Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Other Other City

I moved to DC about a year and a half ago with a bunch of friends from college. Mostly, we are white, and mostly, we live in the same sub-sections of the city (Wards 1 and 2), which contain a nice blend of low-rent, nightlife, and easy access to transportation. After moving here, I met others my age through the volunteer service I was a part of. Again, mostly white, mostly living in the same areas.

Coming to DC, I didn't realize I was a part of a major demographic shift for the city. The Washington Post reported recently that DC will soon no longer be a majority black city. Gentrification is quickly raising the rent in many of DC's neighborhoods (including the ones I live in) and condos, coffee shops, and high-end restaurants are popping up all over the place. My friends and I can walk safely around places that, ten years ago, we would never think to drive through.

This issue is usually framed as a "black vs. white" debate. (Especially during last election between then-Mayor Adrian Fenty and now-Mayor Vincent Gray.) But this assumption was recently picked apart by an article in the local City Paper called "Confessions of a Black D.C. Gentrifier," written by a college-educated reporter who did not grow up in DC, moved into the city for a good job and cheap rent, and happens to be black. I'm not going to try and outline all of the points of the article here because I won't do it justice, but I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the complexities of gentrification and demographic changes.

The author did offer up a new definition of gentrification, one based on class:
And because we live in a “nation of cowards” (as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder put it) where perhaps the only thing harder to talk about than race is class, it’s unsurprising that worries about gentrification boil down to white versus black, instead of educated and privileged versus uneducated and underserved.
I've always thought that privilege, rather than race, was the defining characteristic of a gentrifier. My friends and I are incredibly privileged, which gives us the opportunity to try to have it all: A good job, cheap rent, and a fun neighborhood. In this pursuit, we (not intentionally) push out others, less privileged, who have been here longer but do not have as many resources as we do.

But, this simplification does not capture the whole picture of what people my age moving into DC, usually for only a few years before we pick up and leave, are contributing to the area. Many, not all, but a majority, of my friends actually work in the community and are very engaged in trying to make this region a better place. We are all very privileged, but we also are trying to use this privilege to give back.

I have a very good sense of what is going on in the city because I have friends who work on a variety of different issues in local nonprofits.  Most of these people are either in volunteer programs like AmeriCorps, or doing Teach for America, or who have moved into other nonprofit work after completing these years of service. I also remain very connected to the local issues because of my job. The profile of the typical white gentrifier is one disconnected to his or her community, who works in the day and parties at night. This isn't a reality for most of the people I know.

DC is usually thought of as two cities: The Federal Government and the (mostly educated) people it attracts, including the multitude of political lobbyists and contractors, and the "Other City" of usually poor, usually black or Latino long-time residents of the city. (Mayor Gray ran on a platform of "One City" to unify these two sides.) While I do have friends who are a part of that "Federal City," I like to think I'm a part of the "Other Other City," a bridge between the two. I'm not here to work, drink, sleep, repeat, but I also have not grown up here and I'm certainly not a part of the underserved population. I'm not planning on staying here forever (nor are most of my friends), but I want to help make this city a better place while I am here.

My main question is, then, is this any better than the stereotypical gentrifier? I am still contributing to a demographic and economic shift (which is arguably not all bad), even if I am trying to "give back" in some way. Do the negative aspects of my socio-economic presence outweigh the positive benefits of the work I am doing? And if I am only planning on being here for a few years, can I really create any sort of lasting change?

These are questions I ask myself each day. I don't know the answers, and there probably aren't any. I hope this is a discussion we can have, though. It is probably the most important issue affecting this city, and most metropolitan areas. We need to do it right. What do you think?

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

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