There comes a point in a writer’s life when it’s time to move beyond workshops, conferences and retreats. Failure to do this can result in lost opportunities and stunted growth. I think it’s the same with conversations about Washington, D.C. How long can one continue to “workshop” gentrification? How many times can we talk about neighborhoods changing without saying the same things over and over? I refuse to count the number of white people who now walk along U Street. I was never good at math. I did however learn the difference between multiplication, subtraction and division.
Lately I’ve started defining myself as an immigrant whose children happen to have been born in the new country. My daughter and son are Washingtonians. They were both born in George Washington University Hospital. It’s my daughter who sometimes reminds me of the limitation of language and how words lose their meaning or are simply misused. If one was to describe the “face” of gentrification, could my daughter model its clothes?
My daughter attended only private schools while growing up in this city. Her early childhood was spent near the streets of 14th and Rhode Island, NW, and Fuller Street (behind the Potter’s House) in Adams Morgan, in the building once owned by the arts patron and restaurateur Herb White.
I wrote about this time in our lives in my second memoir, The 5th Inning:
It was a small white building with four floors pushed back from a street behind Columbia Road. It had a veranda instead of a terrace, and on the hot days you could watch all the drug transactions. If someone had told me there was a “God of Gentrification” I would have been on my knees almost everyday praying to it. How many fathers are forced to raise their children on Fuller Streets?
We moved into Ward 4 during her adolescence, and found a house near the so-called Gold Coast where the black middle class often discovered gold disguised as government jobs and Howard University employment.
Here my daughter would turn 16, survive the Edmund Burke School and go off to Boston for college; she would return to Washington and attend law school at George Washington University.
Today, my daughter works at a K street law firm. She lives in Anacostia.
When I learned she was moving to Southeast to live with her boyfriend it reminded me of Columbus getting lost while trying to find a way to the Indies. Might parts of D.C. today represent the New World and all that comes with it including the misunderstanding of the original inhabitants, their displacement and destroyed way of life? Why does progress sometimes comes with a cross, a gun or a sign that says “Condominium”?
What is the difference between discovery and gentrification? What if I stop a white jogger or bike rider and he says his name is Vasco da Gama or Ponce de Leon? And who is this woman, once my baby, who carries my name and love? How is she viewed in the Anacostia neighborhood? What are the many shades of blackness? How many types of chocolate are there?
In 2012 the beautiful ones are here again. My daughter represents the type of African American women we have been waiting for. If DC is to be a capital city it must dance with my daughter again. It must remain her city, a place where she is able to afford a home and raise her children.
If this city works for her, it might just work for all of us. Of course there is much to repair. There are still many things broken in Washington. Some things might even need to be erased. It is the word “erasure” that now seems problematic and perhaps dangerous. It appears to be what comes after invisibility. There is a “Ralph Ellison” in me that keeps counting the light bulbs in the basement.
How many black Washingtonians feel they are slowly being driven underground? How many no longer see light or hope in the shadow of the Capitol? What are the choices they must navigate on a daily basis in order to survive? I look into my daughter’s eyes for a possible answer.
I need to father more words in order to tell her story.