Divided City: The Dark Underbelly of Urban Renewal

Image: Silva

Everyone’s talking about how nice this city has become. But has it? Sure, going to a show and grabbing some greasy takeout food no longer means gathering 5 friends and watching each others’ backs each step of the way, but in neighborhoods where I once had to keep my distance from hard-asses throwing death stares my way, I‘m now subjected to yuppies keeping their distance from me when they see my multi-colored hair, ratty black clothes, and uncouth demeanor, with a look on their faces that says, “I thought we got rid of those people!”.

Obviously, the massively complicated Hydra-headed beast called gentrification can’t be comprehensively addressed in one article, so I will stick with the city I call home, Washington DC. I figured its notorious history of socioeconomic stratification made it as good an example as any. If you too have ever had a crackhead walk across 6 lanes of oncoming traffic 5 minutes from the White House to ask you for 2 dollars, you know what I’m talking about.

Whenever I hear talk of how nice DC has become, I can’t help wondering, nice for whom? With all the attention paid to ‘urban pioneers’, I’ve noticed a sore lack of air-time given to those whose roots are in this city, whose lives are entwined in it. I wanted to learn how gentrification is treating this significant yet unsung population.

What did I find out?

Unfortunately, not much. Plenty of people (including me) mouth off about displacement, but since the city has no system for tracking the reasons people vacate residences or where they go afterwards, we don’t actually know anything about it. Some Washington Post articles briefly mention families struggling to pay rent amidst rising housing costs, some of whom have moved to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs to reduce the financial crunch. Most blogs and forums provide more self-satisfied bravado than insight. Yes, young professionals and gratuitously expensive nightspots eager to take advantage of them are ubiquitous, and the impoverished natives are not in on it. DUH. These posts would hold my interest if they weren’t mostly written by the gentrifiers themselves as a vehicle for slippery moral speculations aimed at alleviating their guilt.

The Census Bureau and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reveal DC’s stunning set of contradictions: it has the highest median income and most competitive job market in America, yet also has one of America’s largest income gaps, a poverty rate 4 percent above the national average, and steadily rising unemployment and homelessness.

Like I asked before, nice for whom?

Even though my initial search dredged up barely any information, I still want to know more, and I don’t want to settle for conjecture. Anyone who’s looking can see the writing on the wall; the ever-increasing numbers of sleeping bodies on the sidewalks, the lines snaking around the block to snatch up what little low-income housing becomes available. But without more firsthand accounts and hard data, how is anyone supposed to know what has become of those getting the short end of the stick? How is anyone going to be able to help them?


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