How to Be Less Bad


While walking home from dinner with friends the other night, I noticed this sign on a new storefront:

I was going to just post this dumb picture of this dumb sign with a headline like “I Hate This.” But it got me thinking about what I hated about it.

I live in Washington, D.C.’s H Street neighborhood, a historically black community that, over the past ten years, has been gentrified beyond all recognition by (AHEM) young white professionals.

The Whole Foods I shop at is located in a new high-rise apartment building named The Apollo—a reference to D.C.’s old Apollo Theatre, a cinema that opened in 1913. The Apollo contains said Whole Foods, a WeWork, a bike store, and an overpriced coffee shop that militantly does NOT have Wi-Fi. Now, a few blocks up the street, Apollo residents can get their sweat on at ElectionCycle, “a boutique luxury indoor spin studio.” Meanwhile, the character of the neighborhood as it was, as it was built by the people who called it home, perhaps for generations, is slowly covered up by cookie cutter signifiers of modern yuppie consumption and leisure habits. Gentrification is an infection, and I and my cohort the teeming, multiresistant bacteria.

D.C. developers, not generally known for their appreciation of mordant humor, love to name new condo developments after black people who could never have afforded to live in them in their own time. In 2012, The Root’s Stephen Crockett identified this phenomenon as cultural “swagger-jacking”:

There is a certain cultural vulturalism, an African American historical “swagger-jacking,” going on on U Street. It’s an inappropriate tradition of sorts that has rent increasing, black folks moving further out — sometimes by choice, sometimes not — while a faux black ethos remains.

Once we white gentrifiers internalize these critiques, we should ask ourselves questions about what, exactly, we’re doing to combat the unequal system we benefit from. Your (and my) white guilt over ordering craft cocktails at our gentrifying neighborhood’s newest faux-speakeasy doesn’t help anyone. Gentrification is problem larger than each of us, but each of us passively benefiting from the system should also be working in turn to push back against it.

Thankfully, there are a lot of organizations in D.C. to donate to and work with. Two I like are Thrive DC and ONE DC. Thrive provides hot meals, as well as clothing, showers, toiletries, haircuts and other social services to homeless and otherwise marginalized DC residents. (The D.C. government recently cut $400,000 from Thrive’s emergency meal program, so they could use your help.) ONE DC advocates for affordable housing, combats development projects that displace marginalized DC residents, and fights to hold police accountable.

Other organizations doing good works around the District: Bread for the City, Black Lives Matter DMV, Capital Area Food Bank, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop,CASA, Casa Ruby, CASS, Central Union Mission, CentroNía, DASH DC, Greater DC Diaper Bank, HIPS, Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, Martha’s Table, Metro DC DSA, SURJ DC, Whitman-Walker Health, and many others that I’m forgetting. (Disclosure: I have donated to and worked with some of these organizations. Please add your own suggestions in the comments!)

Of course, gentrification is a problem of economics and politics, not simply a question of the morals and intentions of new residents. The best way to fight it, to create livable and affordable communities for everyone, is by doing politics, at every level. If you’re feeling lost in the morass of city and community politics, don’t worry. The first step is learning which ward you live in. The second is staying abreast of local politics and supporting local media (I’m a fan of the newsletter 730 DC). The third step is attending your first Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting. The fourth step is finding a local organization to get involved with, whether that means through volunteering, fundraising, or organizing. The next steps are finding other ways to fight for actual solutions to the rot that cheekily named spin studios are mere symptoms of—including campaigning for the construction of huge amounts of public housing, and for policies in general that will reverse the perverse concentration of wealth that created this problem in the first place.

(The last step is the abolition of private property.)

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