Changing D.C. neighborhoods, and our role in it

This story has been making the rounds today, and it’s one of the most insightful, patient, probing, personal stories on DC neighborhoods and the changes happening in them that I’ve read in the 5 years we’ve lived here. (I’m steering clear of the loaded “G” word.)

“In my mind, the changes that are happening still need to continue, but we need to make sure that we embrace people, because if you don’t, it’s going to be—this is a heavy word—but it’s going to be like a holocaust effect. If you get people to come in and take over, it’s going to be like a slavery takeover. You just got people that take over and don’t care about the mindset of the people, and they just try to kill off everything that doesn’t belong or look like them.”

I don’t want to go on too long about this topic because it’s something I’ve been wanting to write about at length here. But for starters, though I’ve never ever considered us “urban pioneers” or used that somewhat silly term to describe pretty much anyone I know, I never fully grasped just how offensive and borderline racist it sounds when talking about people moving into neglected DC neighborhoods. The subhead on the story made that point in a way I don’t think I can ever forget:

How can you be called an urban pioneer when you move to an inner-city neighborhood where families have lived for generations?

Our short one-block Petworth street has only 13 houses on it. My neighbors on either side (whom we have gotten to know and love dearly) have both been here more than 35 years, through thick and thin. Four of the 13 houses (including ours) have turned over in the last 2 years, either partial or total reno jobs. And all 4 have white folks living in them now, in a census block area that’s at least 85% black last time I checked.

Our street is a pretty good microcosm of the changes happening in Petworth (and much of DC.)

We can’t control the overall changes happening in this city and the social forces leading many people back to the city and others away from it. This comment on the story summed up how I think we both feel these days:

“Coming from a similar background, I’ve thought a lot about gentrification and changes on and around H for some time. Some time ago, however, after meeting a critical mass of my neighbors and engaging in community activities, I decided to stop with the gentrifier hand wringing and just focus on being a good neighbor and valuable member of the community. Attitude has so much to do with it”

We can try to be good neighbors; always remembering that most families on our street have lived here a long time and we’re brand new to this street and neighborhood. We can always take the time to stop and smile and say hello and yes sir and no ma’am. We can defer to our neighbors and look for ways to serve and be humble as newcomers. We can offer to help with their yard or take the trash out. We can show up on the front doorstep with a loaf of banana bread or shovel their walk too when it snows.

They’ve seen this street change dramatically in just a few years. Our long-time neighbors have seen it all, and when talking to Mr. Robinson or Ms. Richards next door or Mr. Huff down the street, may we, at least from time to time, try to see our street through their eyes.

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