Last week, the D.C. Council rejected by a 7-to-6 vote the Bowser administration’s proposal to build a new campus for Banneker on vacant property in the Shaw neighborhood. In a letter to council members, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) noted “weeks of protests in Shaw against gentrification and displacement” — a reference to a recent uproar over new arrivals in a luxury apartment complaining about go-go music playing on a neighborhood phone store’s outdoor speakers. In that context, Bowser said she was “shocked” that seven members had signed a letter telling Banneker students, families and staff that “they need to stay put in their current location.”
Banneker needs and deserves a larger campus, she asserted in a subsequent newsletter, noting that it “has served as a unique source of opportunity for black students, particularly our young, black women.”
There was a barely veiled, combustible inference in Bowser’s criticism: Members of a gentrified Shaw neighborhood were opposed to a mostly black student body landing on their turf because they wanted a stand-alone middle school of their own.
It’s sad to see iconic Banneker embroiled in this racially tinged dispute.
Benjamin Banneker Academic High School is more than a successful D.C. public alternative school known for its rigor and deep academic experiences. It has produced generations of graduates who went on to form the backbone of this city. Banneker was a junior high school when I attended Francis Junior High and Dunbar High School in the ’50s; on the occasion of the 40th reunion of the Class of 1955, I wrote about its scores of success stories.
When public school officials made the case for moving the highly selective but crowded Banneker, burdened with an inadequate heating system and poor infrastructure, into a new, up-to-date building in Shaw, many cheered.
But there was another factor: City leaders had previously talked about building a middle school on the Shaw grounds, and local residents saw that as a promise that ought to be kept.
And so battle lines were drawn.
It would be wrong to suggest that a new Shaw middle school would benefit mostly children of a gentrified community. Of the children at Cleveland, Garrison, Seaton and Thomson elementary schools, which would feed into a Shaw Middle School, 44 percent are black, 37 percent are Hispanic and 9 percent are white. Forty-five percent are considered at-risk, and 14 percent receive special education.
That is hardly a picture of a gentrified community’s progeny.
And note that Ibrahim Mumin — a 42-year resident of Shaw, parent of two children who graduated from Shaw Junior High, and an active participant in the civic and community life in the Shaw neighborhood — testified before the council to support the new middle school. A newcomer he is not.
His testimony raises the question: Why can’t the city build an educational campus in the Shaw community that includes a middle school and a new Banneker High School? The millions that the council majority would set aside to renovate Banneker would go a long way toward construction of a new school in Shaw. Mumin told the council that if the Bowser administration wants to pursue that idea, the mayor should bring together “stakeholders from both Shaw and Banneker to explore that possibility.” A sensible first step, it seems to me.
Now, a word or two about gentrification.
There’s a notion afoot that middle-class white people invaded the city by stealth, and over the opposition of city leaders. ’Taint true.
Lest we forget, it was the stated goal of the D.C. government nearly 20 years ago to bring in 100,000 new residents. District leaders wanted middle-class people to move into town to help grow a shaky D.C. tax base. To accommodate them, the city took an active role in development, selling or leasing publicly owned land, changing zoning laws, closing alleys and providing developers with inducements to construct new — or refurbish old — buildings.
And it was done; the city’s population grew by 100,000 between 2000 and 2015, and it’s still growing.
City officials knew — or should have known — that successful gentrification would put upward pressure on rents and housing values. They knew — or should have known — that poor folks were therefore going to be forced out of their neighborhoods, with resultant racial and class tensions. But they kept on keeping on because new tax revenue generated by newly minted D.C. taxpayers kept the lights on and the economic engine running.
The District was slow to create or preserve affordable housing stock to take in the displaced. The city is now trying to make up for the crisis that it helped bring on.
So, let’s have a little less hypocrisy and a lot more honesty about what helped get us to where we are.
And quit posturing. Turn, instead, to the business of equitably addressing the legitimate needs of both the deserving Banneker students and the Shaw public school stakeholders. That’s where our energy belongs.
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