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‘Gentrification is Apartheid’

Panelists discussed the effects of gentrification throughout the District during a town hall at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast D.C. on Saturday, Dec. 14. PHOTO BY ROY LEWIS

Panelists discussed the effects of gentrification throughout the District during a town hall at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast D.C. on Saturday, Dec. 14. PHOTO BY ROY LEWIS

By Barrington M. Salmon
The Washington Informer

WASHINGTON — Until a few years ago, Black Washington, D.C., residents proudly called their city “Chocolate City,” at a time when more than 70 percent of the 528,000 residents were African American.

In the last few years, however, gentrification has spread across Washington, D.C. with a vengeance — transforming the city with a steady influx of 1,100 new residents a month. The complexion of neighborhoods have or are in the process of shifting from Black to white and multi-ethnic; meanwhile, long-time and middle-class residents, and others with more modest means, struggle to pay soaring rents. The cost of living continues to spiral upward and affordable housing for the most part is a pipe dream.

While Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins and city leaders crow about the city’s growth, the booming economy and the upward movement, beneath the surface, tensions between old and new residents, Blacks and whites, elites and the working class, simmer.

On Dec. 14, a number of these and other issues manifested themselves at D.C.’s Union Temple Baptist Church during an emergency meeting convened by the church’s pastor the Rev. Willie Wilson, Malik Zulu Shabbazz of Black Lawyers for Justice, and Al-Malik Farrakhan, founder of Cease Fire, Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters, Inc.

The town hall and public hearing’s title, “The Adverse Effects of Gentrification — Confronting the Crisis Facing Black Washington, D.C.” — illustrates just how dire the situation is, the conveners said.

“I’m delighted to be a part of this conversation today,” said Wilson during opening remarks at the Southeast church. “We will talk about classism and racism — two subjects we refuse to talk about in this country. People shun discussing race when it’s tied to a certain race, then it becomes classism.”

“We’ll be handling this in a very intelligent and informed manner and there are resource people here to help.”

Wilson used the analogy of grapes and gripes to say that while listeners would have a forum to aim their gripes, the focus would be on using the information aired at the meeting to devise workable solutions to stem the current of change that deeply affects and continues to marginalize people of color in the District.

Several hundred residents — most living east of the Anacostia River — participated in the forum, filling the church to capacity.

“It’s that time. Either we stand up or we’ll be washed out of the city,” said Shabazz, 47. “We had to convene this panel because the elected officials haven’t represented us. We’re looking at gentrification and Black population removal. Seventy-five percent of D.C. in 1990 was Black. In 2013, it’s 48 percent and declining. That’s a crisis.”

“Every month, 4,000 residents move in and 1,000 move out. The repercussion of Black population reduction is having a devastating effect on the city, the people, our lives.”

Shabazz pointed to a conspiracy between city leaders, billionaire developers downtown, the National Capital Planning Commission, (the Federal City Council) and others which have brought the city’s Black residents to this point. Many of the speakers said that it’s not that they don’t want to see their city improve and grow, but they said they have been priced out of the city and the amenities other D.C. residents take for granted aren’t available for them. But Wilson and others said that Blacks have been complicit in their own demise.

“John Henrik Clarke said that European conquests of the minds of Africans and people of African descent is the greatest conquest that (Europeans) have made. In Ward 8, police sit in certain areas 24-7. We’ve been here all these years and never seen that. We didn’t see street sweepers and all of a sudden, we see them everyday. This was planned and calculated 30 years ago,” Wilson said.

Activists and residents talked about the effects of the lingering recession with its resultant job losses, foreclosures and increased property taxes which have seen significant numbers of Blacks and Latinos lose their homes and other vagaries of gentrification. In addition, there is an affordable housing crisis that’s overwhelming low and middle-class residents.

Affordable housing advocate David C. Bowers said the H Street and U Street corridors, which have been transformed by gentrification, have produced a phenomenon that’s pricing out long-term residents and those with modest incomes, even as about 20 percent of D.C. residents already spend half of every dollar they bring home on housing.

Gentrification and the massive boon to accommodate the influx of tens of thousands of new residents to D.C. have fueled a housing shortage for middle and lower-income residents. Those with higher incomes have snapped up houses at such a rate that it has exacerbated the shortage which regional officials and public and private partners are struggling to correct.

“Twenty percent of the population in the city and the region are paying 50 percent of their incomes on rent; and the fair-market price for rent in this region has increased by 70 percent over the past 10 years,” said Bowers, vice president and Washington Impact Market Leader for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., in Northwest. “It’s a severe problem. We’ve lost affordable housing units in D.C. and Northern Virginia and as we’ve lost units, rents have increased and incomes have not kept pace.”

The situation is further aggravated by the fact the District of Columbia boasts the highest rents in the country. The District and the rest of the Washington metropolitan region, is emblematic of the difficulties moderate and low-income residents face as they try to find affordable housing, Bowers said.

Residents also spoke bitterly about what is often now called “racial micro-aggressions” — defined as “the everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.” That could be something like calling the police because some people are sitting on their stoop, or because Black churchgoers double-park on Sunday mornings or Black residents being made to feel that they don’t belong in their neighborhood by newcomers.

Renowned scholar and psychologist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing said she finds herself in that position at her home in Northwest.

“Black people are complaining about the pain of being pushed out,” she said. “This is happening in Philadelphia, Detroit and New York. They are experiencing the pain of removal while whites are moving into the city. Gentrification equals accommodating white people’s desire for dog parks and bicycles. (No one) is responsive to Black people’s interests and needs or resolving black people’s concerns.”

“If indeed and in fact this is what gentrification is about, then this is apartheid. The media supposedly acts as if apartheid has ended but the dynamics of gentrification as ‘apartness’ is alive, well and stomping forward.”

Welsing, 78, a child psychologist and author of the Isis Papers, recounted her encounter with gentrification.

“I’m a Black female homeowner living in my home for 40 years and for three years, my house has been bombarded with noise from the playground (of the school next door). There is no peace. Strangely, no one in power has been able to do anything but they are taken care of. My problem is a microcosm. ‘Why should Black people be experiencing this in 2013?’”

Other speakers said the encroachment of gentrification is reflected in school closings, the inability of qualified Black contractors to win bids despite $450 million set aside for minority contractors, and the protracted crisis in public housing.

Residents acknowledged the ongoing tension and conflict that bubbles just below the surface in so many interactions, but they refused to be cowed or pushed out.

“If not, what are Black people going to have?” Welsing asked. “We must be recognized, respected and our issues prioritized and resolved without delay as quickly as dog parks are built. People who do not respect themselves will not be respected.”

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