White people’s wants

During the last mayoral election cycle in Washington, DC, I couldn’t walk ten feet before some campaigner would come up and accost me. Shopping at Eastern Market. Walking down H Street in Northeast to catch a bus. Drinking coffee at the tax-thieving, now-defunct Murky Coffee on 7th Street SE. It was at this last location that one of the candidates herself, Linda Cropp, came up to me to stump, one-on-one.

“I’m here today because I want to tell people that this is everyone’s city,” she said, a bright red baseball cap sporting her name perched lightly on her head, presumably so as not to mess her hair too much.

I wasn’t sure what she meant by everyone’s city. Back in 2006, home prices were skyrocketing and “everyone” was getting priced out of living in the expensive District.

“It’s a great time to live in DC,” she went on, explaining that city residents have a median income of $82,000.

“Actually,” I said, “that’s the median income for the DC metropolitan area, including Montgomery County in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia. The DC-only median income is under $30,000. And I disagree with your vote on the ballpark last year—that thing is going to cost us taxpayers way more than  $800 million.” I smiled, like tacking on a gold star to the end of a painful root canal.

She smiled thinly, thanked me for my time, and moved on. But I wondered about the catering I’d just had. Cropp, an African-American woman from Georgia, many years in DC politics, and she was reading me as another white gentrifier of a historically black city. And how could I argue with that? Wasn’t I white (as per the US Census), and wasn’t I making my home in a refurbished (well, kind of) 1930’s-era apartment building? Why shouldn’t she stump to my perceived interests?

Except they weren’t my interests, even as I called 13th Street NE my home. And I’d overheard plenty of entitled conversations from new DCists who thought that their mere presence was bettering the city around them in something like a 5-block radius. “I just got a raise, I’m so glad DC will have a quarter of it in taxes,” “This is my city now,” and other comments not worthy of the time it takes to type them.

Watching the racial demographics of the city shift, other conflicts began to rise up in the late Williams-era/early Fenty years. Let’s put microphones in “residential” areas so police can pinpoint where gun shots have been fired. Let’s crack down on kids lighting fireworks on the 4th of July—hoodlums! Let’s crack down on prostitutes, because Giulliani had the right idea. Let’s reassess homes, because a lot of people seem to own their houses outright and they shouldn’t get to skirt their contributions to the city.

Fifteen years ago the city was 70 percent African-American. Today it is barely above 50 percent. Twenty thousand people of color left the city last year, and approximately 40,000 white people moved in. With them have come the Harris Teeter groceries, a Target store, loads more coffee houses (still no Pacific Northwest-style drive through espressos, though), and plenty more overpriced little bistros and eateries. During our vacation last week we shared one salad and each had a tea and a small dessert. $45, no kidding. I’d plunked money down like that before, but my salary was strong, so I didn’t flinch too much at it, even as a nagging doubt that I was getting ripped off could be heard in the recesses of my retail-addled brain.

Is this the city for everyone? Is this anyone’s vision? The gay strip bars of Southeast are gone, having been displaced for the brand-new, immediately awful Washington Nationals baseball team. Loads of condo building are still in some state of erection, all around the stadium. Where they’ve knocked down historic row houses they’re now putting up old-looking, new townhomes, a Rockwell version of DC. The people who staff services in the city—the hotel housekeepers, the baristas, the employees at that gleaming Harris Teeter—can’t afford to live in the city anymore, so they find 60s-era apartments in neighboring counties and ride into town, where they used to live. Crosstown buses aren’t as crowded anymore, with the white folk driving in carpools or biking. Whatever it takes to feel Grrrreat! about taking up city space.

If there were ever a bill that expressed the dire financial condition of a DC and the revised alignment of its politic, it’s got to be the nickel surcharge for all plastic and paper bags that went into effect this year. Doesn’t everyone have three or four Whole Foods canvas bags for their groceries? They’re only $10 each! Don’t we all love our planet enough to get rid of plastic bags? As for paper, well, you’re too far gone if you like those, or you’re trying to hide your 40-ounce malt. Those people should have to pay more, anyway.

Hey, DC’s H Street commission banned buying one 40-ounce a few years ago, even as they didn’t ban buying a six-pack of microbrew hefeweisen. I could see where things were going even then. Interest-only mortgages were the hot item, and the new owners didn’t like seeing drunk guys in Carhart jackets standing around on the sidewalks. It ruined their views of the other new apartment buildings. I’d moved into the neighborhood myself, a bit north of Lincoln Park, a couple blocks south of the H Street corridor.

“It’s up and coming,” one lady on the sidewalk told me as I was moving in. She was standing next to a woodpile. I found this odd because it was early September.

“Is it? That’s nice,” I said, sweating. September in DC is akin to the fourth circle of Hell, for those of you who have never experienced either. I can’t really recommend it.

I asked her why she had so much hardwood on her front lawn. Her brown brick house looked tiny compared to the apartment building that abetted it.

She explained that she’d thought she was paying for it to be stacked next to her house, but that the deliverymen had just dumped it and left. So I stacked the cord for her, and split several—okay many—of the bigger logs for her. Unbeknown to me, all the little old ladies of the street watched me, probably with one eyebrow raised in question as to my integrity. I passed the test, and I noticed that they—I was told to refer to them as old-timers for their age and longevity on the block—would always give me a head nod or hello when I saw them. I wasn’t sure I was very different from any other neighborhood newbie, but I tried to be respectful and appreciative of the history they had here. I was probably going to be just a blip in the time span of this place, and as it turned out, 5 years does equate to blip status. When I needed help a few months later getting a new mattress into my 3rd floor walkup, one of the old timers sent her grandson out to help me. He did look a little perturbed at first, especially upon seeing the narrow stairwells, but he and I got the mattress to the top and I gave him 10 bucks for his trouble. And two brownies, one of which I told him to give to his grandmother.

I miss having a neighborhood. I’m certain parts of Walla Walla have them, with their little give-and-take agreements: your kid can play on my lawn, do you mind if I park my car here this week, how about going into building a fence with me. But living right next to the campus recycling center, and a student building, we are not primed for friendly neighbors. So I wonder what has happened to 12th and 13th Streets NE, where I lived by myself and then with Susanne. I wonder who lives in my old apartments, and if they’re as tentative about the space they occupy as I was. I wonder when it will be when I have real neighbors again. And I wonder what is happening to DC, and if it is losing itself as it loses the people who have held its history for so long.

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Categories: coffee, visiting


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One Comment on “White people’s wants”

  1. January 13, 2010 at 10:03 am #

    You were right on about the stadium–even if the Nationals turned out to be a decent team.

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