WASHINGTON – The Anacostia River divides Washington geographically and socially. On one side is the rapidly evolving and rejuvenating cosmopolitan D.C. On the other side is Ward 8, where poverty and neglect seem to reign.
Redevelopment and gentrification have slowly changed the racial landscape of the city once referred to by some residents and the funk band Parliament as the real Chocolate City. Now, renewal has reached the other side of the river, affecting history-rich neighborhoods in Ward 8 such as Anacostia and Barry Farm.
What was once a forgotten or feared part of Washington has become highly coveted.
“I had a friend one time that referred to coming to this side of town as slumming,” Terence Nicholson, cultural programs assistant at the Anacostia Arts Center, said. “So to me, everything that’s taking place now is kind of poetic, and it’s kind of comical to me. It kind of speaks to the way things kind of change over time.”
Born and raised in D.C., Nicholson has lived in various parts of the city. Originally from Anacostia, he spent over 10 years living in Northwest Washington before coming back in 2004. He works at the arts center, which opened in 2013 and has a black box theater, exhibition spaces, boutiques and a cafe.
“It’s a segregated town. I don’t know if I can tell you why that is, but I can tell you what I’ve seen,” he said.
The setting of Ward 8 can be described as poetic, with the Anacostia River, a tributary of the Potomac, the only physical divide between the ward and the center of D.C. The river is both a figurative and literal dividing line, with areas east of the river like Anacostia and Congress Heights having majority black populations who are living in poverty compared to those west of the river.
“D.C. for a long time was very much a black-white city.”
The poverty rate in Ward 8 has increased 10 percentage points to 37 percent, compared to 18 percent citywide from 1990 to 2012. The ward’s unemployment is 24 percent, compared to 11 percent citywide.
From 2000 to 2014, the number of people receiving food stamps nearly doubled from 24,797 to 42,294 in 2014 – a stark comparison to one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, Ward 3, where only 598 people received food stamps in 2014, or Ward 1 at 10,564.
The Capitol’s dome is visible over the river from the hilly streets of Anacostia. The skyline of the capital city is scraped by construction canes. Highway snake around the landscape, where I-695 meets I-295, or the Anacostia Freeway, and onto Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. The avenue is home to landmark restaurants like Cheers at The Big Chair, famous for its crab fries.
“We have a whole lot of new neighbors. A lot of people moving in, a lot of people moving out,” Lawrence Clingman, 39, a lifelong resident of Anacostia, said of the changes he’s seen. “It’s coming along though. Don’t take the Big Chair away, that’s a milestone right there.”
Nicholson said no one ever used the term “historic Anacostia” when he was growing up.
“It was Anacostia,” Nicholson said. “I found it ironic that as the development comes they call it historic Anacostia. To me that says ‘right, that was history, that’s what was, and that’s not what’s now.’”
A segregated city
Through the influx of people and change in demographics through the decades, one characteristic has remained consistent to this day in Washington – lack of diversity. The city’s political nature and the lack of significant industry that would attract immigrant labor made two races predominant in D.C.
“The thing about D.C. is, because of its particular history, race and class are much more closely correlated than other parts of the country,” said Chris Myers Asch, a historian at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. and editor of “Washington History.”
“D.C. for a long time was very much a black-white city,” he said. “For a long time, you had basically a two-race society, and that created segregated housing patterns.”
Segregation has always been noticeable in D.C., even to those who are not historians, with whites living in some parts of town and blacks in others. Growing up in Washington, Schyla Pondexter-Moore, 39, the affordable housing organizer with Empower DC, understands this divide.
“When I was coming up, it was just certain parts of the city that were for certain people,” she said.
Myers Asch said that in the post-9/11 era the federal government grew drastically, igniting revitalization, with wealthier white people moving in. This, paired with a lot of younger people wanting to live in the city, is what he calls a cycle in which current residents can no longer afford the rising prices.
“It’s always hard to tell how these kinds of changes will play out,” Myers Asch said. “Fifty years ago Anacostia was largely white. Twenty years later it’s largely black. Fifty years from now will there be any black people left? It’s hard to tell. People with money want to live near the center of power.”
What is now Ward 8 has its roots as one of the first suburbs of Washington. Established with rural characteristics, Anacostia was originally named Uniontown in 1854 and populated entirely by white people.
Black people came to the area with the settlement of Barry Farm, one of the first communities made up of freed slaves. The land was purchased by the Freedmen’s Bureau through a white intermediary to circumvent restrictions that prevented the sale of that land to anybody of African or Irish descent.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass spent the final 17 years of his life living in Uniontown and his house, now a national historic site maintained by the National Park Service, still stands in Anacostia.
Although the establishment of Barry Farm and its significance might have foreshadowed the grip blacks would one day gain in D.C., it was some time before Washington truly became Chocolate City. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Anacostia, today over 90 percent black, was completely different 60 years ago.
“The interesting thing about Anacostia is that in 1950 it was 80 percent plus, 85 percent white,” Myers Asch said. “This idea that Anacostia has always been a black community is not really true.”
Before the 1960s, D.C. was a predominantly white city. Between 1920 and 1940 black people comprised no more than 28 percent of the city’s total population.
This began to change when World War II created government jobs that attracted blacks to the city. As the city grew, Anacostia was no longer a suburb. During the 1950s, people began to leave the city for suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1968 riots and the crack epidemic of the 1980s all played a role in the white population moving to the suburbs.
“During this unique period in American history where there was tremendous, massive suburbanization, black people aren’t able to take advantage of it. White people do,” Myers Asch said. “That’s where you get the years of large black majority.”
A study by the Urban Institute shows that the black population became the majority in Washington in the 1960s, as the white population, which peaked at 517,865 in the 1950s began to plummet. The city itself reached an all time high population of 802,000 in the 1950s, a number that consistently decreased until the 2000s, when the population was at 572,059, before returning to an upward trend.
According to the census bureau, Washington’s population has increased by just over 1,000 residents per month since April 2010. The current population is 672,000, and a recent study predicted the city will reach 1 million residents by 2045.
Redevelopment in the District
Gentrification is nothing new in D.C. But after hitting every other ward, it has finally arrived in Ward 8. In 2013, Ward 8 had the most-affordable single-family homes. The median price of $207,563 was comparable only to $226,369 in Ward 7, the only other ward east of the river. Wards 1 and 3 had the highest median prices at $1,281,250 and $989,100, respectively.
According to the Urban Institute, luxury condos have become a fixture in areas usually not associated with that type of housing. From 2002 to 2013, about 4,000 single-family homes, 600 condominium developments and 680 rental apartment buildings have been built, transforming entire communities. In 2012, 9,700 more rental units were under construction and 18,500 units were in the pipeline.
“There has been an enormous amount of redevelopment in our city over the past 15 years or more,” said Peter Tatian, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Community Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
The transformation of these communities and the percentage of the black population in D.C., which dropped under 50 percent for the first time in 50 years, has many feeling pushed out of Washington, with Ward 8 being the final stand.
“Everybody says that Ward 8 is the last stand. They have basically gentrified every ward, and it’s coming this way.”
Some of this redevelopment includes Busboys & Poets, a D.C. restaurant chain that is coming to Martin Luther King Avenue. There’s also the more controversial Wizards’ training facility and Mystics’ court that will be built at the site of the old St. Elizabeths Hospital in Congress Heights, which is expected to be finished in 2018. The facility will cost $55 million, with 90 percent of that paid for by the District using tax dollars. The venue will be operated by Events DC.
According to an Events DC press release, “The 118,000-square foot, 5,000-seat facility will also attract more than 380,000 annual new residents and visitors per year to Congress Heights and produce more than 600 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs.”
Councilmember LaRuby May, D-Ward 8, sees this as an opportunity to create long-term jobs for residents not only through construction, but also for local food vendors to get their foot in the door of the facility, she said at a March 2 8C Advisory Neighborhood Commission. She said she hopes the facility will also mean that kids learn about performers like those in Cirque du Soleil and will promote art and humanities in the neighborhood.
May is running for re-election after winning her seat narrowly in a special election in May 2015. May beat Trayon White by 79 votes. White is May’s primary rival in the Democratic primary. The winner of the primary is likely to win the general election because of D.C.’s heavily Democratic population.
“I just believe that Ward 8 in D.C. is a place for this transition,” White said. “But I just think that D.C. needs to put more emphasis on building up the people for being here for the long run. Because a lot of people who can’t afford to live here is getting forced out, and as a result the crime has increased.”
In 2015, there were a total of 1,239 violent crimes in Ward 8. That number was the largest in the city ahead of Ward 7’s 1,211. In each of the other six wards, the number was less than 1,000.
White acknowledged that Ward 8 has never had anything like the Wizards’ training facility, but said he does not believe it will produce any concrete improvements.
“The reality is that we gave a billionaire 50 million of tax dollars over nothing, no real return in our investment,” White said of the deal with Ted Leonsis and Monumental Sports. “Part of the theory behind it is that it’s going to create jobs, and construction around it, but we want to see more concrete things.”
Mary Cuthbert, chair of Area Neighborhood Commission 8C, is a big advocate for the facility.
“It’s not just a practice facility, it’s an arena. It will bring part-time and full-time employment,” Cuthbert said. “They’ll need people to work inside the offices.”
Activists like Moore are pushing back, saying that businesses, including grocery stores, should be a priority. Better schools, housing and cleaner streets are among the many upgrades people on the streets of Ward 8 call for.
There are three grocery stores Wards 7 and 8. Leon Stitt, 61, a resident of Anacostia, wonders why there is no Wal-Mart, Costco, Sears or Walgreens in Ward 8.
“We don’t have none of that stuff,” Stitt said as he played a game of dominoes on the street. “But we got a thousand police in Ward 8. You got a police department in almost every corner.”
Moore testified at a D.C. Council hearing on March 24 after Councilmember Elissa Silverman, I-At Large, introduced the Wizards Practice Facility Cost Containment Act of 2016. Silverman said the act would ensure that the city does not spend more than its original investment of $50 million. In an editorial she wrote in The Greater Greater Washington, Silverman noted the lack of transparency from the D.C. government in striking this deal.
“If we don’t bring a basic level of transparency and accountability to the Wizards project, it could easily grow far beyond our original $50 million investment,” she said. “A reckless approach to budgeting will not bring more permanent jobs and development to Ward 8, and, in fact, it could impact the money Events DC has available for important promises it has made in terms of workforce development and community programming.”
The fight for Barry Farm
Moore is known to the D.C. Council members and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C, not just for speaking out against the practice facility but also for her impassioned fight for Barry Farm. Barry Farm, which is being threatened by redevelopment, is one of the last few affordable housing apartment complexes in the city.
“Everybody says that Ward 8 is the last stand. They have basically gentrified every ward, and it’s coming this way,” Moore said. “I always say Barry Farms is the line in the sand. Like if Barry Farms goes, you might as well say goodbye to all of Ward 8.”
Looking at historical patterns, Myers Asch understands the fear that Moore and others have.
“I think the activists in Empower DC and other folks are right to worry. They’re right to worry about the incentives that our public officials give to people who are going to come in, and there’s no question they displace low income folks,” he said.
Members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C refused to comment about Barry Farm for this story.
The future of Ward 8
Talk about segregation and classism in D.C. is fairly sparse, which Myers Asch attributes to being wrapped up in the process of one’s stance on gentrification.
Nicholson said it’s just living life.
“D.C. is a big small town,” Nicholson said. “I’ve done a lot of traveling, in the states and out of the country, and what I’ve seen that I found really ironic about D.C. in particular is that it’s the nation’s capital, and these are things that aren’t really talked about.”
Many American cities today are moving toward a European model, which Myers Asch said has been a trend for the past 20 years. Money and wealth has been concentrated in the suburbs, but today it is the opposite: Power and money is centralized, usually downtown.
“If you want affordable housing, you actually go to the suburbs, because there aren’t that many places except Ward 7 and Ward 8 in D.C. now where you can actually find affordable houses,” he said. “And our public officials – you know, they talk a good game, a lot of them talk a good game – but they have not shown that they are particularly interested in keeping those folks in the city.”
Sitting in the new Anacostia Arts Center, with its wooden floors and pristine white walls bathed in the sunlight of a warm spring day, Nicholson reflected on his past and how he got here. He said he has come to embrace and accept the changes of his hometown.
“Honestly, I’ve sort of had to let go, in some way, to my thoughts of the past. I’ve had to, over the last few years, certainly, come to terms with D.C. as I recall it and as I have lived it in my life,” he said. “That’s gone.”
If gentrification and redevelopment do prevail in Ward 8, the history of the ward may be rewritten again, as demographics change and new neighbors move in, with the area looking more like it did in the 1950s.
“I think if you ask anybody that’s been here for any length of time, you can sort of tell that the more things change, the more they stay the same, really.”
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