Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Revitalization in stages: Anacostia

The Post has another story on Anacostia, "Black professionals leading the charge of gentrification across Anacostia." With regard to the thesis as expressed in the headline, again I think it's important to think about "gentrification" in a more nuanced fashion than what typically occurs. From the article:

“I used to think it was about race — when white people moved into a black neighborhood,” said lawyer Charles Wilson, 35, president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association. (Wilson ran against Marion S. Barry Jr. in the 2008 Ward 8 City Council race.) “Then, I looked up the word. It’s when a middle-class person moves into a poor neighborhood, and I realized, I am a gentrifier. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t like that word. It makes so many people uncomfortable. The g-word.”

Of course gentrification is about money, not race, it's just that in the U.S., too many people think that people of color are usually poor and that's not the way it is.

When the article about the Uniontown Bar and Grill ran a few months ago ("Food, ambiance and a symbol of potential in Anacostia" from the Post), I was really struck by these paragraphs:

Dasher and the community's other entrepreneurs are not without their critics. Anthony Muhammad, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who is Muslim, was concerned that Uniontown would be serving alcohol and challenged Dasher's liquor license, delaying the restaurant's opening by several months.

In an interview, Muhammad raised concerns that Dasher, who signed a 10-year lease, and some of the younger professionals who are moving into the area were not sufficiently committed to the area.

"We've seen people come and go before," Muhammad said. "I just would like to know how long she will be in this community . . . and whether this is the type of business, one that serves alcohol and is surrounded by four churches and a school, we need to embrace."

In a blog entry, I wrote this:

People do come and go.

Part of it has to do with the attainment of critical mass and the ability of a group of people to overcome the inertia and force of disinvestment. People leave when they don't feel these forces can be overcome. (The article discusses factors that have contributed to the development of critical mass, without using that term.) But not understanding what contributes to this ebb and flow [of change] is a failure in part of the leadership capacities of people like Mr. Muhammad.

That point, about the attainment of critical mass of a group of people able to change a community, can be extended and sliced and diced by demographic. It needs to be further extended.

The attraction of nonmajority populations to "gentrifying" neighborhoods is a function of critical mass, comfort, and relative safety. Neighborhoods around Capitol Hill were attractive to new residents (north of Stanton Park, north of H Street, lower Trinidad in later stages, Lincoln Park, Hill East, etc.) even if apparently seemingly unsafe, because Capitol Hill was a relative stable community on which to build and extend outwards.

(E.g., the old stories about Union Station--"don't live east of 4th Street, it's not safe," then the boundary moved to 6th St., then to 8th St., then to 11th Street, etc. illustrate this process.)

For many years I've joked that I wished that I had Elijah Anderson's Code of the Street to read as a primer before I moved to Washington in 1987, because moving to a neighborhood (north of H Street NE) at a time when only a handful of whiteys lived there ended up being traumatic. I got my clock cleaned in many ways in terms of crime. When you are that much different you are a target, not unlike how the process is described by Anderson.

(Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City was published in 2000. It was outlined in The Atlantic in 1994, "Code of the Streets." Anderson published Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community in 1992.)

As the white population in the city increases, I predict that in later stages of black "middle class" in-migration to Anacostia, that a critical point will be reached when non-African American residents of choice start moving in in significant numbers as their concerns about safety are assuaged. That's at least 10 years away probably, a little faster maybe, if plans for Poplar Point come to fruition.

Although there aren't the same level of concerns about safety although plenty of concerns do exist, this is what's happening in Ward 4, in neighborhoods like Petworth, Brightwood, and Manor Park, where more white and Hispanics are moving in, exceeding the number of African-Americans moving out of the Ward.

I was talking with a PhD student last week, and she told me about Derek Hyra of the Virginia Tech Alexandria campus, and his thesis about the Shaw neighborhood being resistant to "gentrification." (Race and Redevelopment in our Nation’s Capital: Life in the Shaw/U-Street Neighborhood".)

I countered that it isn't resistant, merely this reflects a lag in time, of willingness to live there, to feel safe, driven by transit access and the fact that of all the city's subway lines, a fully operative and complete Green Line didn't open until 2001. Of course, I get an out until I get a chance to read his book, which is yet to be published.

Now, with new investment and development of condominiums on 14th Street and U Street, the neighborhood is definitely changing and it offers a long term example that is likely relevant to Anacostia, especially as transit connections there improve and the package of amenities expands, and as public safety improves as well.

So probably is "the brownstoning of Brooklyn" another example of how these processes work out in cycles over time. Harlem too--there is lots of complaint about white in-migration to Harlem (see "White and Hispanic people moving to NYC Harlem are a threat to the “indigenous” people" from the EU Times.)

GWU professor Suleiman Osman has published a book, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York on this phenomenon, which I haven't read yet either.

According to "Brownstone Brooklyn" from Dwell, "the book takes a look at the wave of "brownstoners" who moved into what was then known as "South Brooklyn" (you might now know it as Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Clinton HIll and other neighborhoods) in search of cheap real estate, a sense of neighborhoody history, and an antidote to suburban living."

There are a variety of methods to reposition neighborhoods. The issue is that the process of "ecological succession" outlined by E.W. Burgess in 1925 needs to be updated to take into account more intangible use values of place and the attractiveness of use values to people with choices. The ecological succession model is based on the idea that people with choice will always move outward, away from the core of the center city. Times are changing, at least like cities like DC and New York (at least for Manhattan and Brooklyn) where the tipping point or place of critical mass has been reached.

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