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New Book Highlights the Challenges of Gentrification

A red house is sandwiched between new development projects in Washington, D.C.

As the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. serves as both an outlier and example to cities across the country. Washington’s economy is thriving compared to other cities, but a closer look reveals stark class divisions. A new book by Derek Hyra, associate professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs and the director of AU’s Metropolitan Policy Center, reveals the complex drivers behind the process of gentrification in Washington.

Hyra’s book, Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, examines D.C.’s rapidly changing economic landscape through the prism of the revitalization of the city’s historic Shaw/U Street neighborhood. On April 27, he talked with WAMU public radio’s Kojo Nnamdi at Busboys and Poets, about the emergence of “cappuccino cities.”

“A cappuccino has essentially the same ingredients as a cup of coffee with milk, but is considered upscale and is double the price,” said Hyra. “It’s essentially what is happening to urban neighborhoods across the country. D.C. is gentrification gone wild."

Between 2000 and 2010, more than half of the low-income census tracks in the city have been gentrified, forcing many African-American residents and business to relocate because of higher rents, he told the audience at the evening event.

The Shaw/U Street neighborhood has become almost unrecognizable to its older long-time residents in part because of an influx of young, white, and relatively wealthy professionals. He explained the upheaval, conflict, and micro-segregation as this black inner-city neighborhood becomes racially “lighter” and more expensive.

Nnamdi asked Hyra how African-Americans feel about their transformed community. The good news is that about 30 percent of the neighborhood remains African American and low-income, thanks to DC’s affordable housing policies, which Hyra said are some of the best in the county.

“We have to go beyond housing,” said Hyra. “Just because you have long-term residents in subsidized housing living next to millennials doesn’t mean they are going to interact. We need social integration in the gentrified space.”

While residents appreciate that crime is down, he said there is tension around the changes. New amenities, such as bike lanes and dog parks, are not used by many older African-Americans and have created some resentment.

“There is political displacement and cultural displacement going on in this community,” said Hyra. “It may take a generation for us to really understand the positive consequences on a community like this,” he said.

Hyra suggests that building social bridges between newcomers and long-term residents through developing neutral “third spaces” where residents have meaningful interactions across race and class, could help to reduce the inequalities associated with gentrification. Hyra insists that more equitable, inclusive, and integrated neighborhood redevelopment will only occur in places like Shaw/U Street through policy actions that help grease the wheels of micro-level social interactions.

“Those who have been part of the fabric of the city should also have an opportunity to be part of the redevelopment of the city,” said George Lambert, president of the Greater Washington Urban League. “The challenge is finding a balance.”

Hearing the conversation made Kyle Reeder a little more hopeful that the city will be able to figure out these issues. The 26-year-old African American said he moved out of the neighborhood because of gentrification and bought a home in Prince George’s County.

“I appreciate within the white community that these discussions are happening and that people are being a little more conscious about the effects of gentrification,” said Reeder. “Gentrification isn’t bad. It brings services to the community. But the distaste comes with it when people get displaced.”

Anita Prince, who grew up in Northwest DC and whose great-grandfather was a black pastor in Georgetown, shared the concern about black residents being forced to move from their homes.

“I hope that people will be mobilized to preserve public housing so black people in the communities now will be able to remain there,” she said.