He wishes they’d stop and talk to him a bit, outside his tent in a D.C. encampment, in one of the city’s hippest, most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. He’s funny, wry and has interesting stories about growing up in Washington.
“If they could just take five friggin’ minutes. Three minutes. Or how about 60 seconds to see that I’m a person, too. I was a millionaire at 17, I pumped gas when I was 30. I was a drug dealer when I was young and worked 10 years for a maintenance crew for the USDA,” he told me on a morning when person after person walked by him.
But most of his new neighbors don’t want to talk to him. They want him gone.
Because the way they see it, it’s not a friendly Mr. Randolph’s Neighborhood they’re passing through on the way to and from their luxury condos.
“Used and bloody hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia, rotting food, trash, broken glass, public nudity, prostitution, sales of illegal drugs, and human urine and feces are encountered by those whose routes take them by the encampments and pervade the space in which encamped individuals are living,” wrote NoMa Business Improvement District President Robin-Eve Jasper, in a public letter decrying the state of those underpass encampments.
These underpasses — where train tracks pass over M, L and K streets in Northeast Washington — are at the heart of the city’s gentrification clash.
They are dark corridors of metal and stone that are an unavoidable walking path connecting the condos to the rest of the city. The business district leaders have done backflips trying to make that path pleasant, filling two of the tunnels with artsy light sculpture projects they held international design competitions to create. They got the encampments cleared out, all in the name of public art. There were even cocktail events to welcome the bright, playful light installations into the urine-soaked underpasses they insist on calling art parks.
It took less than four months for the tents on L Street to return, now illuminated by “Lightweave” overhead.
To the homeless men and women who camp there, the underpasses are a no-brainer for safe and relatively dry shelter, now with decor.
“A lot of us out here are working. And this here is close to our jobs,” Nelson explained, giving me the rundown on his neighborhood.
“Now right here is me and my brother. We do odd jobs and we sell water and Gatorade over on K Street. Across the street over there is Tommy and J.R., he said, pointing to the tents that were zipped up for the day, their residents off to work. “Tommy has a construction job. J.R. is working at the hospital. Next to that is Pucci. She works at a detailing place.”
Yes, there is drug addiction. And yes, there is mental illness, Nelson said. “Of course, it’s not all good here. If you’re here, you’ve got problems,” he said. And yes, it’s dirty and it stinks (what underpass isn’t putrid)?
But for most of the people living there, the issue is a profound lack of affordable housing, created by the breakneck development that has made room for places with cute names like NoMa.
If you don’t believe it, look at a recent study that determined the District is, hands-down, the absolute worst place in the United States for displacement caused by gentrification.
In a span of 13 years, more than 20,000 African American Washingtonians have been booted by primarily white, high-income new residents, according to a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
Add to that, another recent study found that the District is one of the most difficult places in the nation right now to establish new and affordable housing.
“Washington is experiencing a boom with sustained demand for new multifamily in the top third of national metro, yet ranks near the bottom of major markets for barriers to new apartment development. . . . Affordable housing requirements are heavy with few mitigation policies,” according to a 2019 study by the Arlington, Va.-based National Apartment Association.
And here’s the kick in the gut. This place is hot because of the urban vibe, the cool, gritty graffiti, old-school city-warehouse hipster factor. All this, with yoga and coffee and salad.
“I call it ‘Baby New York,’ ” Nelson said. “And I see them, walking like they’re in their own big-city fantasy. But you know what? We’re part of the city, too. This is part of being in a big city — seeing people who are struggling and who were born here.”
And that’s what makes letters like the one from Jasper so upsetting. People in encampments are not inanimate nuisances. They are not a crooked street sign that can be fixed or a clump of weeds that can be uprooted.
Solutions have to do with active engagement in city policies and politics, in voting and caring about what happens to all Washingtonians. It’s about thinking outside your own waterfall-quartz-countertops comfort zone.
Nelson, for now, just wants to be treated like a person while he tries to right his life.
As he says that, here comes Kara McGrath, 28, with her iced latte, cute outfit and adorable black and white dog, Olive, on their way to the dog park.
Nelson’s neighbors say good morning to her. She returns the greeting, and they banter about the dog. “She’s 6 months old,” McGrath said.
“Now see that? This is beautiful,” Nelson said.
“You’re my neighbors,” said McGrath, who has been following the tensions and arguments over the underpasses since she moved into the area two years ago. “I don’t see you as a nuisance. . . . I don’t see harassment.”
See that? Be like Kara.
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