Prof. Hyra’s Talk on Gentrification

American University Professor Derek Hyra led a frank discussion on gentrification at Busboys and Poets on 14th and V Streets in Washington D.C. this past week. The talk was inspired by his latest book, Race, Class, and Politics in the Capuccino City, which discusses gentrification in the Shaw/U St. area.

Prof. Hyra describes the cappuccino city as a metaphor for gentrified D.C. What is a cappucino? You start with dark coffee (a metaphor for the African-American population living in the area), and pour in fancy steamed milk (the new White millennials moving into the area). The result: the “gilded ghetto.”

The “gilded ghetto,” as Prof. Hyra explains, is a uniquely D.C. phenomenon. In the archetypal gentrification event, wealthy White people move into the area, causing property values to increase, and cause a massive increase in “hipster” shops/businesses/areas, like espresso bars, vegan restaurants, dog parks, and bike lanes. The new population coming in purposely displaces the old population, brings economic renewal, and decreases crime. Not much different than the first European settlers, these new people are looking for land they can convert into their own little utopia.

However, this is not the case with the Shaw area. Here, the new White millennials are actually attracted to the “ghetto.” In an act of cultural tourism, they seek to be a part of the authentic ghetto because it’s “cool” or “hipster.”

The effect is the same. Planners intend for new dog parks and the like to be used for everyone. But Prof. Hyra delivered the example of a new dog park constructed in Brentwood on Rhode Island Ave. Never one did one Black individual utilize the space; “it’s not for us” one indignant Black individual told Prof. Hyra.

In theory, this physical racial integration sounds promising. Diversity, economic renewal, crime reduction are things dreamt of by all people. Physical integration does not equal social social integration.

David Fleming calls for social integration in his book City of Rhetoric. Fleming discusses the North Town Village apartment complex, a project designed to bring families and individuals of all races and classes together. For more on the North Town Village, and how it failed, read my article here.

Moreover, this cultural tourism tends to glorify the “good” parts of Black history, while neglecting the “bad.” For example, many want to live in Shaw because it was once a residence of Duke Ellington and others. They ignore the riots that devastated the area after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, however. While cultural tourism often manifests under the guise of historical appreciation, it fails to appreciate history in its entirety.

So where do we go from here?

No one knows. It’s why research and dialogue continues on the subject. We will probably never reach one definitive answer. But at least we’ve got the conversation started.

Photo credit: Prof. Hunter Hoskins

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