There Goes the Neighborhood
Ethan Epstein, keepin' it real
Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
Getting into a taxi at the end of a recent night on the town, I gave the driver my address. “Are you sure?” he asked nervously. I had to sigh in familiar exasperation—I’d been through this rigmarole many times before. And I only moved to Trinidad in May!
That’s Trinidad the neighborhood, about two miles northeast of the U.S. Capitol. It’s the kind of place that’s often called “mixed” or “in transition.” It was once a thriving part of the nation’s capital—Washington’s first Sears opened there in 1929—and as recently as 1968 it was still middle class. But then came the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, and parts of H Street, the main commercial thoroughfare, were burned to the ground. This was the beginning of a long decline, and for decades much of the neighborhood stood in disrepair. Crime soared. The population fell. In the 1980s and ’90s, crack addiction and the violence it brought took a terrible toll. The neighborhood’s handsome housing stock, much of which dates from the late nineteenth century, fell into decrepitude.
But not, as it happened, forever. I’m told things were beginning to turn around by 2005, and today, the neighborhood boasts “up-and-coming” status. Lots of young professional types who can’t afford more established communities are moving in. There’s still some danger, mostly gang violence—hence the cabbies’ trepidation (one driver even broke D.C. law by declining to drive me home, with the claim that he didn’t know how to get there). But the danger is receding. The marketers are shrewd enough to court anyone still squeamish. A luxury condo complex going up across the street from me pitches itself to “urban pioneers.”
I used to think that “mixed neighborhood” was simply code for “slum.” But my new community really is remarkably heterogeneous. Bobo-oriented, wallet-busting restaurants (typical menu item: Loch Duart Salmon, Scalloped Potato, Leek Fondu, Fiddlehead Ferns, Chervil Crème Fraîche, Salsa Verde) abut liquor stores where the proprietor sells you your Taaka vodka from behind Plexiglas. Spiffy, polished rowhouses with new porches and shiny Priuses in the driveways sit next to bombed-out, abandoned homes with “KEEP OUT” signs tacked to boarded-up front doors. You don’t have to go to Guatemala City or Beijing to see such extreme disparities so close to each other: It turns out our nation’s capital has them in spades.
My own apartment building is a study in contradictions. It’s a solid brick structure, vintage 1941, not much to look at, but the interior was totally rebuilt two years ago. The apartments feature marble countertops, Jacuzzi-style bathtubs—the works. Yet just the other week, residents found someone squatting in the basement laundry room. Judging by the McDonald’s wrappers, he’d been there for days.
All of the change afoot has spurred predictable handwringing. “Farewell to Chocolate City,” read a lament in the New York Times this summer. A Washington Post story last month mourned the closure of an H Street establishment where the “pink polyester zoot suit” once was king. What these articles take care to specify is that most of Trinidad’s longtime residents are black, whereas many (though not all) of the newcomers are not. And so the bogeyman “gentrification” is invoked to claim that, with rising incomes, increasing public safety, and slowly shifting demographics, the area is becoming less authentic, somehow less “real.”
This way of talking about cities and neighborhoods implies that they ought to be static—such and such is and forever must remain a “Polish neighborhood.” But this masks the reality that urban America is continually in flux. The East Side of Providence, Rhode Island, where I grew up, was once filled with WASPs. Today, it’s heavily Jewish, with a large contingent of immigrants from the Azores. The St. Johns neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, which I left to move to Washington, was until recently dominated by white people, most of whom worked down at the port. It now has one of the city’s highest concentrations of Mexicans. The District of Columbia itself just recently passed a milestone, with its black population falling below 50 percent for the first time in decades, down from over 70 percent some 30 years back.
It’s foolish to think that any particular snapshot in time is more “real” than the next. The only constant in American cities is change. That—unlike grouchy taxi drivers—is one of the joys of urban life.
Recent Blog Posts