Sunday, February 2, 2014

Gentrification is not friendly

In the Washington City Paper's Answers Issue, I was asked to comment on the following question:
Q: Are D.C. residents getting less friendly to each other, or am I just getting old? I hear that new neighbors aren’t as friendly as they used to be across huge swaths of Northwest. Are these anecdotes or is there a way to see if this is real? (I’m talking about people not saying “hi” to each other on the street or acknowledging each other’s presence to full ignorance of neighbors).
I spoke about the influential work of American University anthropology professor Brett Williams.Through her ethnographic work, Professor Williams came to understand that working-class African Americans in DC lived deeply in the city, socialized from an early age to know the names of all their neighbors and the shop keepers and always to greet them. In contrast, the white middle class lived broadly, not paying attention to the local neighborhood but moving across the city and having close connections with those around the country and around the world. Brett Williams' work has shown me that the city can teach us to live deeply, which much of the white professional class wants, as discussed by one commenter:
I really noticed this difference when I moved from west of the park (white neighborhood) to east of the park (African-American neighborhood) about 10 years ago. As a white person, it took me by surprise but I happily adjusted. I had never lived in such a friendly urban neighborhood before and I really treasured the experience. With the advent of gentrification, the neighborhood has changed somewhat. The new younger white residents are nice folks and we say hello, too, but, while it's still pleasant, the warmth of the older African-American long-time residents is noticeably missing. It's a genuine loss.
Another commenter wrote:
"...less friendly or ...getting old?" A combination of both for many historic residents. Whereas as late as 30 years ago I could hardly go anywhere in any quadrant of the city and not see at least ONE person I knew from childhood, I traverse the city now and see few familiar faces other than in my native Southeast. We wouldn't DARE pass by one another today without a nod or a word. I'm uptown a lot (U Street/Shaw/Adams Morgan). The city's gone cosmopolitan: Nobody knows one another, didn't go to school with a fellow pedestrian, aren't fellow parishioners. To paraphrase the late comedian Richard Pryor, D.C. is not longer composed of "neighborhoods," but has become an amassment of residential districts!
As you can see, I really appreciate these comments. They make me realize that I misunderstood "living deeply" because it wasn't only about living in one's neighborhood deeply but also living in the entire city deeply. This ability to live deeply in our neighborhoods and across the city is an important skill that I believe that DC still offers us and is treasured by many. 

Jonathan Fischer did an admirable job answering this difficult question. But I don't agree that white professionals and the African American working class are just two side of the same coin or two equal camps: "Of course, it goes both ways: Just as older residents may get a cold vibe from newer ones, the reverse can be true." Those displacing and those being displaced are not equal sides, but rather are interconnected through relations of power.

The white professional class legitimates its displacement of other residents with a set of interrelated perspectives, seeing gentrification as:
  • an inevitable process 
  • an enjoyable process since the city is becoming more fun and comfortable 
  • a positive process because the city is becoming "better" as people they judge as inferior are displaced with people judged as...superior? 
  • a necessary process because they know how the neighborhood should be changed and have a right to demand this change. The needs of others, they think, can be ignored because gentrification has already or will soon completely expel the inferior people. Historians of colonialism have shown how colonizing powers argue that they are bringing the future and that those they colonize are living in the past, so the colonizers see their own needs as more important and more progressive than those they colonize. 
From the perspective of the colonizer, change must happen as quickly as possible because it is inevitable, necessary, progressive, positive, and enjoyable. Those being displaced or colonized would have a whole different view of this process.

Of course, listervs are dubious resources, but I use this one example to demonstrate how the pro-gentrification perspective makes impossible or nearly impossible the thought that one might work in solidarity with one's neighbors. Here a resident of Capitol Hill East is arguing for the removal of a local organization that helps people overcome substance abuse: 
I've lived over here over a year and even in that time, I have really seen the neighborhood change. While 5 years ago, this project may have represented the needs of the community, I really don't think the neighborhood is quickly changing and I don't see this as the best fit...I think residents have a right to voice their concerns...I'd encourage you to meet with the newer residents and see how the times have changed.
How does understanding gentrification as inevitable disregard the needs of one's neighbors? How might living deeply counteract the view that displacement is inevitable, necessary, progressive, positive, and enjoyable? Might living deeply help build solidarity with our neighbors, a solidarity that crosses races and classes? Might radical friendliness and radical neighborliness be necessary in Ward 6 and in DC today?


  1. Great post, Johanna. I was looking forward to see what scholarship you would find on this question.

  2. Thanks, Leonard. I was thinking about Du Bois' psychological wages of whiteness, and I always seem to find the colonialism literature bizarrely useful, such as Fabian's Time and the Other. Then I was also thinking about Tom Looser's work on professionals in global cities ( but maybe you know a better work on this topic? In the end though, I was really thinking about the narratives that keep coming during some surveys we conducted, some discussions that I have had with friends, and on the local listservs.

  3. Consider the flip side of the CAG listserv debate, however: CAG's facility is incomplete. It is a large hole in the ground, a construction site frozen in time. It is neither serving CAG's mission nor is it the hole in the ground a good neighbor to those who live nearby. "Inevitable disregard for one's neighbors" cuts both ways, does it not?

    I'm sure some of those complaining don't care much for CAG's mission, but I would also bet that the vast majority simply want to see that hole in the ground resolved. Stretching that into a desire to "remove a local organization" is a bit much.

  4. According to ANC commissioner Francis Campbell: "It is not through any failure of CAG or it's representatives that the project has stalled but that the city agency responsible has failed to follow through on obtaining the necessary approvals to get the project completed." Maybe the DC government has other plans for the real estate and wants to build up neighborhood anger against the organization by neglecting their application and failing to follow through? Logan and Molotch's Urban Fortunes is a good primer on how and why city governments do this time and time again.


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