The premise that brown and poor people were, for the most part, forced out of DC by direct economic pressures is an incomplete one. “A Hard Look at Gentrification” by Ta-Nehisi Coats, deconstructs this idea while touching on why the racial and class transformation of American inner-cities is such an emotionally charged topic for those of us who survived their decline.
Coats writes, “Black people have not owned much in this country. And yet, in the later years of the 20th century, we felt like we felt like we owned many of America’s great cities. We didn’t.” This is poignantly and correctly put.
It was devastatingly hard for people of color to thrive in the District in those years of abandon, so we lodged our aspirations elsewhere. Even as we came to “own the city” (in every sense but the most important in America), we stopped believing in the possibility of living well here. It just wasn’t plausible.
We found ourselves conflicted. We resented the abandonment, moral and literal, of those “flighters” who used to share in responsibility for this city. And we regarded warily (much as they regarded us) those who remained, cordoned off in their ghettos of privilege. Was theirs the same “garment of destiny” as ours?
At the same time, we couldn’t help but dream of quitting the city ourselves. Brown and poor people weren’t just forced out, but perhaps as importantly, we were coaxed out by the cynical incentives of despair. We were pulled towards places seemingly less toxic to dreams.
Those of us who lived in DC through its most soul-wrenched hours (whether by choice or by chance), own the joy and pain, the culture of this city. I literally ache for Chocolate City sometimes, for the people I came up with, for how this city was let to fall down on top of us. I experience Go-Go as no less than eulogy.
Gentrification is an emotionally charged subject, at least in part, because we feel we deserve recognition, a float in the parade of the inevitable. We have marked and been marked by this city. We deserve a sticker or t-shirt or exclusive rights to knowing glances, for loving DC when there was much less to love about it.
I’d settle for a plaque somewhere, perhaps over on Florida Ave next to Big Bear Cafe, that reads:
This is hallowed ground. Communities struggled here, fervently, and occasionally, triumphantly. There was remarkable beauty, in concert with and in defiance of the ugliness, long before there were manicured flower boxes and art walks. Some part of the soul of this city, of those qualities that drew you to it, is bound up deeply in the dying and dancing we did here. We suffered terrible decay so that you could rejoice in renaissance.