Image by University of Chicago Press used with permission.

American University professor Derek Hyra has released a new book, Race, Class,and Politics in the Cappuccino City, which looks at issues over racial, income, and other changes in the Shaw/U Street area as a microcosm of similar changes happening around the city and the nation. We are pleased to present a few excerpts. 

Wanda Henderson, who has long dreadlocks and a warm personality, comes from the lower-income segment of DC’s Black community. Much of her childhood was spent in a public housing project located just north of Shaw/U Street. For the last twenty years, she has owned and managed a local hair salon.

Henderson’s salon used to be at 1201 U Street; however, rising commercial rent prices forced her off the community’s main business thoroughfare. She chose the intersection of 7th and T Streets for her next location because of its cheaper rent; it also had high foot traffic, owing to the nearby Shaw/Howard Metro stop. Moreover, Henderson knew the owner of the building, and thought that after she established herself she might be able to make an offer to buy it.

Many of Henderson’s friends thought she was crazy to move her business to this particular location, as it had been an open-air drug market for decades. When Henderson first moved there, the area was full of illicit activity, forcing her to push through crowds of drug customers and loiterers to get to her shop. Despite all this, she operated a successful business catering mainly to the area’s moderate- and lower-income African American residents.

While Henderson grew up in the DC housing projects, Chip Ellis was part of DC’s Black elite. He graduated from Howard University, served as a public relations political appointee in the Clinton White House, and in 2000 founded Ellis Development Group, which specializes in mixed-use luxury residential and commercial DC developments. Since 2005, he had been trying to revitalize the block where Henderson’s hair shop was located, as well the nearby Howard Theater.

Ellis envisioned an upscale redevelopment for the area that would preserve its African American heritage. In 2005, his original project called for Radio One, Inc., one of the country’s largest Black-owned radio/media companies, to be the anchor commercial tenant. For a variety of reasons, including the decline in Radio One’s stock price, the company backed out of the deal. Ellis’s development team then secured another leading African American tenant, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), a college financial aid organization that supports African Americans attending historically Black colleges and universities. 

With UNCF on board as the lead tenant, in December 2010 construction began on Progression Place, a three-hundred-thousand-square-foot, transit-oriented, mixed-use development, including 180 luxury apartments, to be situated above the Shaw/Howard Metro stop. Progression Place would bring a major elite Black presence to the area; however, there was fear that the development might displace small Black-owned businesses. Referring to Ellis’s development project, Wanda Henderson said, “As for the business owners, it doesn’t give us much opportunity, because I doubt I’ll be able to afford it later.”

Chip Ellis’s upscale vision for Progression Place became clear to me after I attended a meeting that he and his development partner had scheduled with Organizing Neighborhood equity (ONE DC) on January 28, 2010. I was invited to the meeting by Dominic Moulden, ONE DC’s lead organizer, who had been working since 2005 on a community benefits agreement with Ellis. Ellis and his development partners had received over $23 million in city subsidies for Progression Place, and ONE DC wanted to ensure that low-income community members would benefit directly from this development. In 2007, it negotiated an agreement with Ellis in which his development group would provide over $750,000 for a community fund as well as affordable housing units and discounted commercial space at the new development site. 

The meeting took place in ONE DC’s conference room. Joining me there were Dominic Moulden; Pat, an African American ONE DC member and longtime subsidized housing resident in Shaw/U Street; Rosemary, a ONE DC organizer; Jessica, a ONE DC board member; Shari, another board member; and Meg, a Georgetown Law School student.

Ellis opened the conversation by saying, “We have the opportunity to make something great here that reflects the proud culture and history of this neighborhood.” He explained how the UNCF had saved the Progression Place project by choosing to locate their headquarters within this development. He emphasized that the UNCF selected this particular location because of the “history of the neighborhood” and its proximity to Howard University. Another benefit was that the UNCF had secured $5 million in tax abatements and relocation support from the city. Ellis next discussed how the UNCF planned to place a “College of Knowledge” in the base of the Progression Place building, which would likely be accessible to the community, “Black, White, or whoever.”

Steve, a White male who represented development partner Four Points, LLC, continued the discussion. He said that after six months of negotiations, the UNCF agreed to buy fifty thousand square feet of commercial space for approximately $34 million. He explained that because of the amount of square footage the UNCF required, the number of affordable housing units in Progression Place needed to be reduced from 45 to 31.

As Chip and Steve presented this information, Dominic, who was sitting next to me, pointed to the handout that compared the former and the current project, indicating the decreased number of affordable units. The developers noticed Dominic’s gesture, and stated that despite the reduction of affordable units, their “friends” at the DC planning office and in the deputy mayor’s office were backing the plan. The developers told ONE DC that to change the specifications of the project, they needed to get their planned unit development amended, which must be approved by both the planning office and the zoning commission. The developers then asked ONE DC for a formal letter of support for the revised development plans to help get the altered planned unit development passed.

Following an awkward silence and looks of disgust from the ONE DC members, Chip Ellis said, “We need to keep a focus on the type of impact this will have on the community.” He stressed that the youth of Shaw/U Street would see Progression Place’s office employees as role models and would be able to receive financial aid for college from the UNCF. Jessica snapped, “We will have no youth left in this community.” Ellis retorted, “i’m talking about the people going to school in this community. We have a lot of high schools in the area.”

Shari then asked Chip and Steve what would happen to the businesses currently located on the soon-to-be-redeveloped site. Ten percent of the commercial space would be subsidized, renting at 50 percent under market rate for the first three years, at 25 percent under market for years four and five, and at the market rate thereafter. This subsidized space was part of the community benefits agreement signed by the developers and ONE DC, but which local business would be occupying it had not been determined. All that remained at the development site were a Chinese takeout, a bodega, and Wanda Henderson’s hair salon.

Chip and Steve, along with the rest of us, knew that Wanda’s shop could have qualified as the “local” business for the subsidized commercial space. But rather than addressing her shop, Steve declared, “We’re not going to turn this block into the Gap [clothing store], and we don’t want this to become Connecticut Avenue,” a major commercial strip in the White part of town. Chip then interjected, “Let me be clear. I don’t want this to be a pawnshop either, or even Radio Shack for that matter. I’d rather see an art gallery. I want this to be a signature destination spot... I don’t want the Chinese takeout. It’s got bulletproof glass, and i don’t want to see that.” Shari understood that without a direct reference to incorporate Wanda’s shop, it likely was not going to be part of the new development. After the meeting she said, “We are going to lose the fabric of our community.”

While churches have significant meaning in the Black community, so too do Black-owned hair salons and barbershops. These spaces are critical arenas of African American identity and political dialogue. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a leading Black politics scholar, states, “Black hair rituals contribute to the notion of a common African American experience. This notion of commonality allows barbershops and beauty salons to function as racialized public spaces with the potential to contribute to the development of black politics.” She argues that Black hair shops can be power spaces that solidify racial identity and political ideology in African American communities. However, it appeared that Chip Ellis’s interests did not coincide with Wanda Henderson’s. She served the low- and moderate-income residents of the area, and he wanted art galleries.

On June 2, 2010, I heard from a ONE DC representative that Henderson had been told by the Progression Place development team that she had to move out. I immediately headed up the street from the ONE DC offices to talk with her. One of her employees said that she was meeting with someone in her office, a small room at the back of the salon. After a few minutes, Henderson called me into her back room. She knew why I was there. She said, “I haven’t told my staff yet. It’s hard to keep people together. I’m devastated.”

Henderson told me that the developers needed to get her out because of an unsafe structural beam; someone from the development team told her that she did not have to pay rent anymore, and that they would find her another location. They were going to pay her five or six months’ worth of rent to help her build out another shop. She claimed that this amount would not even come close to covering the cost of setting up her hair shop elsewhere, and she knew that once the developers got her out, she probably would not return to Progression Place. Henderson did not have any legal documentation, but knew that the developers had received a permit for construction that included plans to build around her establishment. She knew this was possible, because there were two buildings on the block that the developers did not own, and they were building around and over these spaces. Henderson’s was one of the only Black-owned businesses left on the block, and she did not understand why the developers could not work out something better for her. She told me that her dream had been to own the building containing her salon and remain on 7th Street.

As Henderson and I continued to talk, she said she would get a lawyer from the DC Bar Association, and would try to drum up political support from some of the African American city council members and ANC 2C commissioner Alex Padro. She asked me to comment on her strategy. I told her to imply to the developers that she had strong legal counsel, and then to seek political support. I also told her to continue paying her rent but with a certified check, to document that she was lease compliant. I further suggested that she ask the developers for legal documentation that the building was structurally unsound. This strategy seemed like it would buy her some time.

On July 31, I saw Henderson standing outside her shop. She explained that the developers were trying another tactic to get her out: a few days earlier, someone associated with the development team came by and asked her to sign a letter waiving her right of first refusal, which extended until her lease ended in 2013. She handed me the waiver letter and told me that she had spoken with Padro. He advised her not to sign, and connected her with some lawyers. I told her that she would eventually need to decide whether she wanted to continue to fight to remain at her current location or take the biggest payment she could get from the developers to move elsewhere. This was the second time the developers had tried to get her out. At this point, I was certain that the development team was going to drive her out to make room for Ellis’s upscale vision.

In November 2010, Wanda Henderson relocated her business further north up 7th Street to Georgia Avenue, a less desirable and less expensive location outside Shaw/U Street. The developers agreed to pay to build out a new space for her, but in exchange she likely gave up her right to return to Progression Place. The interactions between her and Chip Ellis illustrate that race is not the only important aspect driving community events and conditions. in this case, class interests—Ellis’s desire for iconic Black business ventures instead of ones catering directly to lower-income African American residents—help explain why Henderson’s beauty shop was displaced.

Image by University of Chicago Press used with permission.

This particular story, fortunately, has a happier ending (for now): As Hyra then explains in Chapter 8, thanks to the Community Benefits Agreement ONE DC negotiated, Wanda was able to return to 7th Street. But, Hyra says:

The hair salon’s long-term presence on 7th Street is not guaranteed, as the CBA affords henderson’s below-market rent only for five years. it will be critical that she has access to investment capital for making the strategic investments that will prepare her when market-rate payments go into effect. Ensuring that a greater number of long-term, small Black-owned businesses have access to capital and are prepared to adapt their business models as the neighborhood around them redevelops is necessary for facilitating more equitable outcomes in gentrifying communities.

Reprinted with permission from Race, Class,and Politics in the Cappuccino City by Derek S. Hyra, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2017 Derek Hyra. All rights reserved.