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Eye on the News

Jerry Weinberger
Gentrifying Washington, D.C.
The nation’s capital city is becoming friendlier and more diverse.
4 November 2011

While smoking my cigar on the third-story rear deck of my townhouse on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., I heard the knocking growl of a combustion engine suffering too much torque and too little gas. First thought: a big diesel using its compression brake. But looking over the balcony, I saw in the alley below an aging Mitsubishi Gallant, its rear taillight out, starting and stopping in contorted fits. When the car jerked and died again, a young man jumped out of the shotgun side and said something through the window to his companion behind the wheel. He was thin, white, and wore a short beard and a straw porkpie hat.

Have the driver go easier off the clutch, I yelled down to him. “I hope we’re not bothering you,” he called back. “I’m teaching my girlfriend how to drive a stick shift.” The driver made three or four more attempts, and with the last one the car lurched around the alley corner. More growling ensued as the driver tried to turn the car around, and then, as the car came back into view, I saw the girlfriend: twentysomething, too, beautiful, and black. Intent though she was on her driving, she looked up and smiled when I waved. I gave her a thumbs-up the first time she got clutch and gas about right, and just then my next-door neighbor’s wife, a native of England, drove up to her garage. When she got out, she said to the girlfriend: “I see you’re learning how to drive a standard-transmission car. Not many people know how today, but I do, because that’s all we had in England when I started to drive. Good luck; you’ll get the hang of it.” Soon the driver did, and I cheered, and the young couple drove off, the woman behind the wheel beaming with pride.

I’ve heard a lot of talk in D.C. of late about the worsening “racial divide” in the city. The divide is real, which is why locals refer to the city’s northwest quadrant as “North White.” But much of the current talk reflects the fact that D.C.’s scandal-ridden, largely African-American political elite is scared out of its wits by the 2010 census. Gentrification has moved across the city like a wildfire, and in just a few years, if the trend continues, Washington will no longer be a majority-black city. (Some say that’s already happened.) Just ten years ago, the area from the Southeast Freeway to the Anacostia River, from the Navy Yard to the beautiful new baseball stadium, was a sea of public housing wracked by crime, drugs, and violence. That’s all gone now, replaced by new office buildings, townhouse projects, condos and lofts, and the magnificent new Yards Park along the river. One in three of the new townhouses is government-subsidized, but to get one, you can’t have any felony convictions on your record. Just a few years ago, H Street Northeast was dangerous and dilapidated; now, it’s a new version of Adams Morgan, with theaters, nightclubs, restaurants, bars, and throngs of young folks crowding the streets at night. The same goes for Eighth Street near Eastern Market on Capitol Hill. Just a decade ago the home of gangbangers and prostitutes, it’s a thriving scene where a new restaurant opens almost once a month.

For an example of how frightened the traditional political elites are by all this, take the father of city council head Kwame Brown, who in April was fired from the election committee of another council candidate when he went on a rant against white people. The “new white voters,” he said, “want doggie parks and bike lanes. . . . The new people believe more in their dogs than they do in people. They go to their little cafés, go out and throw their snowballs. This is not the District I knew.” Commenting on the squalid administration of Mayor Vincent Gray, an ally of former mayor Adrian Fenty—the mixed-race, pro-development reformer who took on the teachers’ union and paid the price—warned in the Washington Post that the D.C. political class must get its act together and confront the “shifting demographics” that “cloud” the city’s future.

Much of the African-American demographic decline can be traced to the way lower- and middle-income blacks are moving to the suburbs, just as whites did after World War II. As a result, Maryland’s Prince George’s County is now the wealthiest majority-black county in the United States. (The gangsters from Yards Park also moved there, which accounts for most of the county’s crime.) But it’s just not true that D.C.’s racial divide is getting worse. Despite the African-American exodus—amounting to 100,000 people since 1990, according to a CBS Baltimore article on the 2010 census—the D.C. population grew by 30,000 residents over the same period. Many of the newcomers are well-off whites, while others are Hispanic, African, Asian, and multiracial. Immigrants now account for over 20 percent of D.C.’s metro-area population, according to a 2011 Brookings report, The Geography of Immigrant Skills. A recent article in the Washington Post, “A Region Remade,” reports that in 2010, just one in three neighborhoods in D.C. was highly segregated, with more than 85 percent of the residents of the same race or ethnicity. D.C. is becoming more diverse and undivided, not less.

A recent trip to Yards Park with my two-year-old grandson and his parents tells the tale. The park holds a festival on the first Sunday of every month. People open booths and put on shows, including one by the trapeze school located in the park, and kids can play and cool off in a water fountain with jets that spurt up and down randomly. What a human hodgepodge: one little girl was watched over by tattooed parents sporting green and bright-red hair. For all I know, they could have been stockbrokers or physicists: it’s getting harder and harder in America to tell a book by its cover. Two black kids were supervised by their dad. One little Jewish girl was overseen and photographed by her Orthodox parents (he with kipah and tzitzit, she with long dress and a wig). Some Iranians were minding their kids. Young people abounded, but plenty of middle-aged and older people were there, too.

Afterward, we got lunch at an Eastern Market pizzeria owned by Frenchmen who had imported a wood-burning oven from back home. Again, a racial and ethnic mélange: a black couple sat next to us, he with cool glasses and she, maybe six feet tall, in a dashiki and an enormous afro. Elsewhere were Indians, Hispanics, guys with three-foot-long dreadlocks, white yuppies, and older whites.

All of this reflects the findings of an astonishing and little-noted 2010 study of intermarriage by the Pew Research Center. In 2008, according to Pew, almost 15 percent of new marriages in the U.S. were between spouses of different races or ethnicities. Nine percent of white newlyweds, 16 percent of black, 26 percent of Hispanic, and a whopping 31 percent of Asian had married “out.” Moreover, 35 percent of all U.S. adults reported having a family member married to someone of a different race. And even more mind-boggling to anyone who remembers 1967—the year the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional—was that 63 percent of survey respondents reported that it would be fine if a family member married “out.” At this rate, it won’t take many generations before the concept of race stops making sense to Americans.

True, Northwest D.C. is still pretty much North White. But with the trends reported by Pew, that’s likely to change in the future. “Gentrification” won’t mean “whiteification”; plenty of the affluent types who move to the city will be mixed-race couples and their children. Lots of middle-class and professional blacks will remain in the city, moreover—in neighborhoods of their own, or dispersed in integrated neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, or as urban pioneers in the once crack-ravaged Anacostia neighborhood.

The fate of the dysfunctional and fatherless black underclass is likely to remain grim. Like their brethren across the country today, they’ll be invisible to both political parties, and in D.C., they’ll be confined to pockets of murder and mayhem, with no one to look after their interests—as if anyone, including former mayor Marion Barry and his ilk, ever did. That sad fact notwithstanding, the heyday of the American city lies before us, not behind—and it’s diverse, not divided. The driving lesson behind my house—mixing black, porkpie white, and English immigrant—said it all.

Jerry Weinberger is a University Distinguished Professor of political science at Michigan State University, the director of the LeFrak Forum at Michigan State, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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