Driving back from a Nationals game one night this summer with a friend who grew up in the District but hasn't lived here for years, I noticed him studying people on the street. Finally, he blurted, "You know, I just can't get used to seeing white people walking down North Carolina Avenue."
I knew what he meant. I've had moments myself when I marveled at what was happening to my city as I looked around at neighborhood meetings and saw that half the faces were white, or when driving through black working-class neighborhoods I remember from my childhood that seemed to have turned Hispanic overnight.
What my friend and I are observing, of course, is the change that's come with gentrification, as young, often well-to-do whites with their Starbucks coffee and Volvo station wagons move in, sometimes displacing black families. It's a trend some lament because of its potential to destroy black neighborhoods, but it's merely part of the inevitable process of change and renovation. And as hard as it is to accept for folks who celebrated Washington as "Chocolate City" in the '70s and '80s, it's been breathing new life into many neighborhoods for a while now.
Recent census estimates seem to bear out my friend's spur-of-the-moment observation. Whites now account for 30 percent of the city's population, up from 28 percent five years ago. Hispanics, some 7 percent five years ago, are now approaching 10 percent of the population. And blacks, who now represent 57 percent of the population, were 61 percent in 2000 and 65 percent 10 years before that.
At the same time that the city's racial complexion is changing, many of its poorer residents are being displaced because they can't afford to live in the District. According to a recent report from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the number of houses here valued at $500,000 or more increased from 9,900 in 2000 to nearly 33,800 just four years later. Meanwhile, the District lost some 12,000 "affordable" houses and apartments last year -- houses valued at $150,000 or less and apartments renting for $500 or less per month.
Numbers like those, prime evidence of gentrification, leave black Washingtonians grumbling in barbershops, beauty parlors and watering holes along Georgia Avenue and the Southwest waterfront about what they've long called "the Plan" -- a secret scheme to evict blacks from the District so that whites can take over. There's no such conspiracy, of course, but there's no denying that the march of gentrification is unsettling. The changes rile black columnists (earlier this year, Colbert I. King of this newspaper accused journalists of providing "a superficial and misleading picture of gentrification" because they haven't lived through it and "don't spend nearly enough time in the community getting to know what they write about"). And they anger community activists, one of whom told the Washington Afro-American in August that young black men are dealing drugs to make money to save their homes. "We have a core of young people who just will not tolerate displacement of their family homes," said Thomas Woodson, a "fatherhood outreach worker" for the Georgia Avenue/Rock Creek East Family Support Collaborative. "They're using all kinds of crime-capital opportunities to prevent that."
You need have only a superficial knowledge of Washington history to understand these kinds of reactions. In the 1950s, more than 100 acres of Southwest Washington were razed and tens of thousands of people relocated, many against their will. For some, it wasn't urban renewal, but "Negro removal."
But if what's happening in the District's Takoma neighborhood -- where I've lived since 1989 -- is any indication, what's going on now is different from the way those Washington neighborhoods were transformed in the past. It's a more or less organic process, driven by the market, to be sure, but far from a racist conspiracy.
Before we got married, my wife already owned a house in Takoma, D.C. One day, looking at the deed, she got an unpleasant surprise: It still included a clause stipulating that the house could be sold only to whites. Clauses like that were struck down in 1948. (Up until then, because she's white, she could have bought the house, but I couldn't have.) After 1948, Takoma, and many other predominantly white Washington neighborhoods, began to change. By the 1970s, the shift was complete enough so that some black folks I know think that ours has always been a black neighborhood.
Now, more than 50 years after it became possible for blacks to legally buy homes in Takoma, whites -- attracted by the opening of a Metro station and an abundance of desirable housing stock -- are finding the neighborhood attractive again, while the sons and daughters of Takoma's black middle class are opting for the suburbs. I'm not sure what to call the phenomenon, but it isn't "Negro removal."
In the 16 years that I've lived in Takoma, I've seen three houses that were, arguably, sold out from under black owners who'd been there for decades. Two of the homes had been owned by couples whose children and grandchildren developed problems with drugs and alcohol. By the time the original owners died, the properties were heavily mortgaged. The heirs were forced to let the banks take the houses.
The people I know who lived on those blocks, some of them black, some white, were relieved: No more crowds of young men drinking on the front lawn late at night, no more of the strange comings and goings that indicate drug trafficking, no more drive-by shootings.
The third house had been left to a man -- a veteran who didn't pay his property taxes. When he was finally evicted, I, and many of his neighbors, offered to help him fight his eviction. We found lawyers willing to take his case, offered to lend him money or accompany him to court. But he refused our help and his house was sold.
Despite his idiosyncrasies (he kept two lawnmowers in his living room), he was an asset to the neighborhood -- a handyman who raked leaves and cut grass, and often took on small projects for neighbors like repairing a porch or installing a door. Many of us miss him. In the end, however, he lost his home because he didn't pay his taxes, not because of gentrification.
Often when a house sells in Takoma, the longtime owners are people whose children have left the area or don't want to live in the family home. The people who sell -- like the man I bought my first house from -- can make 10 to 20 times what they paid. Some get enough money to live comfortably in retirement homes here. Others go down South (the man I bought from did) to build the house they've always wanted.
In many cases, the newcomers to Takoma are white. And the word "newcomers" used among blacks is often code. But a fair number are black couples seeking a stake in the city. Still others are interracial couples looking for a welcoming community. A number are homosexual, some of them wanting a good place to raise their children. What most have in common is that they're young and have the money (and the time and energy) to restore houses left to deteriorate because of poverty, indifference or the incapacity of aging owners.
Some of these new residents simply eat and sleep in Takoma, sending their children to private schools, joining private swimming pools in Montgomery County, and enrolling their children in soccer teams outside the city. But many more walk anti-crime Orange Hat patrols, join our 25-year-old community group, attend monthly Police Service Area meetings and support our library branch. They organize meal brigades when babies are born, tutor students at Coolidge High School, collect food and clothing when neighbors suffer a fire. They started the Takoma Theatre Arts Project, which brought music, plays and dance to the long-dark local theater.
A few even send their children to neighborhood schools.
To be honest about it, though I love the community I've found, it wasn't the one I was looking for. When I first bought in Takoma in the late '80s, I wanted to live in a predominantly black neighborhood, one that reminded me of Bloomingdale, where I'd grown up.
And I don't mind admitting that I still miss aspects of that neighborhood. In the early '60s, Bloomingdale was still a place where men would no more go to church without a tie than walk out of the house naked. It was a place where people said hello to each other on the streets and sat on their porches talking over the fence when hot summer nights finally cooled. It was a place where adults kept the children in line because they knew their families.
By the '70s, however, that sense of community had been battered by a heroin epidemic. In the '80s and '90s, crack and the violence associated with drug trafficking hammered the community again. Residents grew accustomed to having to show the police ID to enter the blocks where they lived, and men joked about the latest shootouts in the barbershop.
As hard as it is to accept, the black communities many of us grew up in (and romanticize in memory) are gone. Those neighborhoods would have changed anyway, even without drugs, the permissiveness of the '60s, and deviant behavior masquerading as black culture. The truth is nothing stays the same.
Whites aren't moving into Takoma or Bloomingdale or Petworth because of any conspiracy. They're moving for many of the same reasons that blacks pined to enter those neighborhoods in the years after World War II, when it gradually began to become clear that segregation was ending in Washington: They want room for their families, houses that have character and an easy commute to downtown.
It's anybody's guess as to whether blacks might one day be a minority in this city, as they were some 50 years ago. But if it does happen, it will be the result of many forces, not anyone's "plan."
David Nicholson, a Washington writer, is a former editor and book reviewer for The Washington Post.