Quick Stop to DC, or How I Learned to Anticipate Gentrification

trans character writing panel imageI just jumped into DC this weekend after an absence of a few years, taking a quick flight from Detroit while we’re still on vacation to attend an LGBTQ book festival on U Street. It’s been truly fantastic to see old friends and have the kinds of sincere conversations that are hard to find with people one meets in one’s forties instead of in one’s more vulnerable youth. I suppose we erect sturdy fortresses in the interim, but I’m not sure why or if that’s helpful for us.

The OutWrite festival was successful, and here it is only in its fourth year. It would have been nice to know before I left Walla Walla that I’d be responsible for bringing my own books to sell, because then I’d have had more than my reader’s copy with me. (Crossing fingers the Internet pulls through for me and people shop online to get them.) I was grateful to see so many familiar faces, people I’ve known from when I lived in the District and did earlier activism there, and get to meet some new folks who are doing interesting work in LGBT literature.

But U Street was almost unrecognizable to me. I encountered disorientation on every block, until some anchor in my memory would pipe up—There’s Ben’s Chili Bowl! There’s the Black Cat! That’s Dukem Ethiopian restaurant!—but for the most part the very cityline had shifted. Where once a sad used car lot hugged the curb on 14th Street between S and T, now there was a thriving oversized restaurant, Ted’s Bulletin, complete with 1940s and 50s throwback references that were not part of the neighborhood here in that time. What a wonderful white DC it was, beamed the business, with its homemade PopTarts and milkshakes served with the extra in the blender can. Was it?

Loft apartments had sprung up like bishop’s weed all along 14th, which had once been a warehouse district, and then a holdout for artist’s studios and a well known homeless shelter. The shelter had sold its property for several million dollars when I sill lived in DC, so nobody was surprised when the corridor turned over in that gentrifying way. But nothing could prepare me for the Trader Joes, its parking garage carefully guarded by a tall man in a uniform. Given that I now live 200 miles from the nearest Trader Joes store, I had some level of internal turmoil over this discovery on the street—should I run in screaming and grabbing the schoolhouse cookies and pork potstickers, or should I stand slack-jawed in horror at what has become of a city that was once 75 percent African American, and then 54 percent, and still falling?

Whatever happened to White Flight, and when did the Trader Joes executives decide they should make a foray into DC? I can still remember the headlines in The Washington Post about how few grocery stores remained in the city. Grocery stores. Simple places with small selections, curled around the corner of a block, catering to blue collar workers? Now the District boasts a Harris Teeter, a Trader Joes, its own Target. Instead of chitlins and pig feet folks can buy prettier processed food that speaks neither to any particular culinary heritage nor to the realities of living in a slowly recovering economy.

I was happy to see my old mates who are near the city but who don’t come into its confines all that often anymore. Many of our old haunts are gone, or have changed what and who they serve, and battling the traffic makes less sense to them. More than ever the traffic lights are a hair-trigger away from issuing a costly violation, the parking spots are as hard to find as ever, and the streets seem more crowded. I may sometimes slink into sullen thoughts about living in Walla Walla, but what’s now clear to me is that there’s no going back, either.


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Categories: Pop Culture, visiting


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