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.

Shaw/U Street’s redevelopment has several benefits for longtime residents who are able to stay in the community. The crime rate has dropped as the property values have skyrocketed. New restaurants, grocery stores, and clothing and furniture outlets have opened. Also, community amenities, such as parks and libraries, have been upgraded. However, these improvements have come at a price for the longtime African American residents, as many have experienced political and cultural displacement.

The back-to-the-city movement, gentrification, and mixed-income development literatures have given residential displacement much greater attention than political and cultural displacement. Political displacement occurs when a long-standing racial or ethnic group “become(s) outvoted or outnumbered by new residents,” leading to the loss of decision-making power by the former group. Political displacement might occur in redeveloping areas when low-income people remain but become overpowered by upper-income newcomers.

There are at least four reasons why scholars and policy makers should be concerned with political displacement. First, evidence suggests that longstanding residents withdraw from public participation in gentrifying neighborhoods, and little is known about how and why this occurs. Second, decreased civic engagement among existing residents may make it more difficult for them to form potentially economically beneficial relationships with newcomers. Third, prior studies suggest that long-standing residents sometimes resent new neighborhood amenities, and an investigation of political displacement might help to explain the onset of resentment for amenities that, on the surface, seem to be community improvements.

Fourth, political displacement might relate to cultural displacement. Cultural displacement occurs when the norms, behaviors, and values of the new resident cohort dominate and prevail over the tastes and preferences of the original residents. While there may be points of common ground between old and new residents in redeveloping neighborhoods, often newcomers seek to establish new norms, behaviors, and amenities that align with their desires.

If this occurs, long-term residents may find that their community no longer resembles the place they once knew, and they may no longer identify with their neighborhood. With decreased attachment to place, low- and moderate-income residents might opt to leave economically transitioning neighborhoods, leading to their rapid conversion into homogeneous enclaves instead of integrated, mixed-income neighborhoods.

Go-Go, gone

Black Washingtonians invented go-go music in the 1970s. Go-go combines jazz, funk, R&B, hip-hop, and Caribbean sounds, and is recognizable by its repetitive beat and improvisation. It was once quite popular on U Street as late as the 1990s; however, with the community’s redevelopment and political shifts, many of U Street’s go-go clubs have shut down.

Jim Graham, supported mainly by Shaw/U Street’s new resident population, led the controversial political crusade to close local go-go clubs. Graham recalls, “There were people who said I was anti-go-go, and you know, actually I know nothing about go-go... it’s not about the music, it’s about the people who are attracted and then acted out from being there, it was about people. So we worked very hard... to close... a good half dozen really bad businesses.”

Christine, a White newcomer and president of the U Street Neighborhood Association, says, “I remember one day getting off the Metro and walking down the street, and I saw a flyer... that had a White man hanging by a noose, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, where am I living?’ Until I saw it was about Jim Graham and the go-go [controversy].” Christine, who has been extremely active in local politics, understands that longterm residents were resentful of their diminished political power: “I can understand why people are upset. That you take an area that even though it had been completely depressed, but has a history of being African American, and then all of a sudden all these outsiders are running it.”

With go-go gone, part of Shaw/U Street’s and DC’s Black history and culture has been erased from its streets. Author Natalie Hopkinson, a DC go-go historian, explains, “Go-go may be invisible to much of white Washington, but it’s as much a part of the city as [the] pillars and monument[s] of its federal face... Go-go is Washington.”

Furthermore, Kip Lornell and Charles Stephenson Jr., authors of The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C., maintain that “go-go provides a voice for members of D.C.’s often overlooked, much maligned, and disenfranchised African American community.”  With the political efforts to rid Shaw/U Street of go-go, aficionados of this musical genre must, for the most part, head to the DC suburbs to attend live performances of this District-conceived, African American form of cultural expression.

Ironically, some middle-income newcomers claim that they chose Shaw/U Street over other DC neighborhoods because of its racial diversity and Black history. Yet several recent arrivals engage in local politics to gain political power and advocate for changes that make it difficult for African American institutions. Dominic Moulden of Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE DC), expresses feelings that some longtime residents have when newcomers remark that their attraction to Shaw/U Street was based on its racial diversity and Black history: “Don’t tell me that you moved to this neighborhood because you wanted diversity. No, you moved here because you realized you got the numbers to change the culture.”

Yappy Hour

In November 2008, the Shaw/U Street community became the first in DC to have an official off-leash dog park. The fifteen-thousand-square-foot fenced enclosure contains peagravel and smallstone surfaces where dogs can roam freely. It likely cost the city well over a half a million dollars to construct.

Shaw/U Street’s dog park came about after extensive advocacy by newcomers, mainly White middle- and upper-income residents. With political pressures from newly White dominated ANCs and civic associations, the city agreed to build the amenity, one that has become part of the changing landscape in gentrifying areas. The Midcity Dog Park Committee helps provide funding for the park’s upkeep and sets the park’s rules, even though it is a publicly owned city space. On any given evening, the dog park is filled with newcomers. Its arrival has been associated with other subsequent community changes, such as nearby bars and hotels hosting “yappy hours,” where individuals show off their dogs while enjoying a drink.

Very few longtime African American dog owners use the park, and there is a perception that this newcomer amenity has been preferred over other local recreational spaces. The school playground, where the new dog park is located, also contains basketball courts and a soccer field. At the time of the dog park’s construction, no resources were dedicated to other playground amenities, which were in desperate need of upgrading. The soccer goals were askew, and the field was mainly dirt. The basketball courts had not been renovated since at least 1997, when DC’s professional basketball team changed its name from the Bullets, as indicated by the faded Bullets logo on the court’s worn surface.

Yet while soccer fields and basketball courts, which are oftenused by Hispanics and African Americans, are neglected, newcomer amenities are developed and upgraded. The physical juxtaposition of these amenities symbolizes tensions, political power, and cultural shifts occurring in Shaw/U Street.

Alienation, Resentment, and Withdrawal

Some long-term DC residents resent new infrastructure, such as bike lanes, bike-sharing systems, and dog parks. Marshall Brown, a political strategist and father of former DC City Council chair Kwame Brown, states, “They [the new white residents] want doggie parks and bike lanes. The result is a lot of tension. The new people believe more in their dogs than they do in people... This is not the District I knew. There’s no relationship with the black community. They don’t connect at the church, they don’t go to the same cafes, they don’t volunteer in the neighborhood school, and a lot of longtime black residents feel threatened.”

The feeling of being threatened is compounded by a sense of detachment and disillusionment that sets in when people do not feel comfortable in neighborhood spaces. For instance, Gloria Robinson, ONE DC’s affordable housing community organizer who used to live in the area, comments, “I just feel like, and this could be my own paranoia... when I’m walking through there, especially when the street sidewalks are bustling, it’s like folks are looking at me as if I don’t belong there. I’m serious! It may be my paranoia, but... that’s the feeling I get.” This feeling of not belonging anymore can lead to greater civic participation, as in Robinson’s case, but it can also lead to withdrawal.

One of the most noticeable and significant withdrawals from Shaw/U Street’s civic life is Walter Fauntroy. A lifelong resident, former pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, and former DC congressional representative, Fauntroy did more for Shaw/U Street and the city than any other African American political leader. In speaking about the recent redevelopment that has taken place, Fauntroy declares, “I can’t be caught up in a fight where the cards are stacked against you. [Shaw/U Street] should be a place where... people can all live together, but I gave up, quite frankly.”

When the person who has devoted his life’s work to maintaining and preserving Shaw/U Street says “I gave up,” something is clearly amiss. The political and cultural displacement in the community is severe, and current and former Black leaders as well as some low-income residents resent the changes that have taken place there in the last decade.

This excerpt has been edited for length. 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.