American Prospect article is a how-to on writing about D.C. gentrification

It's small, but it's a pit bull. How confusing. (Flickr/Beverly & Pack)

If you live in the H Street corridor, you know you're on the front lines of gentrification in D.C. because, well, the media says so. But perhaps you live somewhere else — some sketchy neighborhood that's been largely ignored by Post feature writers — and you're wondering if you're a gentrifier or just another lonely, underpaid professional living in a poor area. Here's how to know: What dog breeds do you see?


That's what I gleaned, anyway, from the opening of "A City Divided," a recent American Prospect article that serves — from the title on down — as a how-to for journalists looking to write about economic inequality and racial tension in the "Chocolate City." It opens in Petworth, where a "longtime" (read: black) resident is sitting "on a blue cooler across from a new condominium building." “It used to be nothing but pit bulls and Rottweilers around here,” he says. “Now you got them little baby dogs, Jack Russells, Chihuahuas.” Translation: Black people like tough dogs, and white people like small ones.

I don't necessarily fault Adam Serwer for this descriptive lede; the stereotyping here is done mostly by the man he's quoting. But what follows is a tiring litany of gentrification signifiers: Capital Bikeshare stations (which he coyly describes without naming), organic supermarkets (competing with "decaying" Safeways), farmers markets (replacing "open-air "drug markets), and "upscale restaurants and chain stores" appearing in areas "once scarred by riots." Such a narrative approach — this replacing that — might have been acceptable, and even necessary, as journalistic shorthand several years ago, but now it smacks of laziness and repetition.

And then there's this:

Washington, D.C., has always been two cities. Washington spills out of downtown Metro stations at 8 A.M.; D.C. huddles on crowded buses at 6 A.M. On Sundays, when Washington goes to brunch, D.C. is in church. Washington clinks glasses in bars like Local 16 in its leisure time, while D.C. sweats out its perm at dance clubs like Love or DC Star. Washington has health-insurance benefits, but D.C. is paying out of pocket. Washington just closed on a condo; D.C. is in foreclosure. Washington is making money. D.C. never recovered from the 2001 recession.

So. If you're white, then you are "Washington," which means you live in an expensive condo and take the Metro to your high-paying job downtown, and you like to go out to packed bars — to drink out of glasses — and eat brunch every Sunday, and when you need to go to the doctor it only costs you a $10 copay. If you're black, then you're "D.C.," which means you live in a foreclosed home and take the bus to a job without benefits — that's not located downtown, by the way! — and on the weekends you like to go to packed nightclubs and, on Sunday, worship God. Oh, and you have a perm.

Having set up this "divided city" dichotomy, Serwer seems to imply that blacks and whites never lived side-by-side until recently, arguing that "in neighborhoods like Petworth and Columbia Heights, the two cities are no longer separate but parallel, close enough to smell each other’s breath but distant enough to avoid eye contact as they pass each other on the street." (How one can be close enough to smell another's breath and not be close enough to make eye contact is beyond me.)

I live in a neighborhood without a clear name, about five blocks west of RFK Stadium. We have a CaBi station at the Stadium Armory Metro. The nearest supermarket is a Safeway. In my immediate vicinity are two independent convenience stores, two barbershops, a liquor store and a pizza joint. I only occasionally "do brunch," and haven't been to Local 16 since I first moved here and didn't know any better. I've never been to a farmers market. I certainly don't own a condo, or even a car. I ride my own bike and the subway and the bus. I don't attend church, but have (white) friends who do.

Most importantly, I am not at all unique in this town. Like most people I know here, I'm part-"Washington" and part-"D.C." — at least as Serwer defines these supposedly incompatible identities — which only proves, I think, that making such a distinction is absurd, if not dishonest or even reckless. It's time we stopped framing the issue in such black and white terms — an awful pun for which I'd apologize if it didn't feel so apt here.

While I'm in my little corner of Washington, D.C., sitting on my cracked concrete patio in the evening, I say hello to every passerby who makes eye contact with me. I could share my casual observations about which neighbors say hi, and which ones don't — let's just say, the "longtime" ones are usually friendlier — but I'm not about to draw conclusions, however convenient it may be, about how these people spend their Sundays.