E on DC

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.

Reply to Article

Your article proves you are a excellent writer full of wisdom.


Gentrification is a microcosm of the 14th/15th century Voyages of Discovery and extensions of The Trail of Tears and Ellis Island where indigenous populations are replaced by progress. That’s supposed to be a good thing, right?

Recently Mayor Vincent Grey was present for the opening of a new housing project in an old neighborhood in Southwest D.C. near the Nationals ballpark. One of the original residents a black female bus driver was one of the fortunate ones to qualify under the “affordable housing” guidelines. The high-end homes which don’t look different from hers go for upwards of $800,000. The Mayor put a smiling face on an ugly issue. Lets step out of the fog of euphoria long enough to realize that property taxes are based, I think unfairly, on property values. As far as I know there is no sliding scale. The value of homes in that “new” community will be skewed toward the higher end. How long will the affordable housing residents be able to afford their affordable housing? Will their income keep up with rising property taxes? Rising property taxes has long been one of the gentrification tactics employed to shuffle long term residents out of their homes. That is an ugly business that has no shame.

As for my son, he is 8. He too was born at GW hospital, but resides and attends a Catholic School in Illinois, but in his heart D.C. is his home. His ties to this city go back to the 1920s and Asbury Methodist Church at 11th and K Steets N.W. Several years ago he and I were replaced by the progress of condo/gentrification encouraged, in many instances fraudulently, by the City Council. That is no indictment, it’s a fact. However, I doubt that his preference of where he chooses to live when he becomes a man will be influenced by the same conceptualization of gentrification I have especially if his income gives him discretionary choices. By that time there ought to be more history heritage plagues around the city of places he will remember.

ethelbert, this is brilliant, passion and wisdom

dear e,
this is a fine piece of thinking and writing; you understanding, sympathy, questioning and wisdom are the kinds of things that the world, and washington, dc, need, but that we have too little of.

i have a fear that there is a kind of golden ghetto concept going in wash, dc, in princeton, where i live, and in other parts of what was our country--but is becoming more and more the country of the very rich and their sycophantic followers, where independent thinking and speaking are at risk, and where our homes are under threat of foreclosure, not because we can't pay the mortgage, but because the taxes on the lower and middle class homes in princeton are going up fast, and the taxes on the more expensive homes have stayed the same or been lowered. thus, we would have a foreclosure by tax rather than by the corrupt banks brought about by our legislatures that do not want to accept that we are no longer an agrarian society, and that we must create new ways if taxing that are on non necessities, like higher taxes on booze, and luxury items rather than people's homes and necessities like gas, heat and light.

carry on ethelbert, you are a natural leader and fine writer.

brother sam (and build a house, and make it a home!!:)

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