The topic of gentrification in the District is generating some buzz — as it often does. Last week, the Root DC’s Stephen A. Crockett Jr. introduced us all to the term “swagger jacking,” which then triggered a slue blog posts (including our own) on the subject of DC’s economic, cultural and racial shift.
Shortly after Crockett’s piece, The Atlantic published a follow-up story that exposed a series of counter arguments to Crockett’s commentary. In the article – “The Politics of the Urban Comeback: Gentrification and Culture in DC” – writer Garance Franke-Ruta argues that DC’s developmental boom [aka: gentrification] should not be seen as such a bad thing.
Yes, DC is changing; but the once dubbed “Chocolate City” has been undergoing this major transition for more than a decade. And according to Franke-Ruta, development in the city (especially in the U Street area) is not to blame for the loss of DC’s black population – that happened long before the “culture vultures” swooped in with construction cranes and hipster ambiance.
“A close look at the Census data shows that black population loss in the neighborhood actually slowed as gentrification picked up, dropping almost in half from the previous decade’s rate,” writes Franke-Ruta.
The article also emphasizes the importance of the District’s continuing development for tax revenue and population retention purposes. (I don’t know about you, but I am sick of being referred to as a “transient city.”) Encouraging revitalization, development, small business establishments and residential space in DC (especially in the U Street corridor) has been a major priority for the District’s last four mayors.
So there you have it – two sides of the city’s decade-long great divide. Crockett longs for a city that dodges a disheartened sense of “faux black ethos,” while Franke-Ruta longs for a less dodgy city. Is one argument better than the other? And is there a way for the city (and for U Street) to continue to develop and evolve in a way that pleases the majority of the District’s residents?
Swagger Jacking: It’s a phrase that has popped up on several DC blogs this week. So what does it mean, exactly?
Well the phrase, used by Stephen A. Crockett Jr. on The Root DC, alludes to the social, economic and cultural shifts that are taking place in the District. More specifically, Crockett uses “swagger jacking” to describe the sense of “faux black ethos” that is running amuck on the U Street Corridor.
What was once the cultural center of Chocolate City (the name for DC a couple of decades ago when it had a large African American majority) is now home to loft apartments, high rent prices, chic restaurants and restored theaters — that all pay homage to the past in an ironically expensive way. To sum it up, today’s U Street is a trendy misrepresentation of the area’s history.
Crockett writes, “There is something inherently inauthentic about homemade sweet tea out of a mason jar,” referring to a U Street restaurant that emulates “some memory of blackness.”
Change is an inevitable fact of life; a fact to which urban areas are especially prone. Cities will continue to experience on-going social and economic shifts as races and cultures migrate and populate different city neighborhoods.
City Paper writer, Alex Baca, points out that many of the buildings in the U Street area (specifically The Brixton, the target of Crockett’s article) have been vacant and decrepit for years. Now, the U Street Corridor is one of the city’s most vibrant and desirable places to live and visit. Undoubtedly, it is also one of the city’s most lucrative areas, generating both revenue and jobs for the District.
“Crockett’s just saying what we already know: DC isn’t what it used to be,” writes Baca.
So then, what?
As the racial, cultural and economic dynamics of the city change, do we just rebuild and erase all of the District’s history? Is some preservation better than no preservation? Or is what is happening along U Street more exploitation and less preservation as we continue to swagger jacket our way into a bustling neighborhood?