Endangered Species of D.C.

December 15, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

In Washington these days, one cannot avoid signs that a neighborhood is gentrifying. Some of them are obvious, like a bespectacled, helmeted white guy riding his bicycle home in the rush hour streets of a neighborhood that once was entirely black. Others are a little more subtle, like the appearance of a Cross-Fit gym. Gyms appear, I believe, when a neighborhood's population develops a critical mass of residents who work at desks. These new people need gyms to exercise. The displaced population, which tended to be people who worked on their feet and with their hands, felt no need to exercise when their workdays ended. They got as much exercise  as they wanted just earning a living.

When I see these gentrification signals, I think, of course, of the displaced people.  Theirs is a human tragedy, albeit not on the scale of, say, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzogovina. D.C.'s displaced people wind up living somewhere--not where they preferred, probably, but living nonetheless. And sometimes, though not always, they leave the old neighborhood with a significant chunk  of money, derived from the sale of grandma's house to the gentrifiers.

But what about the businesses that served the displaced population? They are the endangered species of this changing urban environment, and for them, the process is unrelentingly cruel. The storefronts pictured above are adjacent to a Cross-Fit gym called Second Wind that opened recently on the upper reaches of 14th Street NW. A little further down the block, there's a new restaurant in a building that was once a dry cleaners. It's got bare brick walls inside, cafe tables on the sidewalk outside, and a roasted acorn squash entree for $16. I wouldn't bet that Delicias Market II and Soap City USA are going to be able to stay on the block much longer.

That's because gentrification has a powerful and heartless ally, capitalism. As the neighborhood around 14th Street gentrifies, the gentrifiers bring different tastes, different needs. Since they have money, capitalism guarantees a response to these tastes and needs. In their renovated row houses, they'll have washers and driers. They won't need a laundromat. They'll drive to Whole Foods, or Wagshal's, or Wegman's, rather than pick up their frutas and vegetales at Delicias Market II, no doubt wary that the produce there might not be certified organic. (Indeed, there's been an announcement that a new Whole Foods will be opening in the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center complex, about a mile from Delicias Market II.) And so the revenue of these businesses will spiral down.

At the same time, their rents and property taxes will be going up. If there's one thing gentrification does, it's drive up property values. The city government in Washington talks a lot about fighting to maintain affordable housing supply. But it doesn't, as far as I know, mess with the system of real estate taxes. That system provides a a roaring, foaming spigot of money to the city government as gentrification proceeds. It also pushes out businesses that don't fit into gentrifying society. So, good-bye, Soap City USA. 

It is the economic equivalent of extinction.

Shed a tear or two for Chinese carry-outs. Like the one pictured above left, on 3rd Street NW, (with its doughty American flag on the counter), they all seem to have the word "dragon" in their names. Poorer neighborhoods all seem to have one. They are on my endangered D.C. species list because, as their neighborhoods gentrify, they'll disappear. In gentrified neighborhoods, as in the suburbs, people expect their Chinese dinners to be delivered. In pre-gentrification neighborhoods I suspect its harder to find drivers willing to walk up to a front door carrying money and food and ring the bell. So the folks there get by with carryouts, at least for a little longer.

Not all of D.C.'s endangered businesses are worthy of tears. I took the picture at right on H Street NE, one of the most rapidly gentrifying streets in the city. The beer and wine store that was known simply as 1101 is already gone. It's boarded up. In this picture, the words tell most of the story. On the left, there's a sign that says something about the neighborhood as it was. "DRUG FREE ZONE," it begins. Then come what Chinese carryout owners would probably call The Four Nos: "No Loitering, No Panhandling, No Drinking, No Drugs." And up above the roofline of old 1101 is a sign that foretells the fate of the building. It's attached to the new building next door, which is called "Eleven Eleven." It boasts of "Unparalleled Style," with one-bedroom units starting in the $400,000s and two-bedrooms in the $700,000s. Presumably, Eleven Eleven will not have a sign in front reminding residents of the Four Nos. People who can afford to live there might do drugs and will most likely drink, but they won't panhandle. They'll use their credit cards to rent a bike from Capitol Bikeshares and pedal to their desk jobs. After work, they'll sweat in the new Cross-Fit gym down the street, jumping onto and off of boxes until they puke.

Alcohol anchored the business models of a lot of the businesses that are going to be or already have been swept away by gentrification. Alcohol, after all, is one thing people will find the money for even when times are tight. These businesses also cashed paychecks and had ATMs for people without bank accounts, charging hefty fees for each service. The financial services will no longer be required. And the new residents will be looking for interesting wines from France, not liquor in half-pint, pocket-sized bottles. I won't much miss such places.

But I do worry about the fate of places like Hillman and Son Barbershop on H Street, with its handsome, mosaic sign (at left). Its window says it's been in business since 1948. The bars over the window, like the sign prohibiting loitering, drinking and drugs in front of the shop, suggest that surviving in business hasn't been without its challenges. But now Hillman and Son are up against perils more powerful than burglars or loiterers, perils that bars can't protect them from.

A sign in the window advertises that the shop specializes in cuts like "The Phillie" and "The Bush." What happens when the new people in the neighborhood aren't into The Phillie or The Bush? What happens when the rent goes up? I fear that Hillman and Son will disappear, perhaps to be replaced by a chain coffee shop or an "upscale boutique." Maybe Mr. Hillman's son, or whoever clips the last Phillie cut in the place will ponder the irony that a shop that survived the hard times, like the 1968 riot on H Street, couldn't survive the neighborhood's revival.


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