Walk the walk


Several months ago, my roommate lost his wallet. His small bundle of leather, with cards, cash and miscellaneous tools of identification, had fallen out somewhere not far from the “Q” (a now mythical reference we use for our little home).

This being Shaw, I would not have held my breath awaiting its return any time soon. In fact, I would have started cancelling credit cards. However, pleasantly surprising as it must have been for him, my roommate had his wallet returned to him by a kindly fellow from the neighborhood, its contents perfectly intact. The man’s name, it turned out, was Stanley, and he was homeless.

Now, it goes without saying, but to have anybody return your lost wallet in Washington D.C. seems a particularly rare occurrence; even in Georgetown or Dupont I wouldn’t fancy my chances. But to have a homeless man in Shaw, someone for whom the amount of cash must have seemed exponentially more tempting, is truly a one in a million. It was a beautiful, honest action, and certainly one of the most principled acts I’ve come across here.

My roommate graciously thanked Stanley, and gave him a reasonable amount of cash as well as some blankets and old clothes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, however that wasn’t the last we’d see of Stanley. He would come by the house periodically following the incident, looking for a couple of dollars from one of us.

My roommate willingly doled out more cash a few more times, before  beginning to fear that he was fostering a dependency hand-out relationship of sorts, and thus made the conscious decision to stop. It was at this point that I intervened to help Stan out.

Stanley is a fairly short man of gentle disposition, much more consciously grounded in reality than the red-eyed and lost I see nearby, wandering the streets under the Sisyphean weight of stones of the crack rock variety. Of all of the homeless and vagrant I’ve spoken with, in DC and elsewhere, Stan came off as one of the most sincere and straight-forward.

We spoke briefly, and he explained that he’d been living in Shaw for the past 22 years.
“22 years?!,” I’d thought. “He’s been living here as long as I’ve been alive!,” a fact which is difficult to fathom until I took the time to consider the length of my entire life.Through some vagaries, I came to understand that Stanley had run into a bad patch of luck a few years back, and was now on the street.

And yet there I was, taking out a five dollar bill from my wallet as if I was the established member of society, and he merely some sort of passing vagabond. All things considered, American society being the sort of enlightened Western institute of freedom (of speech, if not from hunger) and suffrage (except, of course, if you live in D.C., the political capital of the nation) that it is, perhaps I am the more “established” one.

On another early evening, he came by with an old television and VCR set, and after some cajolement, Stanley convinced me into purchasing both off of him, for about $15. Though in hindsight I might have been gullible to his explanation that the church had given him the items, I bought them off him as a final “good karma-ish” deed. And, as Stanley had quite pragmatically pointed out, I would have more use for the items than he would in the near future.

After setting up the rudimentary system atop my room fridge, I found a video cassette inside the VCR.  It was “The Land Before Time.”
After this purchase, however, I too had reached the “threshold of good will” of my roommate, the favor that Stanley’s initial good deed had initially indebted the house as a matter of human decency. But of course, Stanley’s own needs have not diminished similarly. Basic needs being unmet, he continued to knock at our door for several months following, sometimes as late as 1am. After calling out my roommate’s name several times, he would leave.

My room is right next to the front door,  and so his voice echoed most directly into it. He never pleaded, just waited out in the cold for a moment before heading off. To where, I do not know. He hasn’t come by for several months now, and I doubt that he’ll return, the implicit knowledge that we no longer provide having been sufficiently communicated by the silence of our closed door.

But, in this most fierce of Winter cold snaps, I do wonder occasionally what has become of Stanley, the virtuous Shaw veteran who acted with a moral fortitude that many a CEO could learn from.

On the whole, the slam workshop was a success, and I’m glad I organized it. Though by no means a moment of spontaneous creative revelation or a mass poetic call-to-arms, the poets were well received and we had a better Q and A session than I had expected.

As I walked into Parkview Recreation Center, located on the other side of Howard University from my home, I passed three large murals. The individuals depicted — Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Frederick Douglas respectively – appeared immensely stern and wizened. As I rounded the corner of the building, I passed another one, of the African continent, with a black strip of folks in African costume running down its centre. Being Australian, South-east Asian, and holding acquaintance with people from each of the continents, I hoped that some sort of internal glint of “with-it-ness” might kick in. It did not, but rather, a kind of apologetic discomfort settled about my stomach.

However, upon entering the center, I was pleased to see that Delrica and Dwayne were already comfortably seated, joking around and bopping to the DJ’s hip-hop beats. It didn’t lessen the way I stood out as the sole non-black dude in the building, but I imagine subliminal waves of acceptability flowed from the heads of my two confident African-American friends and down into my hooded jacket.

This being a teen night, there was nobody in the main room, where we were to hold the event, bar two little boys of about six. Instead, the actual teens were huddled around a Playstation, shooting pool, braiding hair, play-fighting outside. After juggling measured returns to the playful boys’ soccer kicks, I helped set up chairs and was surprised to see that a handsome little crowd of about 25 to 30 teens had sat themselves down. I asked DJ SUPA RO to play his “hottest joints” in order to keep the seats warm, then nervously waited for the other poet to arrive, having driven the not insignificant distance down from Baltimore.


DJ Supa Ro keeping the crowd happy

At practically the stroke of eight o-clock, Chris arrived, as energetic as usual, slightly flustered, and carrying a bag of writing supplies.

“Have you ever done a workshop like this before?” I asked him, a thinly veiled question roughly translated as: “You’re an unabashedly white man about to perform in front of an entirely African-American collection of street-seasoned teens…can you handle it?”

He waved off my concern. Being a Special-Ed teacher in inner city Baltimore, I should have realized how wonderful Chris is with such audiences vastly different from the whiter, intellectual urbanites I encounter at weekly slams.

Delrica opened the workshop with a longer poem, before Dwayne B. and Chris took center stage, taking turns to introduce one another. Dwayne, who is undoubtedly one of the dopest cats to walk DC’s streets, was striking in his dark grey outfit of fedora, cable-knit mock turtleneck, baggy jeans and self-knitted scarf. He works for Cityworks, a neighborhood NGO performing youth HIV prevention, (making him essentially my hero) in between knitting scarves for all of his friends and recording albums (making him essentially my man-deity), and the youth nodded knowingly to his homespun themes of gang violence and class struggles. Dwayne exudes smarts and charisma, which is why I had been so excited to have him express interest in the workshop in the first place.

I was more worried, but also very interested, in seeing how the youth would reach to Chris’ poems. His delivery is manic, his delivery stream-of-consciousness quick, and he leaps and tumbles about in improv-dance fashion, a style not closely associated with the body rhythms of the Kanye Wests and Ying Yang Twins of contemporary BET rap programming. Additionally, I feared that his themes, such as childhood autism and disabled athletics, though not entirely alien, may bounce off of this particular audience with little impression. And yes…Chris, who competed earlier this year in the national poetry slam competition in Austin, with his long hair and effete mannerisms, is very white.

I was proved quite wrong again. The natural comedy of his theatrics brought visual relief to his performance, and the workshop was far better for the variety and diversity (in its multiple forms) that came from Dwayne and Chris’ perhaps unusual partnership. The young audience was indeed civil, if not exactly hollering from the stands. After the performance, having not developed a formal workshop, the poets opened the floor to questions, something that I, having partaken in my share of awkward workshop silences, found a little unnerving.

Dwayne and Chris on 'How to answer questions at a slam poetry workshop'
Dwayne and Chris on ‘How to answer questions at a slam poetry workshop’

Janice, who I’d coordinated the event with, threw in some early ‘gimmes’, following which came a slew of excellent, thoughtful questions from various fragments of the audience. Forgetting words mid-poem, finding inspiration, where to find events…Delrica, Dwayne and Chris handled the kids’ questions with enthusiasm, before ceding the floor to the organizers of the teen night and a DC parks and rec rep. As soon as the workshop concluded, and the kids’ dissipated, two junior-high age girls performed an impressive, effective routine which would have looked at-home behind a performing Beyonce or Fergie. I’ve come to love hip hop dance for its looseness and sassy, forthright sensuality, qualities so distinct from the nervous jerk of Black Cat dance nights, often frequented by white-bred men such as myself.


Chris, Delrica, Dwayne, and co-organizer Janice Wright

We took photos, before an enthusiastic brainstorm of future, larger slam workshops, or bringing in Culture Shock, whom I would consider the coolest dance troupe in this city.

I’m going to be around for at least another six months, so I hope to jump into more of this stuff. Though originally a product of class guilt, I’m beginning to see such civic engagement as something I like doing, as opposed to something self-tortured gentrifiers should be obliged to do. I love working with young people, and if they all offer as rewarding an audience as this one, I think many others in circles of new gentry the country over, far beyond the realms of Washington, would find refreshing. Next time, though, I’m going to try and hold something at the Kennedy Rec, involving as many community residents as possible in the planning. Some of whom I hope may be reading this very post.

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.