Shaw may not be the heart of Chocolate City anymore, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for people of color. In fact, there may actually be more chances to build community here.
By this point you may have heard of Derek Hyra’s book Race, Class and Politics and the Cappuccino City. The American University assistant professor and Falls Church resident makes bold claims that white residents of Shaw moved into the neighborhood because they wanted to live like the people on The Wire, and have hood parties, claims he’s not backed down from in interviews on the Kojo Nnamdi Show and in Washingtonian.
He also mentioned that mostly white, young professional people moved there because the neighborhood has been marketed using the history of the black businesses, performers and other cultural leaders that used to make U Street their home, partly due to segregation and other issues plaguing Washington.
I was ready to believe and embrace these theories. One, they are based on social science research Hyra and his team took on over the course of six years. Two, I’m a new, black middle-class Washingtonian trying to find my way. I’m scared that if I like to go to the Game of Thrones pop-up bar too much, that someone, namely an older black motherly figure not much different than my mom and aunts, will tell me I’m not being black enough and I need to go find something else to do.
Additionally I, as many newcomers to cities do, have had trouble finding some of the places where younger people go, especially people in their 30s and single like myself. I have all the insecurities of a person who wants to find the kind of people they relate to. Especially nerdy people like myself, who grew up in smaller cities and towns where being a nerd of any kind was grounds for verbal and sometimes physical harassment.
I also have the kinds of debt that many of my peers have, from both student and consumer loans, because the rent is just too high, not just in DC, but all over the country. I came out of school into the 2008 recession wanting to be either a journalist or a do-gooder type, neither of which have the kinds of salaries that can withstand constant rent increases. I can’t even think about getting a down payment saved without assistance. And let’s not start with my credit score.
Finally, I have cousins in DC; my great-aunt and uncle moved the family here in the 1940s. As a kid growing up in North Carolina, my dad would play Parliament Funkadelic’s Chocolate City (Hyra is referencing this song when he calls DC “Cappuccino City”). It talks about DC as a replacement for the 40 acres and a mule that was promised and never given to former African enslaved people during Reconstruction and the political power black folks amassed after the 1968 riots. Then, my dad would tell me stories about how he thought that his aunt and uncle were living it up in DC.
But upon visiting them in the 1970s, he realized that while yes, things were a little bit better for them, they still faced some of the same segregation and tensions we face today.
Sometimes that tension came at the mercy of our own kind, as one of Hyra’s book chapters chronicles with the development of the southeast corner of 7th and T Street NW. A black developer openly mentioned not wanting a black hairstylist to return to a block, yet ultimately the hairdresser is still there with help from an organization Hyra was involved in while writing the book.
Over time, I’ve began to find community in Shaw’s “gentrified” spaces. I’ve stopped myself from feeling like I have to be a model black citizen.
I saw the hairdresser myself and said hello one morning on my daily commute. If I forget to heat up my breakfast burrito, there’s a chicken sausage croissant usually waiting for me at the black-owned coffee house Uprising Muffin Company down the block, and they’ve got some great music like A Tribe Called Quest blasting in the speakers. The tea they sell at Calabash does cure the anxiety that plagues me.
And I’ve stood in line with an Asian-American friend at the Game of Thrones bar when it was the Cherry Blossom themed bar. Then we decided to decamp for HalfSmoke, where we could actually sit down and have a good conversation.
When I do get to church, my fellow congregants at Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ marvel that I arrive sometimes by Capital Bikeshare. None of them seem to mind that I’ve attempted to go to the Cherry Blossom bar. (I would assume that they want me to not get drunk, but I don’t want to get drunk either, just sample the wares).
I feel that the book rings hollow by focusing just on one neighborhood and using it as the poster child of gentrification, something several contributors and I agreed doesn’t cover all that’s wrong. Nor does it make things like bikeshare stops and dog parks automatically bad news. Plus, while these things may have been problems 10, 15, 20 years ago, right now, thanks to internet communities like this one, A Creative DC, Meetup groups and many others, people are finding ways to connect, even if it’s just via smartphone.
I will state that there are many issues related to rent increases, property tax increases, tensions between people with different religious and cultural beliefs, closed gay clubs, grocery stores that charge too much or won’t open at all, bars that charge too much for drinks and Metro stations and cars that don’t want to work right.
However, one book can’t contain, explain or even properly account for all those issues.
And in my case, I will continue to let time help me figure out things as not-so new black woman middle-class millennial Washingtonian.