H Street, in Northwest Washington, is getting a makeover.
By NATALIE HOPKINSON
Published: June 23, 2012
“NOW, I’m not proud of what I did,” my friend Donna said the other day, her voice dropping to a low, confessional register.
Donna is black, in her late 40s and a graphic designer. Three generations of her family owned a Victorian row house in Washington until a probate dispute a while back forced them to rent in the Maryland suburbs. Driving home from work in the city recently, she took a shortcut through the alley where she frolicked in her youth, but which she now barely recognized, with its three-story decks and Zen gardens that led onto sidewalks freshly paved in red brick.
Donna tooted the horn at a parked car blocking her path. The car’s owner, a white woman, dawdled away in her garden nearby. With a blithe wave, the woman suggested a detour. Donna refused. She intended to wait her out, but then the words just tumbled out: “If you didn’t want to follow the rules, you shouldn’t have moved your white” — and here she used an expletive — “into D.C.!”
This is the rage, long simmering just beneath the surface, that is bubbling over now that Washington, the once-majority-black city immortalized in George Clinton’s 1975 funk classic “Chocolate City,” has lost its black majority. But even before the data corroborated that demographic milestone last year, Washington’s makeover had created something of an identity crisis.
Ever since Washington was carved from two slaveholding states in 1791, it has been a special place for black Americans. Lincoln freed the slaves in Washington about nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation, prompting blacks from the region to flock here. It was the birthplace of Duke Ellington and home to other artists like Zora Neale Hurston and Sterling Allen Brown, who later fueled the Harlem Renaissance. By 1957, blacks had become the majority of the city’s residents, exceeding numbers in any major city in the United States. Ever since Walter E. Washington was appointed mayor by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, the city has been led by black politicians and shaped by black institutions. This has fostered a sense of black privilege, swagger and, yes, the hubris that comes with leadership.
For the past half-century, the city’s black majority has also yielded a distinct culture. But in the midst of gentrification that is now fading fast. Last month, hundreds of mourners streamed into the Howard Theater to say goodbye to the late guitarist Chuck Brown, the godfather of go-go music, perhaps the city’s only indigenous art form. The music that Mr. Brown created was once ubiquitous here, but most newcomers today have never heard it.
The political landscape is changing, too: recent federal investigations have led to the downfall of several members of the city’s black leadership, from the City Council chairman, Kwame R. Brown, and the Ward 5 councilman Harry Thomas Jr., to two campaign aides for Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
During the decades that Washington had a black majority, national policy makers and investors left the city’s aging infrastructure for dead. So it is astonishing to witness the about-face that has accompanied the influx of white professionals in the past decade. Now there are urban-friendly transportation policies, lavish corporate spending on education and billions in private real estate investment and development. As residents finally get the city they have always deserved, many black Washingtonians are feeling the rage of the loyal first wife, kicked to the curb as soon as things started looking up.
Move out of the way!
Black privilege has always been relative. The city’s median black household income is $36,948; for whites it is $99,401. This demographic reality creates a crude, ethically charged math, and everyone who owns a stake in Washington calculates with it. The presence of white faces is the most reliable sign of the quality of a school. The more white people move in, the higher the property values go. The city’s population is growing, but each black family that leaves a school or neighborhood makes it richer.
IT was Donna who was in the way. “When you hear people say, ‘the good news is the neighborhood is being gentrified,’ it just makes you feel worthless,” Donna told me.
My own initiation in the ways of Chocolate City came nearly 20 years ago when, after growing up black in nearly all-white environments, I arrived in Washington as a freshman at historically black Howard University. The Washington I encountered then was a strange, alternate universe: I saw black schools taught by black teachers and run by black principals reporting to black superintendents. Black restaurants. Black hospitals run by black doctors and staff members. Black suburbs. Black judges ordering black police officers to deliver black suspects to black jail wardens. And of course a black-owned music industry, go-go.
In Washington, we were not “minorities,” with the whiff of inferiority that label carries; we were “normal.” For the first time in my life, I felt at home.
Of course, Chocolate Cities aren’t perfect. I do not accept responsibility for Mr. Thomas, who represented me on the City Council and went to jail for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from youth programs. He does not represent black people any more than the disgraced Illinois governor Rod R. Blagojevich represents white people.
But that’s what segregation does. It allows problems like corruption, dysfunction and poverty that are really historic, social and economic (and just plain old individual bad behavior) to be cast as a “black thing.” Segregated communities effectively quarantine all the American hurt, all the pain, all the history, and give it a “chocolate” label. Today, as the quality of life improves, there is a subtext to change, that in order to make progress, black people must be pushed out of the way. They had it for 50 years!
Some days, walking the streets of Washington, a seemingly colder place where people don’t always exchange greetings, I feel nostalgic for the days of black privilege that George Clinton crooned about. But given the warmth of many of my new neighbors of many races, I would like to see the transformation around me as racial progress. The change in attitudes that caused a generation of whites to release their fears and return to the urban centers their parents fled a generation ago is the same change in attitudes that allowed millions of white Americans, in the quiet sanctity of the voting booth, to vote for a black man named Barack Hussein Obama.
Change happens. Where this change ultimately leads I have no idea. As we do move it along, though, we would all do well to remember: Donna planted flowers, too.