Last week, an article called “River Terrace is a modest jewel tucked away in NE Washington” ran in the Washington Post’s Real Estate section. The next day, DCist staff writer Christina Sturdivant, who grew up in River Terrace, wrote that article’s author left out a lot of important detail about the neighborhood. Christina, GGWash editorial board members Joanne Pierce and Dan Reed, and I recently talked about the matter. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
Jonathan: Hey everyone! Today we're talking about Christina’s article about River Terrace. Does anyone have thoughts they'd like to kick us off with?
Christina: I'd love to know what you all thought… the good and bad.
Dan: I deeply empathize with your frustration about the way River Terrace is portrayed in the media, as my family has lived in Petworth and Columbia Heights since emigrating here in the 1970s, and I have a hard time reconciling my experiences of those places growing up with how they are portrayed today.
That said, I also understand the goal of the Post's real estate neighborhood profiles—in the business of selling real estate ads, and the real estate section is a way to package those ads— and I recognize that their profiles of many area neighborhoods are very lacking in substance.
Not to say that it's all meaningless. I was inspired to become an architect because of Roger Lewis's column in the Real Estate section.
Joanne: The WaPo article really focuses on the stuff that “sells” like amenities, and erases a lot of history. More broadly, it disconnects a neighborhood from being a potential home, if that makes sense. It's selling the stuff inside the neighborhood. Will you have good schools, will you have parks?
Christina: I'm not a frequent reader of the Post's Real Estate section, but once I did learn how it functions, I think it was too late to contain my frustration… so that's why I wrote the post… for myself and my neighbors. Just because their way of doing things is erasing history, doesn't mean they shouldn't be called out on it every now and then.
Joanne: I don't see those goals as incompatible, either. Why can't Real Estate section articles like that one include interesting history?
Christina: Right, Joanne. That would be so much more appealing to me.
Dan: Maybe it's the lack of articles about River Terrace (or any other neighborhood) that means everything that appears about it must carry all this weight. if there were more stories about it, perhaps this article wouldn't be an issue because there would be places where people could learn about the history.
Joanne: It was unusual to me that the writer went to some length to talk to some residents, but as Christina pointed out, the neighborhood is 90% African American and the writer didn't talk to any of them. Why not?
Dan: In my own experience as a freelancer, there are a lot of people out there who would not speak to me because they didn't trust me or the publication I was writing for or simply did not want to be quoted. Particularly people of color. I'm not trying to make a generalization but I recognize that people might be sensitive about that.
Christina: To be fair, a friend told me that the Post did reach out to him for the article but he did not like their approach, so he said no. But even if he said no, there were hundreds more people who they could have asked. I'm sure someone would have said yes. I, for one, would have talked to them because I feel it’s important for my voice to be heard.
Joanne: I blame HGTV for some of this disconnection, btw.
I think one broader issue is that perhaps there are people looking to move into a neighborhood who don't want history. Or don't think it's important.
Dan: I agree that a lot of people really aren't interested in the broader context of where they live, regardless of where it is.
Jonathan: If you're trying to paint a certain type of picture, it can be pretty useful to leave context out.
Joanne: Yeah, and that picture has to appeal to the most people so it's going to be the nuts and bolts, like schools and parks.
Jonathan: Christina mentions the X2 and crime, and how the article doesn't mention the problems with either. In some neighborhoods, people want to ensure things like notorious bus routes don't end up going through their neighborhood. Here it's almost like the idea is to just forget that that kind of thing is there and maybe it'll go away.
Dan: I imagine there are residents who might like to see their neighborhood presented that way. Like, without problems. Especially if they know their neighborhood has a negative reputation to people from outside their neighborhood.
Joanne: Agreed. I think that's instinct. No one wants to see disparaging things about where they live.
Dan: To play devil's advocate, this article is the one time River Terrace gets to be presented the same as wealthy, white neighborhoods.
Christina: I mean, I get it. If I was listing my house (though I'll never sell my house in River Terrace) the negative aspects of the neighborhood wouldn’t be the first thing I mention. But as a buyer, I think I'd want to dig a little deeper into things like crime before I invest in a property… unlesss I'm just buying it to flip it.
Dan: You're totally right, Christina.
I've been doing real estate for a year on my own and, before that, informally helping my friends look for places. And I've been surprised that many people just don't do a lot of research before they move somewhere.
And some people do a tremendous amount of research. But it depends on the individual and what they're looking for. River Terrace is very affordable compared to neighborhoods west of the river, so some buyers may be willing to overlook certain issues in order to be able to buy a home
Christina: But even if they overlook the issues, shoudn't they know what they are?
Joanne: I think people should really want to know the neighborhood if they're considering moving in.
Joanne: They really should. Not just evaluating crime and things like that, but thinking about what they want to contribute to a community, not just existing in it.
Jonathan: Like you said Dan, nobody wants their place portrayed as all bad. and at the same time, they want it portrayed honestly. And those things are particularly important if you live in a place that's probably looking at significant change on the horizon.
Christina: Maybe the crime thing is the Post’s style, just going back six months. But there's no way they could accidentally leave out the X2.
Joanne: There can be a balance between portraying a neighborhood as a real gem and being honest about the flaws. Every neighborhood has both.
Christina: Yeah, change is certainly coming and we are excited about it. I guess we just want the newcomers to work alongside us, not against us. And if they had a holistic view of the neighborhood, that would help.
Dan: Ultimately the issue is we need more local coverage, so that we actually have a chance to learn about and really understand these communities.
Jonathan: Yeah, you make a good point that this stuff is way easier to get wrong when it's the only writing about a place.
Dan: For many DC area neighborhoods, a write up in the Real Estate section is all they will get, and that's certainly not enough.
Christina: But there still has to be “news” in order for a publication like the Post to write, right? Perhaps we need to do more newsworthy things.. I don't know.
Dan: The Post has far fewer resources for local coverage than it did just 10 years ago. What's “newsworthy” depends on how many resources you have to cover it.
Joanne: That's true, though I think it could have included one or two short paragraphs on the neighborhood's history.
But I think this article is just one example of a broader issue, which is that how we (residents or the media) talk about neighborhoods may not always encourage new residents or potential residents to invest in their new neighborhoods.
Dan: And that has a lot to do with how much media consume about their own communities
Jonathan: Christina, do you think some people read your DCist article about wanting different coverage for the neighborhood and took it to mean that neighborhood residents don't want new people moving in?
Christina: I hope not… because that's not the case and it's going to happen whether we like it or not. When I spoke to my neighbors in the groupchat that morning, they said they were appreciative of the coverage, their issue was just that they weren't being represented. So that's all we wanted to say with the post.
And everyone in the groupchat who knew the white residents who were interviewed said they were great people and neighbors, they just did not represent the community as a whole.
Jonathan: I think that's an important point to make, and I'm glad you're saying it here explicitly. Because in my experience, or maybe it's my own perception, conversations like these can boil down to black and and white thinking. And if the whole goal is that our communities get better, we've got to go beyond that.
Christina: Yeah, my next-door-neighbor is a 60-ish white woman who moved in about 2 years ago. I invited her to our garden club, she came, and had a good time. In the beginning, it was kind of a culture shock to see so many white people riding their bikes and walking their dogs in the neighborhood, but diversity isn't a bad thing.
Dan: What I'm hearing (in this conversation and in other communities in DC) is that the issue is less about new people moving in, and more about those who are here being heard and represented.
Christina: Yes, and respected.
Joanne: My main takeaway is that any talk about neighborhoods could give a more honest representation, and that includes who you talk to, what you talk about, highlighting history that gives a place the depth it deserves, and to give people already living there some voice to say what issues are important to them.
Christina: I agree.
Dan: We need more local coverage lol. Tell jeff bezos that we need more local coverage.
Joanne: Jeff Bezos, please fund the local section. You have the money. You just bought Whole Foods.
(He should also continue funding the hockey beat, but that's unrelated).
Christina: Or more people should read my posts at DCist! And Greater Greater's coverage, too.
Joanne: Thanks for chatting!
Christina: Thank you all again for taking interest in my work.
Dan: Thanks everyone! Talk to you soon.
Christina: Have a good (rainy) evening!