to sacrifice my 6-month-old son, Maverick, to some lofty ideal. But I have reason to be optimistic about his public school prospects five years from now. Within a one-block radius of my home, there are at least eight babies around the same age. Some of their parents -- all but one of them black -- are newcomers like myself. Others have lived there since crack devastated our neighborhood. But I'm confident that each of us is equally committed to making sure our kids get the best education possible. And that gives me hope.
No doubt many white people also see their renovated rowhouses as more than a financial investment, and don't think they're just jumping on the it's-cool-to-live-in-the-city bandwagon. Many whites want to help out, too, and their privileged racial status can only improve the city's prospects.
But this is the Chocolate City. It's our responsibility as black people to return to these historically black communities that are finally rebounding. Not once a week at a soup kitchen, not as a Big Brother or Big Sister, but full-time, 24 hours a day. Every day of the week, black children should be able to look to us as an alternative to the dysfunction and pathology that has plagued the inner city. We can save ourselves.
Let Tony Williams and whoever comes after him live the good life on Foxhall Road. If I wanted to live in an all-white community today, there would be nothing to stop me. (Surely by now, civil rights have reached even Beech Grove.) But whiter is not necessarily better. And my attitude is, why bother? Why not do something more important?
There is a real sense among black Washingtonians that the city is slipping away from us. A few months ago, as I left a take-out on Georgia Avenue, a gentleman passed me a flyer. It invited me to a community meeting where residents planned to debate the question, "Is the Chocolate City turning Vanilla?"
I pocketed the flyer, but didn't bother going to the meeting. I already knew the answer: Not if I have anything to say about it. Natalie Hopkins is a writer on The Post's Weekend staff.