I was walking along 14th Street NW in midtown Washington the other day and was impressed by the new look of the once-infamous strip. Where abandoned buildings and vacant lots had blighted the surrounding neighborhoods for decades, there were now chic new boutiques, home-furnishing stores, restaurants and condominiums.
But something vital was missing. There used to be thousands of black residents living and working along 14th Street. You could hear laughter and music. People sitting on the front stoops would shout greetings to passersby. There were children playing, young adults flirting and hardworking people trying to get a toehold on the economic ladder and claw their way up.
For years, the struggles of middle- and working-class black people animated life on 14th Street. Now all of that is gone. It’s been replaced by a stultifying air of aloofness. The millennial newcomers — most of them white — jog, bike and walk about the city as if in a trance, oblivious to the lives that helped form the place they now call home.
Because 14th Street looks so much better these days, it’s difficult to convey a sense of what has been lost.
What is particularly grating is a disregard for the history of 14th Street as a black commercial center, with the intersecting U Street as an entertainment hub. Once there were more than 245 variety stores, jewelry shops, boutiques, movie theaters, bars and carryout places along the street. But then came the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and virtually all was lost in the ensuing riots. For the next 30 years, residents would try to rebuild their communities, standing up to drug dealers and enduring years of violence on the streets.
And after risking life and limb and finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel, along comes an influx of new residents to reap the rewards.
In the window of a home-furnishing store, I saw a lamp that cost $400 and a console table for $1,999. Back in the 1980s, there was a used-car lot on the strip, and for the cost of that lamp and console, you could have driven off with a couple of clunkers and still had enough left for gas.
When it comes to appearances, a swank new furniture store beats an old car lot any day. But the car lot offered affordable transportation to working, poor residents. And that gave them a shot at finding better jobs that couldn’t be reached by bus or subway.
There has always been more to 14th Street than crime and a bunch of rundown buildings.
I used to live at 14th and R in the 1980s, just as gentrification was starting to cause concerns among low-income residents. The displacement had been forecast in a 1978 study by the D.C. Rental Accommodations Office. Of the 25,000 residents who had been evicted from their homes and apartments during the previous five years, the report said, nearly half had come from the 14th Street and neighboring Shaw areas.
Another 75,000 were expected to be evicted during the subsequent five years, the report said, and the blows would keep on coming, year after year, unless the D.C. government did more to control the coming firestorm.
Nevertheless, in 1981, a poll taken by The Washington Post found widespread agreement among black and white residents that gentrification would benefit not just black neighborhoods but race relations overall.
By a 4-to-1 margin, white people believed that moving into renovated black neighborhoods was a “good thing,” as the poll put it. For black residents, the higher their income, the more likely they were to agree.
Back then, the city was 76 percent black. Today, it is less than 50 percent. Instead of white residents moving into black neighborhoods and everyone living in harmony, rents rose, property taxes increased and, in many instances, black residents were forced out.
As for the hope of black residents that gentrification would create a more racially integrated city — that has proved to be little more than a pipe dream. At best, what has come about during the past 30 years has been a more intimate kind of desegregation. Far too often, the swanky new restaurants are filled with a few black millennials at one table and white millennials at another.
But who you are more likely to see along this gilded avenue, clustered at many of the sidewalk cafes, are groups of young white people. A new gourmet magazine might cast the scene as a feast on 14th Street. But for those who have been priced out of the neighborhood, it might look more like white folks just gobbling up the last pieces of a Chocolate City.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.