The Shaw neighborhood in Northwest experienced its first wave of newcomers and “gentrifiers” nearly a decade before the District’s other now gentrified areas, yet residents still feel its effects.
Gentrification, a process in which low-income urban areas see significant growth in things like home values and education attainment, has become a topic that elicits both celebration and controversy.
Detractors see the renewal process as one that displaces low-income families from where they have sewn their roots by high-income newcomers while proponents see it as the rebirth of economically depressed neighborhoods.
According to Governing magazine, 51.9 percent of D.C.’s census tracts have gentrified between 2000 and 2010. The magazine defines a gentrified area as one in which the median household income and median home value fall within the metro area’s 40th percentile, one that recorded increases in the top third percentile for inflation-adjusted median home value and in the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degree.
It marks identified the U Street corridor in Shaw as one of the earliest gentrified areas.
In the early 20th century, the U Street Corridor, known then as “Black Broadway,” acted as a cultural and commercial hub for African-Americans. Future Black luminaries including Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall walked the streets of the neighborhood adjacent to Howard University where hundreds of Black-owned businesses clustered and Black culture thrived within the walls of its many historic nightclubs and theaters.
But in 1968, the flourishing Black neighborhood became the epicenter of violence and rioting following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In the decades that followed the neighborhood fell into decline; in the 1990s the area would quickly become gentrified. Poverty and crime rates in the area dropped as did the number of African-American residents — but the population began to soar.
Compare one 40-year period and the decline of Black residents: in 1970, African Americans made up 90 percent of the neighborhood; Blacks made up less than 30 percent by 2010.
Along the way, property values began to rise to unprecedented levels. In the ’90s, the median home price in Shaw was $147,000 compared to today’s asking price of $781,000 — something that some attribute to the rapid change in demographics.
American University professor Derek S. Hyra, authored of the recently released “Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City,” says gentrification can cause real friction between new and long-standing residents — that is, white newcomers and African Americans whose families have lived in the area for generations.
“You see diversity along race, class and sexual orientation overall, but when you get into the civic institutions — the churches, the recreation centers, the restaurants, the clubs, the coffee shops — most of them are segregated,” Hyra said, pointing to a six-year study of the Shaw/U Street area that he recently conducted.
“So, you’re not getting a meaningful interaction across race, class, and difference. If we think that mixed-income and mixed-race communities are the panacea for poverty, they’re not,” he added.
One NPR report released last January also points to growing tension in the Shaw area between long-term residents and newcomers.
Long-term residents, some of whom had called the area home for decades, expressed feeling like “outsiders” as their influence in civic organizations declines and their priorities took the backseat to the new majority who favor amenities like bike lanes and dog parks over recreation centers.
This trend has been replicated around the District as home prices continue to skyrocket forcing officials, housing advocates and residents alike, to think critically about ways to redevelop an area without displacing the residents who have long called it home.