The corner of 5th and H streets NE in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Ted Eytan via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Authenticity and “Post-Chocolate” Cool in a Rapidly Gentrifying Washington, D.C.

How the marketing of blackness as a prized aesthetic often leaves the city’s Black residents behind.

Story by Brandi Thompson Summers

Published on

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City,” by Brandi Thompson Summers, published by the University of North Carolina Press. In it, the author analyzes the widespread gentrification of Washington, D.C. over the last two decades. A 2019 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) found that D.C. had the largest percentage of gentrifying neighborhoods of any city in the U.S., a shift that displaced more than 20,000 Black residents between 2000 and 2013. Against this backdrop, Thompson Summers examines how blackness is commodified and transformed from a demographic characterization to an aesthetic one — and how that transformation excludes Black people from the built environment. Her work zeroes in on the economic and racial shifts along the H Street Northeast corridor, now rebranded as the “Atlas District.” Thompson Summers will be the featured guest in a Next City webinar on Wednesday, April 29, at 1 p.m. Eastern. Sign up for this pay-what-you-wish event here.

A vital component of understanding how blackness figures into the “revitalization” of the H Street corridor is how culture and authenticity work as instruments of urban development. Given the prominence of culture as a key resource for post-industrial cities to attract tourists and residents, several have implemented strategies to promote urban branding. Racialized expressions are more marketable in the emerging “creative city” that emphasizes cultural consumption and creative, aesthetic practices. Producing authenticity through black aesthetic emplacement, marketing both blackness and diversity, and blackness as diversity, facilitates gentrification and revitalization on the basis of design and architectural projects. Therefore, analyzing the built environment, especially the spatial organization of streetscapes, sheds light on how the aesthetics of blackness figure into the way the street looks and how Black people move through the corridor. On the other hand, in an urban context, authenticity shows up in the form of cultural value — namely, historic preservation. Restoring and preserving historical styles of architecture are in direct contrast to decades of state-sponsored urban renewal, which demolished and devastated Black neighborhoods, and hyper-redevelopment efforts via large-scale, public-private construction projects.

Creating authenticity is an integral process to the socio-spatial organization of gentrifying cities. Several scholars have addressed the role authenticity plays in the making of spaces, especially the role of power in integrating exclusionary practices. Authenticity inherently involves value and how people value a particular place. Furthermore, authenticity structures a sense of belonging by producing, protecting, and celebrating spatial narratives. Mobility is a privilege that is attached to whiteness, so it is those who possess whiteness who are more likely to call a neighborhood authentic or boast its “authentic” qualities as desirable.

As authenticity points to the look and feel of a particular place, I identify an explicit link between aesthetics and authenticity, where designations of authentic spaces are understood in aesthetic terms. This explores how the aesthetics of authenticity get inscribed in the built environment (through historic and cultural preservation, naming privatized public spaces, architecture, and food cultures). I also show how it draws upon the aesthetics of race as the city increasingly caters to “diverse” lifestyles. The politics of this relationship between authenticity and race play out as the city attempts to market this authentic diversity (as we will see with the colorful “DC Cool” campaign). Ultimately, the city and new residents and tourists who come to D.C. have complementary investments in authenticity. From the perspective of the city, creating authenticity through branding strategies spurs economic growth and encourages tourism. Newer, white, upper-middle-class residents produce authenticity through preservation, which helps them to value and find meaning in certain people, places, and communities.

Authenticity requires reinterpretation of a space or social body that draws on an idealized vision of the past. Modern appeals to authenticity purportedly deliver alternative options for pleasure, consumption, and entertainment for upper-middle-class tourists and residents but further limit multiple uses of these “revitalized” urban spaces for working-class residents. I relate these practices of branding and producing authenticity to the transformation and reimagination of the H Street, NE corridor. In conjunction with efforts to rebrand the former “riot corridor” as a distinct cultural, culinary, and entertainment destination come increased police surveillance, higher-priced restaurants, streetcar track construction, bike lanes, and exorbitant parking meter fees that disinvite patrons and customers of the service businesses that once overwhelmingly populated the corridor.

Where some of the culinary metaphors (latte, cappuccino, s’mores, etc.) used to describe D.C.’s changing demographic landscape signal a shift to whiteness, “post-chocolate” is open-ended; the term doesn’t postulate what color or colors are next.

Photo by NCinDC (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Deindustrialization, gentrification, residential and commercial revitalization, and large-scale development create conditions for the displacement of older and poorer Black residents, as well as Black small businesses, leading to a shrinking Black population in D.C. But why have I chosen to describe Washington, D.C., as a “post-chocolate” city? “Post” shifts one’s thinking to “after” or “beyond” a particular condition or situation. In this context, “post” incorporates temporality when discussing spatial matters. “Post” speaks to a shift, a waning of sorts. Acknowledging D.C. as transitioning into a “post–Chocolate City” is a way to examine the intricacies of who and what are often left out, or what is incorporated. In other words, “post–Chocolate City” signals the afterlife of a fiercely and firmly recognized Black place. But what still remains? Certainly, there are other cities around the country that have large Black populations, but the “chocolate” moniker means much more than just having a lot of Black residents.

While Washington, D.C., was the first Chocolate City — the first large, majority Black city in the United States — it is analogous to so many other cities that experienced racism, segregation, high unemployment, and disproportionate incarceration rates but that also have prolific music, food culture, politics, and play. Chocolate City metaphorically undergirds “the relationships among history, politics, culture, inequality, knowledge, and Blackness.” Where some of the culinary metaphors (latte, cappuccino, s’mores, etc.) used to describe D.C.’s changing demographic landscape signal a shift to whiteness, “post-chocolate” is open-ended; the term doesn’t postulate what color or colors are next. D.C. is now a decidedly international city, so the divide between Black and white becomes more complicated. Post–Chocolate City does not specify what exists beyond chocolate; it simply designates a period after chocolate. The post–Chocolate City exemplifies a disappearing mode of social and cultural life that has been revised by an aesthetic infrastructure.

Connecting racial discourses with renewal efforts along the H Street, NE corridor, “Black in Place” explores the contemporary operation of race. I identify the way blackness is produced, inscribed, and apprehended in urban environments. In the process, I demonstrate how an ostensible demographic characterization operates as an aesthetic, as well as a politics. The production and circulation of meaning in urban development relies on aesthetics, or visual and affective judgments of taste, to assign value to individual and collective bodies and spaces. Aesthetics are used in urban planning and development through the use of branding strategies, heritage tourism, and lifestyle programs. They are used to attract commerce, customers, and residents. Therefore I consider the function of race as an aesthetic feature and illustrate how (and why) blackness, in particular, is mobilized as style. More specifically, the book situates the “revitalization” of D.C.’s “Atlas District” within a broader context of urban change and focuses on the ways Black aesthetic emplacement inscribes blackness in the built environment during an economic and political moment hailed as post-racial.

Conceptually, I argue that blackness is integral to the production of spaces. I imagine a definition of blackness that is capacious enough to speak to shifts in the urban terrain. Through representations of blackness we experience the circulation and articulation of blackness in aesthetic form. To imagine a definition of blackness in this way speaks to, as media studies theorist Lauren Cramer puts it, “the de-corporealization of blackness.”

Most often when looking at urban planning, design, architecture, and even community development, discussions of aesthetics have much to do with beautification of the city and the built environment, but oftentimes have very little to do with the people who inhabit or use the space.

Central to this argument is understanding blackness as an aestheticized social and cultural continuum. Blackness lends itself to the process of urban aestheticization through the paradoxical incorporation and exclusion of blackness. The blackness that people’s bodies and culture index in multiple domains becomes part of the aesthetic infrastructure of gentrification. This form of urbanization happens through a violent calibration of blackness that leads cities to ultimately face how Black do they want a place to be. Extending Katherine McKittrick’s assertion that “Black matters are spatial matters,” I say that spatial matters are also aesthetic matters. This relationship provides the foundation for an urban theory of aesthetics that accounts for what Black studies brings to bear on material processes of urbanization, namely the precarity of always becoming. Drawing on bell hooks’s insistence that aesthetics is “more than a philosophy or theory of art and beauty; it is a way of inhabiting space, a particular location, a way of looking and becoming” — framing gentrification as both aestheticized and racialized is necessary to theorize contemporary urban transformation. Relatedly, AbdouMaliq Simone writes, “urbanization is the possibility of incessant becoming, the intersection and constitution of heterogeneities whose trajectories, dispositions can never be definitively mapped or controlled.” Elites and state actors use physical structures within urban landscapes as abstract, neutral sites for architectural redesign and reinvention. Therefore, development is heralded as a necessary process in the city remaking itself and its perpetual state of becoming modern.

It is important to think about not only how aesthetics ground our experiences but also how aesthetics shape the way we come to see, know, and practice race. Through aesthetics we can explore how the visual logic of race — specifically, blackness — operates in this current landscape. There is a direct relationship between aesthetics and the ways that racial knowledge about blackness is organized today — an assumed knowingness related to how blackness is expressed, recognized, and visualized. Rather than merely operating as a political and cultural identity, “Black in Place” explores the ways that blackness is used as an aesthetic to draw in tourists, customers, capital, and authenticity to urban spaces. Ultimately, I am arguing that blackness as an aesthetic infrastructure of gentrification is about controlling, defining, and naming space for the benefit of white people.

To aestheticize blackness makes room for subtle shifts in the terrain. Most often when looking at urban planning, design, architecture, and even community development, discussions of aesthetics have much to do with beautification of the city and the built environment, but oftentimes have very little to do with the people who inhabit or use the space. To think of blackness in aesthetic ways (blackness is an inherently aesthetic term — saturation with color) helps us understand how Black people were tied to urban space, and were thought to belong in urban space. Considering the many terms used to connote blackness — urban (sociological), inner-city (geographic), minority (statistical), poor (economic) — adding an aesthetic dimension explores the traces of blackness that exist long after the last Black body moves on.

Aestheticizing Diversity

“Black in Place” examines how blackness factors into the interests of the state, developers, boosters, and elite actors in a diverse and progressive society. What do “diverse” and “progressive” mean in this context? From a space impacted by state-sponsored urban renewal that has transitioned to adopt market-based revitalization, I explain how “diversity” in appearance actually encourages neoliberal exploitation. As Shannon Winnubst explains, neoliberal social rationalities spawned a language of multiculturalism and “its even more aestheticized child, diversity, in the late 1990s as the new, preferred vocabulary for social difference.” “Diversity” and “development” are buzzwords that allay fears about displacement and inequality. Yet, while the diversity project was aligned with social justice, the two ideas are sometimes presented as synonymous, if not interchangeable.

Where diversity was once invoked to emphasize the need for federal programs that enhanced the life chances of an entire demographic, the concept of diversity is now frequently used to emphasize opportunities for individuals to accrue cherished commodities and individual advantages. As Sara Ahmed writes, diversity is “imagined as a form of repair, a way of mending or fixing histories of being broken.” Diversity is a salve used to assuage the rupture and violence associated with gentrification and displacement. Diversity today involves an appeal to difference, eschewing any focus on material inequalities or commitment to action, thereby operating as an aesthetic approach to equality. The consequence of this widespread shift in the value of diversity is that people can associate themselves with the nobility that derives from the term’s social justice origins, while partaking in its more recent iterations of what it means to be “cool” and “hip.” In the context of diversity’s shift from a social justice ethic to an aesthetic lifestyle amenity, blackness enhances, rather than threatens, the esteem of a given neighborhood. It moves beyond compliance and legal redress to adopt a more celebratory approach to equity.

Changes to the commercial landscape of H Street resemble other contemporary “revitalized” urban spaces that can be paradoxically described by the concurrent celebration of diversity and the increasing separation and isolation of different social groups. This shift can be explained, in part, by the infiltration of diversity discourses and by practices of aestheticization that work to naturalize lifestyle and landscape tastes as well as concretize neighborhood forms and cultural difference. Ultimately, diversity draws on the legibility of race especially in terms of urban development, despite the fact that it “diminishes the distinctiveness of race by couching it as one of the many cultural identities that make up America’s valued pluralism.”

From “Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City,” by Brandi Thompson Summers. Copyright © 2019 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

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Brandi Thompson Summers is an assistant professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley. (Author photo by Chioke l’Anson)

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