The Invisible Gentrified.

Postbourgie’s own Shani Hilton has a much-discussed cover story in the Washington City Paper about being a black gentrifier.

Freddie at L’Hote has some criticism:

This is a several-thousand word article on the relationship between race and socioeconomic class, and about the tensions between old and new residents and poor and rich residents of a city and a neighborhood. Yet in those thousands of words there isn’t a single interview with a poor, long-term, black resident. It’s a glaring omission.

I’d like to add to that, because it’s an important oversight.  It’s akin to writing an piece about nightlife in DC, and then only interviewing your friends about the places in your neighborhood.  There are no interviews with neighbors, former residents who have been pushed out of the neighborhood, or really, anyone outside of Shani’s immediate peer group.   Those list-servs mentioned in the piece?  They are a treasure trove of information and comment from local law enforcement, church leaders, local community activists- none of whom are consulted in the article.   There’s no discussion of the different trends in gentrifying across the city (what’s happening in Bloomingdale and Columbia Heights is different from what’s happening in Hill East, H Street or NoMa, which is different from what’s happening in Anacostia and Congress Heights).  There is a nod to this in the opening paragraph, but that’s it.

Freddie again:

…elite media consistently and systematically excludes the voices of the worst off. I don’t think that this is intentional; I think it’s a result of a confluence of factors involving visibility, accessibility, fear of appearing condescending, and worry about being in physical danger in poor neighborhoods. If we’re going to confront these questions responsibly and fairly, the journalistic class has to overcome that.

Many people conflate the DC metro area with DC proper the way Shani does. But life in these four quadrants can be very different from life in Annandale or Bowie (where, incidentally, I spent a significant part of my childhood).  Gentrification, by definition, deals with the influx of wealthier residents and the (often, but not always) displacement of poorer residents.  DC is being gentrified.  Metro DC is not: the demographic trends in the suburbs are very different from those in DC proper.  And it’s not just demographics. While the DC metro area might have been “largely insulated from the recession,” with a 6% unemployment rate, unemployment in DC is just over 10 percent.  Shani also says that “the number of families below the poverty line has actually decreased in the last three years.”  I’m not sure where those numbers come from*, but according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, poverty in DC dipped from 17.1% to 16.9% between 2007 and 2008, but has been rising since then.

I recognize that this is more of a first-person piece  — the title, after all, is “Confessions of a Black Gentrifier.”  I’m not sure what the confession is though, because the framing  of the piece leads me to think being a black gentrifier isn’t all that different from being a white gentrifier.  Gentrification anywhere is a complicated and nuanced issue, and gentrification in DC (in my humble opinion) is especially so, given the long, convoluted history of black people in the District and its peculiar politics.  Given the dramatic gap between the haves and the have-nots, it seems like there’s a lot of lip service paid to the idea that life for gentrifiers in DC is different from life for poorer residents. That’s often asserted with precious little consideration of those residents.  Freddie is right — according to this piece,  those people being displaced exist in the ether, outside of the realm of the gentrifier, black or otherwise.  Gentrification, at its core, is about privilege (Shani admits as much), and I take this as proof that privilege blinds, black or not.

UPDATE- Shani says those numbers come from the US Census’ 3 and 5 year American Community Surveys.  The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has the lowdown on why those numbers are misleading.

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belmontmedina

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17 comments to The Invisible Gentrified.

  • DC is DC is DC. Not Maryland. Not Virginia.

  • I found the article thought provoking, if hugely one sided. Yes it’s a shame that the local watering holes (like Room 11) charge upwards of $10 for a drink which is far out of reach for many neighborhood residents, so let’s hear what those residents have to say about such places. Maybe even what it has been like to see them and their patrons take over more and more of the surrounding blocks.

  • Interesting read. I appreciate the fact that even though Shani is a PB contributor there is space to have a dialogue about conflicting POV’s about the piece.

  • kinda related, but the book “my korean deli” is a really interesting take on gentrification in BK…it’s funny too, by ben ryder howe.

  • This story also, weirdly, leaves out the way race is lived in DC even for those who are gentrifying. A friend was telling me about how her boyfriend, himself a black DC gentrifier, is still pulled over and harassed by the police. how many white hipsters are having that experience?

    a lot of it reads like an apologia for gentrification. you know: hey you guys, black folks do it too. the complexity of all this stuff is only glancingly addressed. acknowledging that an issue is complex isn’t a substitute for trying to think through those complexities.

    also, this is a pretty important point:

    So if the “gentrifier” can’t be racialized as white but boils down to economics, how come the Black middle-class, despite their income drive property values DOWN when they move into white neighborhoods, even if they make similar or equal amounts of money as the whites in that community? Why is the Black middle-class not as able to live among people of similar economic status who are not Black (in large numbers) even if they so desire to? And if many Black middle-class people choose to live in mixed-income Black communities, what does that say about their experiences with racism even if they have the income and credit to live elsewhere? This has everything to do with race and less to do with income or education.

  • Huamanus

    Any chance someone from PB can get Shani O. to weigh in on this discussion?

  • Jon

    I refuse to ever pay at the door at ANY club on U Street. Period. Gentrify these nuts, Gibsons.

  • -k-

    I’m left questioning the motivations of the City Paper editors. This could have been a really interesting piece had the issue been probed more deeply and had more consideration been given, as already pointed out, to a more diverse array of points of view. But the eds looked at this as is and saw, or chose to see, no problem with either the overrepresentation of the author’s personal contacts or the underrepresentation of other key stakeholders among the interviewees, no problem with the lack of engagement with rather obvious tough questions–and I can’t help but feel that this does have something to do with G.D.’s point above. It just seems like somebody is (maybe a lot of somebodies are) hearing what they want to hear, and as such there’s little motivation to push back on how the issue is being presented.

    Huamanus has a good point–this would be a good space for Shani to talk about her take on some of the more controversial decisions she made that made the piece what it is.

    • Meh

      Huamanus has a good point–this would be a good space for Shani to talk about her take on some of the more controversial decisions she made that made the piece what it is.

      Good luck with that. I doubt Ms. Hilton has any interest in discussing her “work.”

  • @Jon –

    LOL! I remember the first time I rolled up to Marvin and they asked for a reservation. Uhh…what? Then they pulled that mess at Tabaq. Suddenly, you couldn’t just roll down to U street and grab some food anymore. It was truly a sign of the gentri-pocalypse.

  • Good discussion, all.

    I think some of the most interesting feedback I’ve gotten has come from people like Nicole and Freddie, and others in the City Paper thread, all of which are examples of the fact that there are so many stories to tell around race and class and gentrification.

    To make a couple of points about my thought process: This is a personal story I’ve wanted to tell since I moved back to D.C. I pitched it to the editors as essentially my own conflicted feelings about a pretty fraught issue. It’s a whole lot of navel-gazing, still, much of the response I’ve gotten has come from people who say they’ve had a lot of the same thoughts.

    As for the question of “where are the interviews with poor people / longtime black residents / etc,” I think that is a completely valid inquiry. Writing this piece was pretty challenging for me — as many people who had to deal with me skipping stuff and hiding out in my room for weeks can attest. I think it ended up at around 4500 words, which, on one hand, could be plenty of room to include lots of different voices. But on the other, having 3000-5000 words to play with can also mean you end up jumping around a lot and risk losing or confusing your reader (and yourself, for that matter). I chose to stick to pulling out a single thread in what is clearly a huge issue — and that’s something I believe I made very clear in the piece.

    With that said, are there things I would do differently or questions I would have asked/addressed? Sure. I don’t think it’s possible to write 4500 words and be happy with every single one, or think you should have left something out or put something back in (for example, though this was a personal essay, not objective reporting, I should have disclosed that I’m friendly with a couple of the people I interviewed).

    More importantly, I think, is that I certainly wasn’t setting out to write the definitive story on gentrification in D.C. because I don’t think anyone can do that. But I love the idea of a tightly planned series — around the questions some of you here and elsewhere have raised — on the topic.

    • blackink

      I might add a little more emphasis to that penultimate graf: it’s hard to do long-form journalism, and it’s really easy to lose control of the narrative in 1,500 words – let alone 4,500.

      While I don’t find any of the feedback in the post or the comments to be unfair, it’s also worth mentioning that as a personal essay, you sorta get to pick and choose which voices belong and which don’t.

      I wasn’t under the assumption that Shani’s piece was the definitive take on gentrification in D.C., so those other voices – the displaced, if you will – really didn’t stand out as missing to me.

      Would it have been nice to have them? Sure. But then it would have been someone else’s story and not Shani’s.

      Either way, good story, good post, good discussion. It’s important to note that no one is really wrong here. We’ve all got different expectations and takes on stories about things that are important to us.

      Some people like Jodeci. Some like Boyz II Men. (The people who like Boyz II Men are wrong, tho.)

  • Paris

    Kenyon Farrow provides some more historical context, and questions the attention paid to ‘black gentrification’ when the black middle class is in such a precarious economic position:
    http://kenyonfarrow.com/2011/03/22/notes-on-a-confession-of-a-so-called-black-gentrifier/

  • Paris

    Okay, I see where GD already posted a link.

  • [...] Postbourgie follows up on Shani O. Hilton’s recent Washington City Paper cover story: There are no interviews with neighbors, former residents who have been pushed out of the neighborhood, or really, anyone outside of Shani’s immediate peer group. [...]

  • [...] where one of her co-bloggers expands the discussion the City Paper article has generated by highlighting an issue with the piece– it did not include interviews with poorer black residents who have lived in D.C. for a long [...]

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