DC's Clinton Gentrification

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    "This ZIP code," one store co-owner explained to The Washington Times, "has the highest percentage of returned Peace Corps workers in the city." And the People Garden, the story concluded, owes its existence to those Peace Corps ideals.

    Oh, so that's it. When bleached-wood cafes with local art on the walls started competing with cut-rate bodegas, I thought it was because our burgeoning newcomer population is rich enough to demand high-end smoothies. Silly me. Seems the real reason is that ZIP code 20010 has become so very virtuous.

    Locals can be forgiven for confusing demographic change with political enlightenment. In DC, every major Democratic presidency has a reinvented neighborhood associated with it. New Dealers turned heavily black Georgetown into Washington's cobblestone salon. Great Society liberals turned Capitol Hill into a great place to live, raise kids and shop at farmers' markets. And now, the Clinton era's new homebuyers have come to neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant, Logan Circle and Shaw for their piece of the city.

    The change is dramatic. In 1991, Mount Pleasant erupted into riots between Latino residents and black cops. Nowadays, its quaint brownstones represent about the hottest thing on DC's real estate market. Not even a decade after the riots, the new faces of the neighborhood are the folks in NPR t-shirts who wash away graffiti, upbraid litterers and scold the owners of that one last eyesore on the block. Last week, a corner of the neighborhood showed up on a Bob Vila Home & Garden Television network restoration program. Meantime, housing prices skyrocket, cool new restaurants scout for locations and group houses full of artists?some of the people who started this process?decamp for sketchier environs.

    Out where the housing market isn't dominated by people who have saved orphans in Mozambique, they have a word for this phenomenon: gentrification. Not here. You see, in commerce-free DC, the people eyeing that house up the street aren't the heartless ad execs who muscle poorer folks out of up-and-coming New York City neighborhoods. Rather, they're federal-sector do-gooders, or their nonprofit and professional associates. So don't you dare question their motives.

    It's hard to tell just when the Clintonites took over. Like most neighborhoods, mine has never fit into just one demographic category. Even at the height of middle-class flight, lots of relatively rich homeowners lived here. Most of today's leading community-activist types predate the Clinton era. But the critical mass hit during the booming 90s. If I had to pick a moment, it might be the first Dinner in the Park, in the summer of 1998. The neighborhood association that sponsored the event billed it as a chance to "take back" central Lamont Park.

    That kind of language, in good Clinton-era form, evokes a picture of community togetherness, of neighbors pitching in to reclaim public space for the public. What it translated into, also in good Clinton-era form, was a bunch of people who paid $25 for a Thai-accented meal congratulating themselves on their community-spiritedness. Meanwhile, those who usually use the park?to sit or hang out or listen to the musicians who travel between the Salvadoran restaurants?watched from the sidewalk.

    The entertainment, naturally, came from an appropriately multicultural crop of hired musicians; organizers used the opportunity to extol the neighborhood's diversity. And they exulted in not having done what their mid-rank predecessors from Republican administrations did?move to the suburbs. All the while, no one seemed concerned about the disconnect between the speeches and the scene. But then again, this is Clinton-era DC: When we move to your neighborhood, we're doing it to help you! After all, those people on the sidewalk were still welcome to listen to those wacky Latin musicians we hired.

    The voice of gentrified Mount Pleasant would be an e-mail list-serv called the "Mount Pleasant Forum." The Forum began life with pretensions toward recreating a village commons, albeit just for people who own computers. Postings discuss crime, late-night noise at Latino restaurants, maids for hire and the need for local retailers to get more esthetically acceptable signage. Meanwhile, most everyone beats up on the few who suggest that there's something creepy about things like the campaign against Don Juan's restaurant?among whose faults, according to irate community types, was having tinted glass.

    No surprises there: all standard stuff when a wealthy population nervously eyes its poorer neighbors. Less standard, though, is the accompanying language. You'd have to scan Hillary Clinton's book to find so many gratuitous uses of the word "community." Sixties political experiences are regularly invoked?often right before the author goes on to flay, say, the drunk men who buy from the neighborhood's oversized supply of liquor stores, or the teen center that plays music too late. It's those pesky teens who hurt the community, not the people who are pricing their parents out of their homes.

    Certainly, you could argue that it's okay that some people have to move. One reason housing prices have shot up is that the city now offers a $5000 tax break to all first-time homeowners. The subsidy was meant to draw wealthy people back to town in order to shore up the tax base and fund the public schools. DC made an economic choice with substantial upsides. Someone had to lose.

    But when your Volvo has an "Arms Are for Hugging" bumpersticker, you tend not to like admitting that your gain is someone else's loss. So instead, the story is that DC's energized good samaritans are curing decades of urban blight. And thus Mount Pleasant tells the real story of Clintonian America: conservative economics clothed in squishy liberal-talk. So what if we're carrying out the same vicious economics that have always whipsawed borderline urban neighborhoods? You locals should be happy that we're at least living in your neighborhood and volunteering at your cleanup days. Those evil Republicans wouldn't do that.

    Michael Schaffer grew up in DC and is senior editor of Washington City Paper.