I was reading a review of an art exhibition in the Washington Post recently when a detail startled me. It was the address of the gallery hosting the exhibit, a gallery called Civilian Art Projects. I looked again to make sure I had read correctly. I had. The gallery is located in the 4700 block of 14th Street NW in Washington. The address startled me because I used to live around the corner from that block, and in the days when I lived there, if someone had told me there was a gallery on 14th Street, I would have been afraid it was a shooting gallery.
Gentrification, I know, is an old story by now. But my old neighborhood was, I had thought, so far from the epicenter of DC gentrification that it seemed unlikely to be touched. It was a place of solid, two-story dun brick rowhouses with front stoops and sleeping porches, built early in the 20th Century; that's the sort of housing stock gentrifiers like to say "has potential." But it was much too far from downtown to walk to work; it was too far from a Metro stop to make using the subway very practical.
It was a neighborhood of blue-collar African-American families when I bought a house in 1976. I wasn't so much a gentrifier as poor. I worked as a reporter for the Associated Press, and the salary wasn't great. My wife and I paid $59,500 for a rowhouse at 1508 Crittenden St. NW. It had four small bedrooms, two baths, one of which leaked, mice, and a fireplace in the living room. There was even a garage. There was no place else in the city where that sort of space was available for that sort of money, at least not in a neighborhood that seemed halfway safe.
Our immediate neighbors were solid citizens. George Dodson and his wife owned 1510. They were fastidious homeowners; the furniture in their living room was covered at all times in clear plastic. Mr. Dodson was retired from a career in the federal government; he had been the chauffeur for Earl Warren, the Supreme Court chief justice who presided over the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ended (legal) school segregation in the United States. I figured that Mr. Dodson would have had a soft spot in his heart for Earl Warren because of that, but when I asked him about it one time, he said Warren was a mean man who made him work on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I guess few men are heroes to their drivers.
We sold the house for about $90,000 in 1985, in part because of a temporary move to New York, but mainly because we had, by then, a son quickly approaching school age. None of the neighbors spoke well of the local public school, so there didn't seem to be any point in holding onto the house. There were no charter schools in Washington then, and private schools seemed unaffordable. We became suburbanites.
Over the ensuing years, I would occasionally drive through the old neighborhood. Not much of anything looked different. The maroon paint on the trim of my old house was never replaced; it just flaked. So it was startling to think of an art gallery in the neighborhood. My curiosity piqued, I went down to an artists' talk at the gallery. A few days later, I came back to take some pictures.
The signs of gentrification encroachment were easy to spot. The gallery has taken the space once occupied by a hair salon that catered to African-American women. Next to the gallery there's a used furniture store called "Rough and Ready," meeting the needs of young couples on a budget trying to furnish big row houses. In front of the furniture store there's a new dock for the bright red bikes of Capital Bikeshares. The corner store that was occupied by a Korean grocer who did business behind a bulletproof plexiglass shield when I lived in the neighborhood now houses a business that sells solar heating panels to renovating home owners.
In the 1400 block of Buchanan Street, NW, there is a house with a popup under construction, a third story being added to a two-story rowhouse in a block of two-story rowhouses. Popups are becoming gentrification's architectural signature in D.C. They signify that speculators think the underlying land is too valuable to hold only the square footage in an old row house. They can't build out, so they build up.
The Buchanan Street popup, I noticed, had instantly spawned another phenomenon I never saw when I lived in the neighborhood, a NIMBY protest. People with existing renovated homes like the one pictured at right, apparently don't like popups.
As I photographed the popup, another sure sign of gentrification rolled by on 15th Street NW--a little white boy on a scooter. His father, named Damon, was walking his dog, Ned, as his son, Eliot, rode. Damon, who moved in in 2008, said that he operates an export business from his house. His wife works downtown. The neighborhood is full of kids, he said, and neighbors get along well for the most part. (He also gave a sensible reason for opposing popups. He and his wife had invested in solar panels for the roof of their rowhouse. If someone erected a popup, the shadow would block his solar energy.)
Based on what Damon told me, I would guess that the demographic transformation of the neighborhood is all but inevitable. The house I sold for $90,000 three decades ago would sell for $600,000 or $700,000 today. As the older African-American residents age and pass away, their houses go on the market. The pool of people interested in living in the neighborhood (which, by the way, realtors now call 16th Street Heights) and possessing the means to buy a $700,000 house is going to look different from the pool of people who moved in with George Dodson.
It's worth noting that this would not be the first sweeping change in the neighborhood. One would have to have a sharp eye to see it now, but the neighborhood was once largely Jewish. There was a mezuzah case attached to the doorpost of 1508 Crittenden Street when I bought it. Up on 16th Street is the imposing gray stone home of an African-American congregation called, incongruously, the 19th Street Baptist Church. There is a cross atop the building now, but you can still see menorahs and six-pointed stars carved into the stone over windows and doors. The building was originally a synagogue. I guess that the 19th Street area downtown became too pricey for a black congregation at about the same time that the members of the original synagogue were moving to the suburbs. So the black congregation bought the building as the neighborhood was becoming black.
I would have asked George Dodson what he thought of all this change , but I know he passed away many years ago. However, as I was photographing on Buchanan Street, an African-American man with a white beard and a cap that said "Baltimore" walked slowly up toward me, carrying a brown-paper shopping bag, aided by a cane. I introduced myself, and we chatted. He said his name is Danny Goodwin, and his picture is at the top of this post. Mr. Goodwin is 72, probably about the same age George Dodson was when I moved in in 1976.
I asked Mr. Goodwin what he thought of the changes taking place in the neighborhood.
"I think it's wonderful," he said.
Did he mind the popup and renovations?
"No, it's progress. Everything around here is improving."
I asked him whether he was bothered that white people were moving in. He smiled.
"We're all the same," he said.
I thought about the sort of reception that black people got in America when they integrated white neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s. I don't think too many white people were telling black people that they represented progress and that all people were the same.
I understand that the black homeowners in what is now 16th Street Heights probably figure they (or their heirs) are going to profit from gentrification, while whites in the 1950s reacted to the assumption that their property values were going down. But still.
I just hope that as new owners move into 16th Street Heights in the years to come, and the neighborhood transitions peacefully to whatever its new identity will be, the new people realize how fortunate they were that the people they displaced were people like Danny Goodwin.