“Well,” says Judy, “It’s always a choice between urban decay or gentrification, right? I mean, cities aren’t capable of homeostasis.”
From Six Months, Three Days, Charlie Jane Anders
I recently moved back to DC. I live quietly and happily in a place I wouldn’t have walked alone at night in 2005. I enjoy going to games at the Nationals Park in an area of town where I wouldn’t have walked alone during the day in 2005. And I am writing this from a bustling café where Northwest meets Northeast, more than a mile north of the National Mall. This city has changed.
Garance Frank-Ruta’s Facts and Fictions of DC’s Gentrification, published in The Atlantic Cities, explores the development of the U Street corridor in Northwest DC. For those not familiar with U St., it’s a mix of brownstones and new construction, trendy bars and old school dives. It looks like this:
But Frank-Ruta cites this description of U Street by an early developer working there in 2000:
The violence was pretty bad back then. At least once a week there would be gunfire, and our construction crew would dive into the trenches that were being built as a water inlet for the project. The gunfire was so frequent that diving into the trenches became a weekly routine. To shield ourselves from the bullets, we built a large mountain of dirt between the project and the street and an armed security guard was hired to patrol the site 24 hours a day.
So how did it change? Why did it change? Frank-Ruta’s piece is worth a full read, but here’s my version of the key points:
- The black population declined before gentrification started; when gentrification started, the black population decline slowed. Why? Likely because the neighborhood became a safer, nicer place to live for everyone.
- Gay men might be first movers but strong leadership and good policy was instrumental to redevelopment. Frank-Ruta writes, “There was a city-run effort to develop the parcels of land over the Metro, condemn nuisance properties, increase taxes on buildings left vacant for years, and push for new construction on the plethora of empty lots that peppered the neighborhood, the 1968 riots’ ancient scabbed over scars.” The city also put in place a first-time homebuyers tax credit that encouraged yuppies to buy and fix up homes. As Frank-Ruta notes, “a 2005 study by the Fannie Mae Foundation found that a third of the run-up in housing prices in D.C. between 1997 and 2001 could be attributed directly to the new tax [credit] policy.” Frank-Ruta doesn’t get into the mechanics of why these policies worked or the extent to which they did, but I’ll take a look at that later this week.
- Good policy doesn’t make up for bad neighbors. “Eventually the drug dealing across the street became such a problem that the properties were condemned. ‘After the third bust in the winter of 2001, bulldozers were called in by the city the very next day and the houses were demolished. The day after that the street filled with residents and neighbors, some of whom had lived in the area for 50 years but had been afraid to come outside,’” recalled Smith [an early developer].
- While re-development requires cleaning out the bad (#3), it doesn’t have to be about clearing out the old. It can build on it. As Frank-Ruta points out, some of the popular old school establishments—like Ben’s Chili Bowl and Flordia Avenue Grill—have increased in popularity since the area has been revitalized. Florida Avenue Grill has opened a second location and has plans for a third. And many of the new establishments have ties to the cultural past of the area—from Busboys and Poets to Marvin. And the area is richer for it.
The re-development of DC has been a sustained effort, spanning more than a decade and multiple changes in the mayorship. Frank-Ruta’s piece focuses on the re-development, not on those displaced, or the change to areas to which they relocated. And it raises as many questions as it answers: To what extent did the economic policies DC put in place work? Or was the economic tailwind DC caught necessary? Under what conditions would the U Street approach to re-development work elsewhere? Why do we care that economic activity is concentrated in cities? Will we still care about this in the future? This week I’ll be exploring some of these questions. In honor of my new (old) city.