Last night I was scheduled to go on ONE DC’s Shaw Gentrification Tour. The two hour walking tour was billed as an opportunity to see “how one community is organizing itself to control the negative impact of development on long-time residents,” and to understand “more deeply the racial and economic impact that market rate priorities have on lower-income communities of color.” The organization, previously known as the Manna Community Development Corporation, now shares its name with a recent enormously large-scale movement whose mission is confined to the simple enough goal of “making poverty history.” If they are anything like The ONE Campaign, then District condo-developers better watch their back!
I figured this to be the ideal sort of event for me–young professional, predilection toward liberal guilt-trips–to attend. Additionally, I thought it would be nice to bring along, seeing after all as this was a walk all involving progressive white activists working with/for poorer black people: an actual black person! In particular, a wondrously well-adjusted epidemiologist of Tanzanian genealogy and British schooling whom I have somehow cajoled into braiding my younger brother’s unruly chi-fro (much like an afro, only more Chinese).
In classic form, I arrived to the event late. At approximately 6:15, I reached the Howard University exit of the Shaw metro stop, hoping to find a small group of non-Shaw residents looking at their watches or tapping their feet. There was neither. In their place, I met a large young man soliciting donations for his school’s football team, of which he played safety. I do not recall what a safety is, but I did ask him if he had seen a group (I was tempted to add “of white people”) congregated here 10 minutes ago. He hadn’t.
Earlier on, I had arranged to meet with my dear Tanzanian friend, who, in even more classic form, was just stepping on to the train and would be another half hour late. It was thus up to me to catch the walking gentrification lecture before they had gotten too far away! And, like a cat after his class-conscious sandal-wearing mice, I padded off.
In which direction would they have struck out? Debating the way I might structure such an event, I jogged down 7th Street toward Howard University, hub of African-American consciousness and youthful, lively part of the neighborhood. I figured the walk might move along thusly:
a) Parts of Shaw where Black people still live;
b) Parts of Shaw that are in the process of having Black folk pushed out by dastardly lighter-hued yuppies (and their Bianchi bikes)
c) Parts of Shaw which have gone the way of bleach and the icecream component of an icecream sandwich, and are quickly on their way towards $1,500+ rent.
I speed-walked along, whistling by folks arguing at the bus stop, joking outside the diner, all in the throes of early evening workweek activity. At each corner I surveyed the cross street, searching for my elusive target group. Those that bothered cast their own looks toward yours truly, mostly ones of muted reservation and weariness. Wearing a shirt whose manufacture date I’d estimate to fall close to the same year as my birth, plaid shorts and knee length striped brown socks (a carry-over from my work attire that day), I probably looked as though someone not only out of place, but possibly from outer space.
In attempting to locate the gentrification-watchers, I was looking for several things: one person pointing at a house as others nod thoughtfully, blocked footpaths, annoyed bike riders…but more than anything else: I was scouting for whitey. The anti-gentrification movement might wish to see itself as united across racial and class lines, but with events like this, it seems that such ‘sounds-good-in-ethics-class’ universal humanism doesn’t translate across so well to other Shaw residents.
I doubled down Florida Avenue, out towards the 9:30 club, at which point I did finally see a group of white people, but they were just lining up for that evening’s concert. I then tried part of the more gentrified western fringe of Shaw by Logan circle, looping through Winchester street but again coming up empty. It was around this point, given the lovely weather and time remaining before my friend arrived, that I decided to embark on Mark’s own personal, ‘do-it-yourself’, gentrification observation trip. I suppose that any regular traipse through Shaw could count as such, but on this particular walk, I had eyes peeled, ears tuned open, and socio-economic radar tuned to full-conscience potency!
I quickly realized that my tour didn’t require such intensive effort. The transformation of Shaw is as openly noticeable as a Mid-western tourist on the Blue line to anyone who cares to observe…a couple of closed-down small grocers. White dog-walkers cruising past wizened Black men seated outside old storefronts. The separation between East-African, African-American, and White-serving businesses around U street corridor. For goodness sake, there was a homeless man washing car windows on a newly polished street as a well-heeled yuppie strode loudly by.
I also encountered a couple of hidden jewels that are not so readily visible. There were a wealth and diversity of lawn and shop-window campaign signs regarding the upcoming DC mayoral election, suggesting strong civic engagement and the focus on affordable housing in Shaw from many of the candidates. Best of all, however, was a still-running checkers club that would not have looked out of place in the 1950s. It’s weather-beaten sign welcomed newcomers; however, the deep quietude inside and musty feel suggested a long, unbroken run of the same players since decades past.
Pleased with my observations, I scooped up my friend and we retired to my house to listen to Edith Piaf over gin and tonic. It’s truly a fascinating mix of race and culture, all wrapped tightly within the omnipresent, cosmic ball of capitalist momentum that drives change forward in this political artery of a neighborhood. How the city’s next mayor—Adrian Fenty and Linda Cropp, the two frontrunners, both speak of affordable housing and continued economic growth in the same breath–will balance these competing desires, as well as how Black homeowners weigh up the temptations of developer offers against the cultural integrity of their neighborhood, shall say much about the face of Shaw as it enters its next stage in DC’s constant process of neighborhood evo- and devolution.
As I stepped out towards the metro several hours later, I bumped into a small, scattered group walking along 7th. Sure enough, it was my gentrification tour, wrapping up after a successful walk. They numbered less than a dozen: a middle-aged couple, some indie activistas, all resembling lifestyles cultivated in whole grains and moral gravitas, all starkly white. Dave, the pony-tailed and Chaco-footed tour leader, gave me his email address.
A few minutes later, whilst mumbling over train waiting times, I joked with the Howard University student seated next to me.
“My roommate swears that we’d get better service if there were more white people riding the green line,” I told her.
“Ain’t that the truth!” she laughed, before boarding for Branch Avenue.
Now there’s one thing that all Shaw residents can look forward to.