Selling a Black D.C. Neighborhood to White Millennials

No longer is the real estate industry erasing Washington’s African-American culture and history. Derek Hyra explores the meaning of “black branding” in a gentrifying and increasingly white city.

Story by Derek Hyra

Photography by Jati Lindsay

Published on

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The Gibson is located in a nondescript gray building that looks abandoned. There is no signage for the fashionable Washington, D.C., speakeasy, and no street-facing windows on the first floor. All that can be seen from the street is a small, unassuming doorbell-like buzzer discreetly placed near a front door opening out to its Shaw/U Street neighborhood sidewalk.

When the buzzer is pressed, a stylishly dressed young greeter comes out. If it is early evening, you will likely get into the 14th Street NW bar; otherwise, you have to put your name and cell phone number on a waiting list. When a spot opens — this can take an hour or more, depending on the night — the bar’s hostess texts you. Once inside, the environment changes from the gritty exterior to a posh, retro 1920s-style speakeasy interior with a dark-wood-framed bar showcasing illuminated shelves of liquor, dim lighting and mixologists serving signature cocktails for fifteen bucks apiece. On any given night, it is not uncommon to see and hear political appointees talking over a few drinks.

Directly next door to the speakeasy-style drinking establishment is a ghetto-style liquor store with plexiglass separating the customers from the merchandise, much of which is fifths of liquor. On any given night, a group of older or middle-aged African-American men hang out in front. A nearby bus stop ensures frequent bursts of activity from people of color outside the Gibson. The juxtaposition of this exclusive, upscale cocktail establishment, to the grimy liquor store and a group of African-American men on the street lends an ethos of hipness and edge to a business otherwise remarkable for its expensive cocktails.

The man exits a liquor store bordering the Gibson. 

The pitch isn’t lost on the bar’s White owners, Eric and Ian Hilton, who recognize the value of the iconic ghetto trope. In a 2010 interview with a Washington Post reporter, Eric described how he and his design team came up with the concept of the Gibson this way: “our process starts with an exploration of atmosphere: what else is on the block, who lives in the neighborhood.” The stereotype that the Gibson works off is that somehow a certain type of blackness equals the authentic ghetto experience that certain customers, mainly White, seek. Location lends the Gibson coolness and edge that the Hiltons can sell for a premium. The men congregating in front of the liquor store next door and the faux-abandoned building that houses the Gibson provide the image people expect to see in the ghetto. Except in this gilded ghetto, some studios rent for $2,300 a month and row homes sell for over $1 million.

From the “Dark” to the “Gilded” Ghetto

In the 1960s, a leading Swedish anthropologist, Ulf Hannerz, and a prominent American anthropologist, Elliot Liebow, came to D.C. to study one of its impoverished neighborhoods. Their work brought them to the same Shaw/U Street neighborhood that the Hiltons found in their search for an edgy place to locate a high-end theme bar. Hannerz and Liebow’s time in the neighborhood resulted in two books that changed how people across the globe viewed inner-city Black American life: Hannerz’s “Soulside” and Liebow’s “Tally’s Corner.” The area at the time was nearly all Black and had the city’s “highest rate of persons receiving public assistance; the highest rate of illegitimate live births; the highest rate of births not receiving prenatal care; the second highest rate of persons eligible for surplus food; and the third highest rate of applicants eligible for medical assistance,” Liebow wrote in his 1967 urban classic.

From the 1960s until the 1990s, Shaw/U Street was space for understanding what historian Arnold Hirsch coined the “second ghetto,” and what Kenneth B. Clark labeled the “dark ghetto.” Hirsch’s “Making the Second Ghetto” and Clark’s “Dark Ghetto” explained the powerful forces and detrimental outcomes arising from the formation of socially walled-off, impoverished, inner-city Black spaces during the mid-20th century. The decisions of White-controlled city councils, planning commissions and public housing authorities to concentrate high-rise public housing in certain neighborhoods; the decisions of White-controlled banks to redline and deny credit to African-Americans; and the decisions of White-operated companies to leave inner-city areas were critical to the downward spiral of these neighborhoods into concentrated poverty pockets.

The harmful influence of concentrated poverty on individuals living in these neighborhoods was not labeled as neighborhood effects until years later by urban sociologist William Julius Wilson, but the influence these areas had on dysfunctional behaviors such as crime, drug use, poor school performance and teen pregnancy, as well as poor health outcomes, were duly noted by Clark.

But if Shaw/U Street once symbolized the dark ghetto, today it represents the “gilded ghetto,” a term coined by Clark to describe the similar pathologies of the affluent in the segregated White suburbs. “There is a tendency toward pathology in the gilded suburban ghetto,” he wrote. “An emptiness reflecting a futile struggle to find substance and worth through the concretes of things and possessions. The residents of the gilded ghetto may escape by an acceptance of conformity, by the deadly ritual of alcoholism, by absorption in work, or in the artificial and transitory excitement of illicit affairs.”

Today, Shaw/ U Street and countless places with similar histories of redlining, segregation and disinvestment have become gilded ghettos of a sort. Once places where poverty, drugs and violence proliferated, these areas have become spaces where farmers’ markets, coffee shops, dog parks, wine bars and luxury condominiums now concentrate. The transition of American urban “no-go” Black zones to hip, cool places filled with chic restaurants, trendy bars and high-priced apartment buildings defines my gilded ghetto. My contemporary use and redefinition of the term both references and explains what happens when those who, in the past, would have settled in the suburbs instead choose to reside in the dark ghetto. Features of the gilded ghetto can be seen in Boston’s Roxbury, New York’s Harlem, Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn District, Miami’s Overtown, New Orleans’ Tremé, Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Kansas City’s 18th and Vine District, Chicago’s Bronzeville, Houston’s Freemen’s Town, San Francisco’s Fillmore District and Portland’s Albina community. Back in D.C., Shaw/U Street experienced tremendous demographic shifts as it redeveloped. In 1970, the community was 90 percent Black; however, by 2010, African-Americans comprised only 30 percent of its population. While the proportion of the community’s Black population declined, the White percentage rose substantially, particularly in the 2000s. Whites represented 23 percent of the Shaw/U Street population in 2000, rising to 53 percent by 2010. As the community received an influx of Whites, property values dramatically increased 145 percent between 2000 and 2010, well above the city’s overall rate during the same time period.

Black Branding

A luxury building in D.C. is named after Duke Ellington. 

Black culture has been used to sell music for years, but only recently has it been commoditized to market neighborhood redevelopment. In the past decade or so, inner-city real estate developers have begun to name their new luxury buildings after celebrated African-Americans, such as Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington. On 14th Street, one popular restaurant is named Marvin, acknowledging D.C.-born Motown sensation Marvin Gaye. Rather than abandoning its Black history, Shaw/U Street’s revitalization is closely tied to the community’s African-American past. For some people, Black branding, and its association with neighborhood redevelopment, signifies racial progress. Black branding provides some evidence that we as a country appreciate and value elements of Black history. Remember it was not long ago that many Americans feared the Black ghetto, and the majority of urban neighborhoods deemed Black were avoided. Today, several historic Black neighborhoods are attracting a much more diverse population, and in some instances Black branding is associated with neighborhood redevelopment.

While Shaw/ U Street’s Black Broadway brand was shaped by multiple forces, one was the desire to reduce the community’s negative iconic ghetto image. Decisions about having the rebranded image not be too Black, too poor, or too controversial were influenced by both African-Americans and Whites who aspired to present a positive community image to outsiders. Many historic Black communities are spinning a similar uplift and entertainment narrative regardless of whether the storylines are spun by Black-controlled local governments, elite Black residents, or White external elites, as in the Shaw/U Street case with Cultural Tourism, DC. Much like Starbucks has commodified and exported a certain small Seattle coffee shop experience and McDonald’s has duplicated a version of the classic American hamburger and fries around the world, some Black neighborhoods are attempting to commodify a certain nostalgic Black history experience in cities around the United States. By branding Black culture and mainstreaming the ghetto, we reduce some African-American stereotypes, but at the same time we lose some complexity about how institutional racism contributed to creating the Black ghetto in the first place.

Living the Wire

While Black and White preservationists work to counteract negative stereotypes of the iconic ghetto, some neighborhood newcomers are looking for authentic experiences based on their expectation that inner-city Black areas are dangerous and exciting. This iconic Black ghetto stereotype is associated with contemporary and hip, urban and grit. Real estate developers and commercial businesses have tapped into this valued “edge living” commodity and are selling it for a premium to those who can afford it. It is hard to conceptualize exactly what they are selling or what customers are purchasing, but part of the amenity bundle can be explained by what I have called “living the wire,” which is based on preexisting stereotypical images of the iconic ghetto.

Living the wire refers to a notion of residing in a community that has an energy and an edge that distinguishes people who live in the inner city from those living in the “boring” homogeneous suburban and central city areas. Living the wire helps newcomers carve out their urban niche in the metropolis. They flock to historic Black neighborhoods to experience the thrill of viewing elements of the iconic ghetto. While the fact that Whites feel comfortable moving to Black spaces might seem like racial progress, to a certain extent it is based on stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans. Some newcomers move into African-American communities based on a perceived association between urban authenticity and blackness. The relationship between authenticity and blackness is related to the stereotypical association of blackness with poverty, danger and excitement, which in turn symbolizes contemporary subtle racism. I consider this a form of subtle racism, compared to the past, when people would not move into a Black community due to blatant racism.

The term living the wire can be juxtaposed to living the drama, the title of urban sociologist David Harding’s excellent ethnographic account of how poor neighborhoods influence negative outcomes for minority youth. In it, Harding describes the ways in which violence and the fear of violence among boys living in impoverished areas of Boston greatly determine their life-course trajectories. Living the drama means to carefully navigate and cope with extreme forms of urban violence. I met Curtis Mozie, known as C-Webb, while playing basketball at the Kennedy recreation Center, not far from 14th Street. Though in his forties, C-Webb has the stamina of a twenty-year-old. He would always want to play one more game when I could barely breathe after playing with him for more than an hour.

C-Webb has been documenting the violence that has plagued Shaw/U Street for decades. He records videos of the area youth as they grow up in the community, particularly the ones involved in the crews. He attempts to serve as a mentor and show them that running the streets usually leads to jail and/or death. C-Webb has compiled numerous videographic tributes to the many young men who have lost their lives to the violent streets near the Kennedy recreation Center. David Robinson, known as Day-Day, was one of the area’s youth who lived the drama. He grew up in the Washington Apartments, a subsidized housing complex a few blocks south of the Kennedy recreation Center, and was raised by a single mother, Evon Davis; his father was rarely around. Although Evon, and several mentors, tried to keep David out of trouble, he struggled in school and lived by the code of the street. He felt that to protect himself from the area crews, he needed to join one of them; so he joined the Seventh and O Street crew and carried a gun. In the ninth grade, David was arrested after a hallway shoving match with another area crew made its way out into the streets after school. A few years later, in 2009, David was shot at age seventeen after a fight broke out at a concert.

This near-death experience made David change his ways. He got a job at Home Depot, made a commitment to finish his high school degree, and got serious about his pregnant girlfriend. His goal was to finish school and be the father to his son that his father never was. Just before the birth of his son, David was shot by a group of young men who wanted his new $220 Nike sneakers. Instead of giving up the shoes, David had pulled his gun and was killed. Like many of the youth of Shaw/U Street, David lived the drama with serious consequences, despite the redevelopment that has taken place in this community and along its increasingly posh commercial corridors.

Building Inclusion and Equity in a Changed Neighborhood

It’s hard to find a business more inviting and inclusive than Ben’s Chili Bowl, a D.C. landmark opened in 1958 by Ben Ali, an immigrant from Trinidad who came to D.C. to study dentistry at nearby Howard University, and his fiancee, Virginia Rollins. Ali passed away in 2009 at the age of 82 passing along the business to his sons, who have expanded with new locations, including a more upscale spot that serves alcohol and a late-night menu.

Ben’s Chili Bowl symbolizes the best of mixed-race, mixed-income D.C. As I walked into Ben’s one afternoon for lunch, an Usher song, “That’s What It’s Made For,” flowed from a speaker placed right above the front entrance. This song was followed by Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything.” I took a seat right next to the cash register at the counter, a perfect place to observe the action. I watched as the patrons ordered and the wait staff interacted with them.

Steve Wilson, left, gives his order to Bria Hillard at Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

After the R&B music finished, D.C.’s famous “go-go” music came on; the wait staff, one wearing a Black t-shirt that stated “I Am D.C.” and “I Demand the Vote” in red and White letters, started moving to the beat. The cashier, an African-American man in his mid-twenties, started tapping the beat on the countertop as he paused briefly from ringing up orders and taking customers’ money. Another staff member caught the eye of an African-American woman in her fifties who had just ordered and was standing to the left of the cash register; he started moving his shoulders back and forth, keeping time, and as he moved he dipped a little lower each time. The woman smiled and laughed as another customer called out to the dancing staff member, “Go ahead, Go ahead.” Ben’s has energy, an unusually positive vibe of civility, and the diverse people who go here love it. It’s truly a dining experience. Unlike the hidden speakeasy, and many of the other new establishments on 14th Street, Ben’s is an environment of inclusion where people interact across race and class.

The gilded ghetto holds much promise and potential for racial integration and improved social equity, but only if the benefits that come with economic growth are shared among all populations. If Black neighborhoods are being branded and sold, Black people and businesses must benefit.

There are several ways that economic justice can be better achieved within mixed-income neighborhoods. One potential mechanism is to keep low-income housing in place while the neighborhood redevelops. Past practices and policies have allowed some of the poor to stay in place, but their continued residency is not always stable over the long term. As the neighborhood continues to redevelop, a few of Shaw/U Street’s church-owned subsidized buildings are opting out of their Section 8 contracts and now offer market-rate units. Thus, a continued effort for affordable housing preservation will be critical to maintaining a mix of incomes in redeveloping communities. Small-business preservation will also be important in mixed-income environments. Other economic justice solutions might be found outside the community — low-income residents must be linked to the city’s growing economic success. One approach might be to create and maintain living-wage jobs for DC’s existing low- and moderate-income residents. In 2011, the city’s former mayor, Marion Barry, declared, “We’re going to stop this trend of gentrification. We can’t displace old-time Washingtonians. The key to keeping this city Black is jobs, jobs, jobs for Black people.” In 2016, the D.C. City Council unanimously endorsed a new minimum wage policy that could slightly reduce the city’s growing income inequality gap and ensure that lower-wage D.C. jobs better enable people to stay in their community as it redevelops.

Still another option: create and promote neighborhood organizations that work to integrate new and existing populations in gentrifying neighborhoods. Community organizations that bring people of various backgrounds together for shared activities, such as neighborhood gardening efforts or other community improvement projects, or even a meal, to build social capital might be critical to reducing tensions and conflicts. For racially and economically diverse neighborhoods to fully achieve maximum benefits for all, we must work to grease the wheels of social integration and reduce economic inequality.

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Derek Hyra is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and the founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University. His research focuses on processes of neighborhood change, with an emphasis on housing, urban politics and race. He is the author of “Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City” (University of Chicago Press 2017).

Jati Lindsay is a New Jersey born & bred, Washington, D.C.-based freelance photographer. He has been shooting professionally for 11 years. He has been a part of exhibitions at the Leica Gallery in New York City, the Afro American Museum in Philadelphia, the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore, MD, the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Code Gallery in Amsterdam.

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