The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington natives are about to get a day that honors them. It’s a start.

More than 200 people showed up for a photo shoot of D.C. natives on May 20, 2018.
More than 200 people showed up for a photo shoot of D.C. natives on May 20, 2018. (Gary Williams Jr.)

If you have ever read a government resolution, you know they are written in a way no one speaks.

A ceremonial resolution before the D.C. Council that calls for a D.C. Natives Day is no exception. In eight sentences that begin with the word “whereas,” it lays out why designating a day to honor people born and raised in the District is important.

I could list each here, but I won’t. I won’t because I don’t want to bore you. But mostly, I won’t because to really understand why that resolution matters, we have to read between the lines.

We have to listen to what the D.C. natives pushing for a day of recognition are really trying to tell us.

And it is this: Don’t forget we’re part of this city, too.

“The assumption is we’re not here,” third-generation Washingtonian Angel Gregorio told me. “But there are so many of us that are still here, that are still trying to maintain homes and businesses here.”

Gregorio, who owns the Spice Suite, a spice bar not far from the house in Northwest Washington where she grew up, is one of two people who pushed for the resolution.

“What better way to make sure natives aren’t forgotten than to make it a holiday?” Gregorio said.

It may seem strange that any city needs a day to celebrate residents who grew up on its streets, but this is not just any city. In many hometowns, a corner store can remain a marker for generations. Here, in the nation’s capital — a place that has seen riots, crack wars and white and black flight followed by a resurgence that many could not have imagined — you can grow up on a block, leave for several years and barely recognize it (or the people who live on it) when you return.

The District is not just a rapidly changing place, as we tend to describe it. It is a place that has changed more rapidly than most.

It is the city that experienced the greatest “intensity of gentrification” in the nation between 2000 and 2013, according to a study released Tuesday. During that time, the study found, the city saw more than 20,000 African American residents displaced from their neighborhoods by mostly affluent, white newcomers.

D.C. has the highest ‘intensity’ of gentrification of any U.S. city, study says

Those findings are important because they confirm what many residents with generational roots in the area have long felt and explain why some are now taking a stand, demanding to be seen and heard. You don’t ask for a day to be recognized if you feel visible the other 364 days of the year.

“The D.C. native is being erased in the city, particularly black people born here,” Tony Lewis Jr. told me. “It’s not like this mythical, it-could-happen thing. I know what it looks like to see a block or a neighborhood that was 100 percent African American and now you’d be hard-pressed to find a black family there.”

He also knows what it feels like to attend a D.C. tasting event and find you’re the only one there who grew up knowing those flavors.

“D.C. has always been a transient place,” Lewis said. “People come down here to work on the Hill. People come here to go to a university. But the difference between then and now is that when they used to go out to eat, they would bump into people from here. Now, people can be here 10 or 15 years, and they haven’t developed a relationship with someone from here because they aren’t in the same places.”

“I’m not okay with that,” he said. “From a system standpoint, what did we miss? What happened? That should concern every Washingtonian, no matter if you were born here or moved here.”

Lewis and Gregorio came up with the idea for a D.C. Natives Day after the success of a spontaneous event last year. The two organized a photo shoot for D.C. natives on May 20, 2018, as a way to counter an ad campaign that ran on the Instagram account of the Washingtonian. The publication featured photos of young people wearing T-shirts that read “I’m Not a Tourist. I Live Here,” but not one showed a black person. It later took down the photos, and its president issued an apology, saying the campaign “did not represent the wonderfully diverse city in which we live.”

Gregorio and Lewis decided that was not enough. They wanted to create a counter image, so they put out a social media call for D.C. natives to attend their photo shoot. They expected maybe 40 people would come. More than 200 people, most of them black, showed up.

“It ended up feeling like a block party,” Gregorio said. “I saw people I went to high school with.”

“That day was such a beautiful day,” Lewis said. “It was such a day of pride and community and culture.”

‘What have we become:’ Bryce Harper’s win, a 10-year-old’s murder and a city’s contradictions

Afterward, the two decided to maintain that momentum this year, too, by creating a celebration on May 20. That’s how the idea for a D.C. Natives Day was born.

Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) introduced the resolution, and it is expected to be approved by the council on April 2.

“Before D.C. was one of the hottest places to live in the country, as it is today, thousands of residents poured their blood, sweat and tears into improving our communities,” McDuffie said. “While I certainly welcome new residents and neighbors, many of whom have produced a new generation of young natives, this ceremonial resolution highlights the people who helped build our beautiful city into what it is today.”

When we talk about gentrification, we tend to use that word as a knife, dividing the people who have moved into the city from those who have been displaced. But if you think about it, a D.C. Natives Day tells of a third group. It tells of the people who remember what this city was and who want a voice in what it becomes.

Both Lewis and Gregorio said they are not against gentrification. They welcome people moving in. They just want those newcomers to welcome them as well.

“I love that my community is becoming more and more ‘walkable,’ ” Gregorio said. “But I’d also love knowing that my neighbor who I grew up next to is still here, and if they move, it’s because they wanted to and not because they had to.”

Lewis said conversations in the city have to start focusing on rent control, workforce development and other ways to ensure that people who grew up here can afford to remain here.

“If you lose the entire fabric of what the city was, what is D. C.?” he said. “Everything can’t be new.”

It seems that’s worth spending more than a day thinking about.

Read more:

‘What have we become:’ Bryce Harper’s win, a 10-year-old’s murder and a city’s contradictions

‘I’ve been in tears for days’: A Virginia organization that helps poor children will now — because of you — reach even more

Red dresses flutter, empty, on the Mall, and this is why they should haunt us