Two sides to every city: Washington DC in the era of gentrification

8 mins read

Washington DC is a city fighting to hold onto its culture and identity in the midst of rising housing costs, taxes and an influx of non-native residents.

It’s Saturday morning in the nation’s capital. Sunlight falls on the city. People go about their daily hustle and bustle, be it running errands, meeting friends at brunch, or going out for a morning jog. On this late summer day, mixtures of cultures, races, backgrounds, and classes, frolic in the hodgepodge of neighborhoods that make up Washington DC.

For many residents, namely natives, the shock-and-awe of it all seems to be never-ending. You see, as gentrification appears to be an ever-growing phenomenon — the heart and soul of DC — the very thing that makes this city great is being pushed aside for grandiose dreams of becoming a mini New York City.

However, DC is becoming a mini NYC with its bold cyclists and pedestrians who think they own the road with a “trendy” shop on every corner, natives feel like they have offered their city as a second home for transplants. In return, they have been bullied to the point that they are forced to comply with the ways of living of newcomers. Even down to the temporary cessation of Go-Go music playing from the Metro PCS storefront in the Shaw area before legislation passed to bring it back.

Now, for all of the backlash that gentrification has gotten, it also proves to be beneficial to the city because it also generates revenue and creates jobs.

This photo story paints a personal picture of home and the effects of gentrification — good, bad, and indifferent — from the new hipster hotspots on Shaw and U Street, to the seemingly forgotten areas of Anacostia and Congress Heights that looks to be the last leg of ‘The Gentrification Tour.” This piece tells the story of the scars it’s left and the hope it can bring. Each photograph narrates a story, telling of its beginning, the end, and the aftermath. Most importantly, it asks a question: Where do we, as a city, go from here … United or divided?

NIGHTFALL AT THE CAPITAL. Originally discovered as untended swampland, Benjamin Banneker assisted in surveying Washington, DC, in 1791 under the supervision of Major Ellicott and Pierre L’Enfant to become the capital of this nation. L’Enfant abruptly left in the planning process, but Banneker redrew the plans of the whole layout of the city in two days.

DC would later become the hub for all things political, even housing the most powerful figures in the world. This building is one of the few that remains intact. Photo credit: Arm Locus

MURAL ON FLORIDA AVENUE. This is one of many murals sprawled across the city. DC has always been an artistic metropolis. With the influx of new residents, including established artists this contribution attempts to show the city in a more modern, progressive light resembling one of the larger cities like New York or Chicago. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

COOL DISCO DAN – A DC LEGEND. On the very same street, next to the “Ode to Washington” mural is a memorial in honor of graffiti artist, Dan Hogg, better known to the city as Cool Disco Dan whose claim to fame was tagging buildings and walls throughout the city in the 80s and 90s.

For years, you couldn’t ride the Red Line train without seeing Cool Disco Dan’s name. Later in his life, he would be recognized for his work and even noted as a “DC Legend.” Disco Dan passed away in 2017, but you still see his works in the mix of all the street art that exists now. The soul remains. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

U STREET. Many consider this street as the center and launching point of the gentrification movement. Always a hip strip, U Street went from shoeshine joints, jazz clubs, and beauty parlors to boutiques, hipster bars, and hotsy-totsy eateries spanning its 5-block radius. The original mom-and-pop shops are few and far between. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

BEN’S CHILI BOWL. Opened on August 22, 1958, by Ben and Virginia Ali, this restaurant is one of the original, remaining DC staples known for its famous chili dog. Ben’s Chili Bowl carries the legacy of being a commune for black culture, history, and character. Attracting celebrities from far and wide whenever they touched down into the city, including Barack Obama and Pope Francis VI, Ben’s Chili Bowl still stands on U Street. As a way to expand, the Ali family opened the nightspot, Ben’s Next Door, at a new location on H Street NE. Both establishments remain, to this day. The line fills out the door with tourists hungry to experience what residents have enjoyed for years, good food and a piece of history. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

THE NIGHTSPOT FORMERLY KNOWN AS BOHEMIAN CAVERNS. Founded in 1926, the former jazz club that started in a drugstore basement and housed musical legends such as John Coltrane and Ramsey Lewis did not have the same luck as Ben’s. Operating on-and-off for many years, the club tried to keep up with the changes of U Street but ended up closing for good in 2016. The site will now be a new nightclub that has yet to be named. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

WE REMINISCE OVER YOU. Local artist, Aniekan, created a mural at the old Bohemian Caverns site in tribute to the days that were. Back in the day, DC was a regular stop for famous artists and widely known for its appreciation for good music. This reputation makes the city proud. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

HENRY SOUL CAFÉ. Known for its famous sweet potato pie, this surviving, neighborhood establishment on the famous U Street, is also a staple. Even suffering a fire on June 2014, it remains. Henry Soul Cafe reopened in November 2016 to the delight of everyone in the area, including the gentrifiers. Today, customers still line up to sample their delicious Southern fare including the one pictured here. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

BARHOPPING. New residents, like the ones pictured here, traverse the strip looking for their next adventure. The advent of gentrification has brought new businesses that cater to the Gen-X/Gen-Y/Gen-Z generations as well as, new housing, such as the Atlantic Plumbing Building’s luxury apartments that overlook the soon-to-be patrons. Since gentrification has taken place, low-income populations in this area have dropped by as much as 57 percent according to a recent Census study. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

THE NEW U. Packed with boutiques, eateries and other storefronts, his U Street now flourishes with different kinds of fancies for every culture. From Nellie’s Sports Bar that caters to the LGBTQ Community to a 24-hour pizzeria serving late-night partygoers with the munchies. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

THE SUN SHINES ON THE STRIP. The street stays busy with the hustle and bustle of patrons frolicking up and down, to and through the intersection. On the corner is a Mexican eatery, Alero, most popular during the weekday, after work and on the weekends. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

THE OTHER SIDE OF GENTRIFICATION. While gentrification brings so many wonderful things, those who cannot enjoy what it offers continue to suffer in their dire situations. Not much attention is being given to the disenfranchised in this city. They just continue to get displaced further and further from their homes and into the outskirts of Prince George’s County or St. Mary’s County in Maryland. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

MLK AVENUE. This avenue represents the epicenter of where many feel gentrification skipped past them or is slowly making its way. Here in the Anacostia area of Washington, DC, poverty, unemployment and crime plague this neighborhood. This strip represents what gentrification can bring, but has yet to. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

ANACOSTIA AT NIGHT. Going down the 11th Street Bridge, you enter a town that is, in a way, its own world. Often the last priority on the city’s agenda, this neighborhood longs for proper healthcare and nutrition. Instead, the area is considered a ‘food desert’ with fast food joints, check-cashing places, and liquor stores are strewn on the streets. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

ANACOSTIA METRO STATION. Sitting on the infamous Green Line, this stop unfortunately represents the opposite end of the city’s spectrum as far as prosperity. It ironically sits on the same line as Shaw-Howard University and U-Street Cardozo, both located in more affluent areas. Riding this line, you genuinely see how both sides live.

GALLERY PLACE-CHINATOWN METRO STATION – THE DIVIDING LINE. This stop serves as the dividing line between NW and SE, Uptown and Downtown, Good and Bad. As the pictured cyclist travels around the two youths waiting on the bus to take them back home, this area in itself serves as the crossroads of gentrification. This stop has also been the center of trouble and many youth arrests. Considered “the meeting point”, the place where everyone congregates and rightfully so, it is also the melting pot. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

THE FAMOUS METRO PCS BUILDING ON 7TH STREET. This is more than just a place that sells phones and provides cellular service. It also sells Go-Go or PA tapes and, more importantly, a vibe for those who walk past it every day. It has had character spoofs from the hit show, Martin, to perform outside the store and dance with the passersby.

Recently, the storefront was embroiled in an incident where one of the residents who lived nearby complained about the music being too loud. Eventually, they filed a complaint to have the music permanently turned off. This is a prime example of when gentrification goes wrong. Their actions prompted outrage from native Washingtonians and sparked the ‘Don’t Mute DC’ movement. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

THE FAMOUS HOWARD THEATRE. Gentrification has also brought about the resurgence of famous DC landmarks such as the Howard Theatre. First opened in 1910, this famous music hall showcased many performers such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, James Brown, The Temptations and so on. Eventually, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Soon after, the theatre closed its doors. A private owner then purchased the theatre in 2006,fully renovated, and reopened it in 2012. It has since become a performing house for artists of all genres. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

JOSEPH YOUNGER, 75, A SECOND-GENERATION WASHINGTONIAN. Many native Washingtonians, such as my father-in-law, have witnessed the many changes this city has gone through firsthand. My father-in-law, in particular, spent his formative years in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC. This section, for quite some time, was predominantly Black while Anacostia was predominantly white. Somewhere along the way, the script flipped and, now, here he is, along with many of us, asking, “What next?” Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

DUPONT CIRCLE – NORTHWEST WASHINGTON. While some things change, some remain the same. Dupont Circle is one of the neighborhoods that has not flinched from gentrification. It has remained a hub of different cultures as well as ways of life, although the population is majority LGBTQ. It kept moving along and the same is to be said for our city.

While we cannot control gentrification’s overall effect on the city, we can control how it affects us individually and see to it that we do not allow gentrification to ever have a negative effect. Despite the cons, gentrification, overall, has been something that the city, as a whole, has enjoyed. Furthermore, it can have a great benefit on the city if done the right way. The modifications do make the District an attractive location for tourists, which, in turn, brings in more revenue and creates jobs. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

WOMAN LOOKS AFTER HER YOUNG. The bigger picture of gentrification is how it will affect future generations. Will they have DC as a place to call home? Or will they be tossed aside like so many of the displaced that gentrification has claimed? This is a question that the residents both native and new, young and old can come together and answer. Photo credit: Johnny & Crystal Brooks

Johnny & Crystal Brooks are both native Washingtonians and have been married for three years. Johnny has done previous photography work on subjects such as Willie Gary and others and has written for previous publications such as DCWeekly and Kicksclusive. The couple has a son, Omar, and resides in Northeast Washington.

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1 Comment

  1. Well, written. There are some sensitive issues that have been raised. Gentrification does not effectively address the problem of disenfranchisement. It also does not fully address the racism and bigotry that emblazons some of the motives behind gentrification. The mention of new jobs makes me cringe because I have to ask: How many jobs are going to people of color that are native to this city? What is being done so that generations of Washingtonians aren’t forced out of their homes and neighborhoods. Let’s not forget that the Mansion Murders are a result of gentrification. It may be a stretch, but you see this happen all the time when people of affluence and of another race/culture come in and the natives become resentful (see Native Son). Those that are resentful will prey on those people that have seemingly more money, taken property, and stolen a way of life that others cannot have.

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