Vernard Gray seethes with frustration every time he hears people talk about certain historic D.C. neighborhoods as “up and coming,” as if to completely overwrite the history of longtime residents who have called the places home for decades.
That is why Gray, 76, a D.C. native, artist, curator and longtime cultural activist in the local arts community, has just launched a website called Made East River that offers a comprehensive directory of people who make artistic products or offer creative services in Wards 7 and 8.
“We’ve got stuff of value east of the river,” he said. “Let’s discover it. Let’s explore it. Let’s make something happen.”
Gray has picked a pivotal time to start his project. In the face of rapidly encroaching gentrification in Southeast — and with it, the threat of massive change and displacement — he is hoping that Made East River will help the area take charge of its culture and history and preserve a narrative directed by African American residents.
Majority-black Southeast is too often treated “like the backwater of the city,” Gray said. “Gentrification is happening. There’s no way of stopping it. But when they show up, they’ll think, ‘Okay, there’s something happening here.’ And they’ve got to honor that.”
To promote his website, Gray has reached out to local artists, emailed community listservs and distributed fliers around Southeast. If the website doesn’t take off, Gray has backup ideas, among them hosting workshops where local artists can share their knowledge with residents.
Go Anacostia lists neighborhood businesses, and DC Artists East features a directory of visual artists. The Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center and IBe’ Arts in Anacostia host workshops with local artists.
IBe’ Crawley, an artist and retired educator, founded the IBe’ Arts gallery and studio in 2016. A community without arts and culture is a community without soul, Crawley said. And with Anacostia “on the brink of an explosion” in development, “we have to meet the creative and artistic needs of the community,” she added.
Urban redevelopment is prompting similar grass-roots movements in a growing number of cities around the country, including Portland, Ore., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Brooklyn.
Gray points to the District’s Shaw-U Street neighborhood as a cautionary tale — a place where black residents did not manage to anchor and preserve their culture as gentrification swept in.
In recent years, new bars, cafes, restaurants, boutique stores and luxury residential buildings populated with affluent young professionals have transformed the racial makeup of the neighborhood, which was once 90 percent African American.
Not enough was done to exhibit black culture and to proclaim, “This is us,” he said. “We, as in we black folk, didn’t really claim the history of the place other than, ‘Back in the day. . . ’ ”
Derek Hyra, a professor at American University and the author of “Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City,” has written extensively about the transformation of Shaw, and how the historically black neighborhood was branded, marketed and sold to white millennials by mostly white developers.
Some white newcomers, in turn, boast about the hip edginess of living in an inner-city neighborhood, “describ[ing] neighborhood carjackings, shootings, and purse snatchings with laughter and jokes,” writes Hyra, who also directs the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University.
It is a phenomenon that Hyra calls “black branding,” in which “neighborhood-based organizations, real estate developers, restaurant owners and urban planners commodify and appropriate aspects of historically African American neighborhoods to promote tourism, homeownership, and community redevelopment,” he writes in his book.
This kind of black branding is not unique to the District and sometimes includes less savory aspects of urban life.
In Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has been predominantly black since the late 1960s, a newly opened bar called Summerhill drew a firestorm of controversy when it advertised one of its cocktails next to a “bullet hole-ridden wall” — supposedly the remains of “a rumored backroom illegal gun shop.” The bullet holes turned out to be fake, and residents were outraged at the bar’s insensitivity.
Gray’s initiative pushes back against black branding and instead puts the work of branding in the hands of the neighborhood’s residents.
But Gray insists that his project is less reactionary than it is proactive.
“As opposed to against them, it’s for us,” he said.
The goal, Gray added, isn’t to push back against gentrification per se but rather to create a strong cultural identity for Southeast so that “we honor who we are and can be.”
Gray has for decades been a fixture in the city’s arts community. He owned and directed Miya Gallery, an art space dedicated to showcasing black art and culture. He has served as commissioner for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. And he continues to regularly organize jazz performances as the curator of East River Jazz, which he founded in 2011.
Hyra thinks that Gray’s project, as one of several black-led branding initiatives, could potentially offer a way for local residents to manage the forces of development and gentrification.
But he also cautioned that there will always be multiple narratives within a single neighborhood and that those narratives “will be bent and manipulated by different people — even local people.”
Across the United States, black communities in different cities are exploring ways to mitigate the disruptive effects of gentrification.
In Portland, a group of black professionals has formed the Black Investment Corporation for Economic Progress, or Bicep, to reclaim their gentrifying neighborhood. The group created the Soul District, where it aims to promote black-owned businesses and push for a “more socially responsible commercial development and revitalization.”
In Grand Rapids, an entrepreneur founded Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses in 2013 to support black businesses and to empower neighborhoods to be sustainable.
And in New York, community groups such as the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network and the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project organize residents for the purpose of pushing back against gentrification.
Made East River is in its early days, and how it develops will depend on how many people sign up to list their work on Gray’s website. But in addition to hosting artist workshops, he is brimming with other ideas. They include hosting community cooking contests in churches and going to elderly centers to look for seniors who may have artistic skills to share with the younger generation.
“East of the river’s ego needs to be stroked, somehow,” he said.