How displacement and renovation is affecting the heart of the nation’s capital.
Formerly known as “Black Broadway” or the “Harlem of D.C.,” the Shaw community prospered, having been built off of self-reliant economic, social, civic, and cultural beliefs. It was the center of Black businesses, entertainment, religion, and education in Washington, D.C.
This influential Black neighborhood birthed Washington, D.C.’s Black Renaissance, served as a prominent symbol of Black culture, and represented Black social mobility, perseverance, and tradition.
Things are changing, however. Mom and pop shops are closing their doors as modern and expensive coffee shops and restaurants open theirs. Millennials are speeding up and down the busy sidewalks on electric scooters. The music that once engulfed the streets is now replaced by the loud sounds of construction workers drilling and hammering, working to transform apartment buildings and homes into condos that will sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And residents, who grew up here, are forced to move out, as they are unable to pay for the new reality of Shaw.
This shift in D.C.’s neighborhoods is a direct result of gentrification, which “is a powerful force that brings economic change in cities, often accompanied by extreme cultural and political displacement,” explained by Derek Hyra, Urban Policy Scholar.
Hyra analyzes that as the cost of housing increases and new businesses – catered to serving people who come from higher-economic levels – develop; existing residents, who are often Black, are displaced whether that be physically, culturally or politically. It prevents this group of people from benefiting from the economic growth and availability of services that comes from new investments.
Washington, D.C. has one of the nation’s highest displacement rates for low-income residents, according to a study done by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, which investigates social and economic disparities in the United States. Gentrification in the district started accelerating in the early 2000s when then-Mayor Anthony Williams set a goal of reversing decades of population decline by bringing in new residents. The district then implemented neighborhood investment strategies that would, in turn, attract working adults. By 2014, the population had increased by nearly 90,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, bringing in new faces, businesses, and income levels.
Shaw experienced tremendous demographic shifts as it redeveloped. All according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 1970s, the community was 90% Black. By 2010, the community was comprised of only 30% Blacks. As the Black population declined, the white percentage of newcomers skyrocketed. When the community received this influx of white newcomers, property values increased dramatically.
In 1995, according to The Washington Post, the median home price in Shaw was $147,000. Today it is upwards of $781,000. In 1979, the average family income was $50,089. Between 2010 and 2014 it was $145,096. These numbers only continue to rise.
As a result of investments in home improvement and development, infrastructure in Washington, D.C. has become altered, public property has been privatized, political representation has shifted, minority-owned businesses have been closing, and people of color have been neglected to accommodate the presence of the white newcomers.
One fairly new business is Grand Cata, Latin Wine Company. Started in March of 2016, Grand Cata, as explained by co-owner and co-founder, Pedro Rodriquez is “… a minority-owned wine business and we specialize in Latin American wines.” Rodriquez went on to explain, “We cater to a diverse clientele – Latino, African American, tourists, old, young, but the majority of customers are white.”
This can be largely due to the changes that Rodriquez has noticed since opening in 2016,
“There has been a complete shift in neighborhoods. Companies and investors are trying to bring in value to these streets. There used to be affordable housing and streets were African American majority, but now it’s different.”
Although he has seen this demographic shift, Rodriquez notes how “every day we get to meet such different people from such different walks of life,” and opening in the Jefferson Marketplace in Shaw was important because it was “a historical area that needed love.” Grand Cata is proud to bring the best of Latin American culture to this historic area.
Gentrification not only changes the kind of goods and services that local residents demand, but also affects the cost of doing business, making these smaller businesses no longer profitable. With this said, very few Black-owned businesses continue to represent the “old Shaw.”
Richard Lee, the current owner of Lee’s Flower and Card Shop in Shaw, explains that since its opening in the 1940s, his family has “witnessed too many surrounding businesses being forced to close.” Although this is upsetting for him, Lee notes that he and his family “are proud to be one of the last Black-owned businesses to date back to the 40s. We’ve been on U Street for more than 70 years, since 1945. My dad decided to open up his own shop… They called it Black Broadway at the time, it was like the mecca for black businesses… U Street was our street.”
He and his family have seen how gentrification has not only changed their building’s rent drastically but also the shift in their clientele. Lee described this whole process as “bittersweet,” but the successful company continues to be thankful every day that they are able to continue doing what they love and represent a mom and pop shop in what used to be “Black Broadway.”
Derek Hyra, one of the most respected gentrification researchers, studied and observed extensively these political, cultural, and social issues that gentrification has brought to areas like Shaw. Hyra explains,
“Even when low-income people are able to stay in place because there are sort of affordable income policies, there is this idea of political and cultural loss, that when newcomers come into the community, they are taking the positions, either the city council level, or neighborhood block groups, and that there is activism by these newcomers, that they are taking control of these parts of societies that cater to their tastes and preferences and not necessarily the preferences of the low-income people.”
Hyra notes that even though Washington, D.C. has affordable housing policies that keep people in place, there is still a sense of loss amongst the community because of new amenities coming in, or because of the political dynamic shifting for the newcomers. In Hyra’s words, “Just because this neighborhood is redeveloping, and people think this is a wonderful thing, long-term residents can’t even utilize the amenities because it is beyond their price points. There is this idea of commercial gentrification, where small mom and pop businesses leave because they can’t afford the rent and then new amenities come in that can, but what we don’t realize is that the low-income residents can’t afford these new expensive businesses.”
This creates micro-level segregation, as Hyra explains. On the surface, Shaw seems to be integrated, however, when delving deep into the neighborhood’s social fabric, it becomes clear that this is not true. Hyra comments, “Shaw looks integrated, but when you get into the civic institutions, the churches, the restaurants, the neighborhoods, it becomes segregated…”
According to Hrya’s novel “Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City,” the U Street Neighborhood Civic Association consists mainly of only white residents who are trying to enhance the economic viability of the neighborhood. The Organizing Neighborhood Equity or ONE D.C. is predominantly Black, whose members serve the interests of the low-income minority populations fighting to remain in the homes they grew up in. Only a handful of associations have mixed racial and economic compositions. Rather than a model of social integration, Shaw is actually a model of micro-level segregation.
Hyra ends with these last, thought-provoking comments,
“We’ve tried preventing residential displacement with public policy, but at the same time, what is the city doing for small mom and pop businesses? What is D.C. doing to prevent minority-owned businesses to go out of business? What about cultural or political representation changing for the newcomers? Not much. We have to break down social barriers, we have to facilitate social interaction across race and class differences, and we have to mitigate political and cultural displacement so that low-income people feel comfortable, feel valued – and then can start to benefit from being in this mixed-income environment.”
Gentrification exposes something that is often otherwise hidden: who gets to enjoy investments, and who does not. Gentrification demonstrates and shows which parts of a community are able to benefit from opportunities, whether that be respect to housing, public education, urban amenities, businesses, transit, or political representation, and which parts of communities that do not benefit from these new investments. Gentrification brings mixed opportunities and feelings to communities, especially within Washington, D.C., and it is important to understand from all sides how this renovation has affected all aspects of the nation’s capital.