Howard University faculty and doctoral students, from left, Natalie Hopkinson,Kellon Bubb, Carolyn Byerly, Brittany-Rae Gregory, Melissa Harris and Shoaa Almalki are researching gentrification. (Courtland Milloy/The Washington Post)
Columnist

When it comes to Howard University and the subject of gentrification, we tend to hear more about the student protests than their academic pursuits.

Recent criticism of white newcomers to the District walking their dogs on campus, we heard about that. A student takeover of the administration building last year to get the university to address its financial health and its role in the surrounding community, ditto.

Going back more than 50 years, Howard students have been protesting social injustices of all stripes, including gentrification. And what difference did any of it make? For answers, let’s go to the one place at Howard that you hardly ever hear about: the classroom.

I was impressed by the field research being conducted by doctoral students in the Cathy Hughes School of Communications. Brittany-Rae Gregory, a native of Memphis, has just completed her dissertation on gentrification around Howard. Gentrification has affected historically black colleges in several cities in addition to the District — including Atlanta, Nashville, Houston, New Orleans and Baltimore. A common thread she discovered was that black people in the affected communities and sometimes even the schools always seemed to be caught off guard.

Gregory noted that long-term residents would get their first glimpse of the changes underway when white people would begin moving into neighborhoods once considered dangerous. Vacant houses began to be renovated, followed by relentless calls and visits from real estate agents offering to buy the homes of longtime residents.

“Once people saw what was generally regarded as the first signs of gentrification, it was too late,” Gregory said. “The plans had been in the works for 15, 20 years. They were seeing the tip of the iceberg, but underneath a massive development was already underway.”

Displacement of the most vulnerable residents, usually renters, often follows. But even those who own their homes feel the effects.

Kellon Bubb, a doctoral student, was doing research on the response by D.C. officials and utility companies to complaints about lead contamination in the Petworth neighborhood.

“Residents who’d been in the area a long time weren’t getting answers about the problem,” Bubb said. “But as the demographics of the neighborhood changed and the tax base increased, there was a lot more transparency.”

Some black residents may appreciate the improved services, but they are also annoyed that it took the arrival of white people to get them.

Natalie Hopkinson, an assistant professor and faculty adviser to the doctoral students, said that such improvements may leave black people with mixed feelings.

“What they see is that white skin is more valued than black skin,” Hopkinson said. “As more white people move into your neighborhood, the better your city services become. Your trash gets picked up; your schools improve. Your property value increases. In effect, you have white people determining your value.”

Hopkinson says she refrains from using the term “gentrification” because it tends not to convey the nuance and complexity of the issue. Rather, she calls it the “whitening” of a city.

Ambivalence over this whitening grows as the phenomenon sweeps the city.

Shoaa Almalki, a doctoral student from Saudi Arabia, was researching the effect of a popular restaurant chain in two gentrifying neighborhoods.

“I found people who said that the opening of a place like that spurs more gentrification, which changes the character of a neighborhood,” Almalki said. “But at the same time, they like that the owner promotes social responsibility and works to preserve the culture. And it’s also a place where people can go to discuss gentrification.”

Melissa Harris, a doctoral student from Fresno, Calif., has focused on black family communication, police and surveillance in gentrifying areas. “We know that with gentrification comes a greater police presence, which many residents, black and white, appreciate,” Harris said. “But it also leads to racial profiling by police. So how do parents discuss prohibitive spaces with their children? And how are children, who grew up with traditions of the neighborhood, affected by newcomers who don’t understand and may even be threatened by some aspect of black culture?”

The postgraduate course is called critical research methods with emphasis on the role of communication in the gentrification process. As Carolyn Byerly, chair of the Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies, explains:

“We want to know what mechanisms are available to help people learn about what’s going on in their neighborhoods, whether they have time to organize and speak up. In their interactions with the power structure, are their voices being heard?”

The next step will be to take their findings out of the ivory tower and put them into practice.

Gregory said of her work, “I believe it is possible to open up lines of communication across race and class divides and make a city inclusive for everyone, not just those with money.”

Harris was an optimist as well. “Everyone is trying to coexist in a space,” she said. “If newcomers just respect the culture, I believe we can find a way to grow together.”

Meanwhile, the feisty undergrads plan to continue their campaign against the people they call “colonizers.” You’ll no doubt be hearing more about them.

But if there is a way to ease racial tensions and make a city more inclusive, the scholars may be on their way to finding the answers.

If not for Washington, then for some other city where the problem has not been allowed to fester as long.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.