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Documentary Explores U Street, Columbia Heights Gentrification

by Sean Meehan October 2, 2015 at 3:50 pm 3 Comments

A documentary by professors at American University and George Washington University examines gentrification in the U Street area, Columbia Heights and Petworth.

The documentary, called Dog Parks and Coffee Shops, aims to make locals aware of how income inequality and buying decisions can hurt integration.

“Back in the day, Washington D.C. was America’s first city with a Black majority population, and many neighborhoods were predominantly Black,” says a narrator in the film’s trailer. “Today, many of those same neighborhoods have experienced significant demographic shifts.”

Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at AU and a co-producer of the documentary, said that consumption habits are one of the largest source of headaches in rapidly changing neighborhoods.

As the notion goes, gentrifiers move in to traditionally low-rent neighborhoods, open middle class destinations such as dog parks and coffee shops, and in the process cause tension among longtime residents by way of rising rent and a higher cost of goods.

“If you have people living in separate consumption worlds, that doesn’t support harmony, integration and unity within communities,” Grier said. “It supports what we observed, what we call faux diversity.”

Grier, who lives north of Petworth in Brightwood, said the idea for the documentary came from a trip she and co-producer Vanessa Perry, a marketing professor at GWU, took to U Street. The two professors noticed that, despite the racial diversity of the neighborhood, people of different ethnicities weren’t actually mixing.

Instead, groups of similar people tended to go to the same destinations. On the outside, Grier said, neighborhoods like U Street and Columbia Heights might look diverse. But walk inside businesses and restaurants and the crowds tend to be more homogenous. And that, she said, can lead to problems.

“One of the issues we identify in the film is that there’s not a lot of interracial discussions in these areas and that can lead to mistrust,” Grier said. “In the Shaw neighborhood, they have a campaign to get people to say hi to their neighbors. The fact that they need that campaign actually says a lot.”

The documentary will be part of the Reel Independent Film Extravaganza at the Angelika Pop-up Theater at Union Market next weekend. The filmmakers will also hold a free screening and discussion of the film at the Northeast Neighborhood Library at 330 7th St. NE at 2 p.m. Oct. 11.

Grier said she and the other filmmakers behind the documentary hope to use it as a tool to spur discussions between old and new residents and across racial lines.

“Something is going on where people aren’t interacting,” she said, “and we hope the film can act as a stimulus to get people talking about these issues.”

  • Guest

    I would work on a better stance than dog parks. This is one of the ONLY places that I see all types of people interacting in a city. Coffee shops go along with your argument better.

  • Daleks

    This is something people need to realize a neighborhood which is mostly black and poor is no more diverse than a neighborhood which is white and wealthy. The most diverse neighborhoods in the city are the ones which are experiencing gentrification or have gentrified when you look at it from a demographic standpoint, not the reverse. I hate to break it to black people, the neighborhoods which are 90%+ black east of the river are no more diverse than the west of the park neighborhoods in upper-NW. Both reflect a lack of diversity. As much as when gentrification introduced into predominantly black neighborhood as a lack of diversity, the opposite is usually true, it is the diversification of the area, since gentrification does not only bring in white residents, but also asians and latinos who are affluent. I think when it gets down to it, that is what is irritating, that gentrification is breaking up traditionally red-lined neighborhoods. Here is the truth of integration, it cuts both ways. Those same laws that did away with red lining, introduced gentrification. There is really no way to stop gentrification for this reason alone, those same laws that insure black home ownership in white communities, introduce white, asian, and latino home ownership into black communities. Like it or not businesses and government often cater to those who have money, no matter their color. Nobody said diversification and integration would be easy. The means to preserving a neighborhoods racial composition would violate those same laws against redlining and restrictive covenants (and the like). When the artificial boundaries of segregation are taken off, this is what is the result. I see no problem with it, and gentrification as positive, as gentrification is integration and diversification of communities that lacked diversity, not some negative to be stopped. Nobody said integration would be easy, and everybody would be happy. The reality of integration in high COL urban areas, is in the long term it always benefited those with financial means, as the artificial boundaries of redlining could no longer be enforced. The only things that wins out in system that forbids discrimination, is the dollar.

    • Zaidi

      You missed the authors’ point, which was NOT their questioning diversification; but the lack of communication between races. Your statement, “government often cater to those who have money, no matter their color”, is arguably true; however, 99 percent of the time, those people who have money are white. But, as you say, “I see no problem with…” BTW, the one critical feature lacking in your comment is “EMPATHY”; plus, I get the impression that the only people you have conversations with, are White.


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