The Shaw neighborhood has become much more than just a trendy area in downtown DC. Riggs street may seem small, maybe even insignificant, especially when looking at the streets that surround it such as S street and 14th street. But beyond the surface, Riggs Street holds so much culture and history, crucial to DC’s culture today. Most people
believe that what is directly present in a neighborhood is wha
t makes up the culture; however, my research seeks to prove that it is the underlying history and people within a neighborhood that make it what it is today. A typical tourist may not have Riggs street on their list of “things to do” in DC, but Shaw has become one of the most popular and sought after neighborhoods for locals. In the past 30 years, the neighborhood has seen so much change and gentrification, common with many Northwest neighborhoods. What is special about Shaw though, is that it managed to maintain its culture and values that civilians can still feel today. Ignoring these values can skew the perception of an area, and elude a passerby into believing a place is something that it really is not. This is why it is so important to the native people living in Shaw that they maintain riggs

the values they hold so dearly. By making the neighborhood personal, it makes it so much more meaningful.

David Fleming’s study of Cabrini Green in City of Rhetoric unveiled a variety of information about a typical American ghetto, and the people that live within. In Cabrini Green, a public housing project in North side Chicago, the goal was to create a mixed-income living space, with people of all races and backgrounds within. In reality, quite the opposite took place. Fleming, talking about not just Cabrini Green but all American ghettos, says “typical inhabitants of one of these ghettos are not only unlikely to come into contact with whites within the particular neighborhood where they live; even if they traveled to the adjacent neighborhood they would still be unlikely to see a white face; and if they went to the next neighborhood beyond that, no whites would be there either. People growing up in such an environment have little direct experience with the culture,norms, and behaviors of the rest of American society and few social contacts with members of other racial groups. Ironically, within a large, diverse, and highly mobile post-industrial society such as the United States, blacks living in the heart of the ghetto are among the most isolated people on earth” (Fleming, page 88). Though this may have been true of Cabrini Green, quite the opposite has occurred in Shaw lately. Up until the late 90’s, Shaw was built as public housing and eventually considered a ghetto. The area was generally avoided by white residents of DC. But since the end of the crack epidemic, Shaw has seen a large increase in white residents moving in. With it’s proximity to Dupont and Howard, the easy access to the Metro, and not to mention the location in the Nation’s capital, it is no surprise that Shaw became a hot spot in DC so quickly. While the onset of new residents may have come as a shock to native residents, it was never conflictual, like in Cabrini Green. When black residents began to move into Cabrini Green, white residents fled. But in Shaw, diversity has been welcomed by most, which is evident by the multicultural school on the corner, Garrison Elementary, and the wide variety of restaurants that await right down the street. Locals are still around the neighborhood, preserving the culture while new residents provide a new, contemporary feel to the neighborhood.

Dukem is one of the most popular Ethiopian restaurants in Shaw, among both natives and newcomers.

Dukem is one of the most popular Ethiopian restaurants in Shaw, among both natives and newcomers.

Compared to Cabrini Green, Shaw’s gentrification was a “success.” That is, depending on how you look at it, considering gentrification is a delicate topic that is too new to understand its effects fully. Urbanization of America’s cities is a fairly new occurrence, as the demand for city living compared to suburbia has seen a stark increase. This is currently happening all over the country, in America’s biggest metropolitan areas such as Boston, New York, Chicago, and of co

urse DC. Unlike some areas, Shaw has been able to keep its culture alive by the remaining natives and the respect of new residents. This cannot be said for other cities, for example, Boston. Boston is historically known for having a large Irish population. This is especially true in neighborhoods such as South Boston and Dorchester, which also happens to be where the projects and public housing are located (Teitell). Even though these projects were filled with white families, young professionals moving to the area in the past ten years have managed to gentrify the projects into new apartments. This is the source of a lot of tension within the city, and many young professionals and recent graduates are shunned by natives of the city. But this is something you do not see in Shaw, as there is a general respect for all residents within the neighborhood. The bright colored row houses are still intact, there was no demolition of project townhouses for condos. Street art and graffiti still blankets the walls down the streets, and is proudly displayed on the front page of Shaw’s website. If all the original recollections and memories of Shaw still exist, was the urbanization a success?

Cabrini Green homes in Chicago

Cabrini Green homes in Chicago

In Ruben Castaneda’s “S Street Rising”, he references a family he knew living on Riggs street in the midst of the crack epidemic in DC. It is important to remember that no matter how “bad” a neighborhood may seem, you have to remember the people that are actually living in it. Bernice Joseph, or B.J., a friend of Castaneda’s is perfect example of that. He remembers her saying “Bernice Joseph was one of those Manna homeowners who declined to sell her home for a big profit. In the summer of 2011, she received a handwritten note from someone representing a developer that wanted to buy her four-bedroom condo on Riggs Street, Northwest. The offer was for nearly  $1 million… At the Time, B.J., a single mother of four had about $800 in her checking account and no savings. She was earning $28,000 a year as a teacher’s aide at a D.C. charter school for developmentally disabled adults. Two of her own children already left home, but money was still tight. On the phone, B.J. and her neighbor joked about what they would do with a million dollars. Then B.J. tossed the letter into a wastebasket” (Castaneda, 244). B.J. and her family are one example of the many struggling families that resided on Riggs when it was at it’s worst. But she lived in that house all the way up until 2013, long surpassing era of the crack filled streets. One million dollars for her home probably came as a shock, and was more than enough money to find a new house somewhere else and support her family there. But instead, she declined. It is clear that B.J. has some type of attachment to her home, but why?

Throughout the 20th century, it was typical of white, middle class families to move out from the cities and take off into the suburbs(Steuteville). In these suburbs they could remain isolated from the uncertainty of the cities, and stay out of the ghettos like they wanted. Most of the time, everyone within the suburb is around the same social class and family makeup (usually both parents, 2.5 kids)(Dickirson-Prokopp). Some suburbs even used to enforce the rule of sundown towns. Fleming touches upon these suburbs, saying “the first two parts of this book described a human landscape beset by privatism and marked by highly decentralized, fragmented, and polarized social space. They told the story of a society in which, for the past century or more, the most privileged persons, families, and institutions have fled what is open, diverse, and complex-our cities- for what is, or at least appears to be, exclusive, homogenous, and safe -our suburbs. The result of this is centrifugal movement have been the deconcentration not just of our population but of our public life as well: the desertion of our shared centers; the division of once unitary, diverse polities into dispersed, fragmented, homogenous ones; and the polarization of our communities so that the ones best situated become only more so, and the rest are consigned to seemingly eternal stagnation or decline” (Fleming, 92). But since the 1990’s, American cities have seen an increase in families moving back to the city. And this is exactly what is going on in Shaw currently. According to the 2015 DC Census, there has been a 27% increase in white families moving into Shaw. If this kind of gentrification is taking place in the nation’s capital, can this set the tone for the rest of the major cities experiencing urbanization in America? Will all gentrification processes be as smooth as Shaw? Or does it all depend on the people within the neighborhood?

Riggs Street itself

Riggs Street itself

Bringing back Riggs Street resident B.J., Castaneda tells the story of a few other residents of Riggs when they first got an offer on their home. He says, “within a few weeks, many of her fellow condo members attended a meeting in a church basement to discuss the offer. Tempers flared. People who wanted to stay put yelled at people who wanted to take the developer’s money. People who wanted to sell screamed at people who didn’t. Other’s wanted to hold out for more money. During the meeting, B.J. weighed in: ‘I’m not selling,’ she said calmly” (Castaneda 244). While B.J. was sure of her decision, this example shows that gentrification affects everyone differently. There is no telling how each and every tenant will react when someone offers them a million dollars for their home. To some, this is enough to convince them to move out of the neighborhood. But for others, they would never leave the neighborhood for anything. And this is indeed how B.J. felt, as Castaneda recalls “B.J. was living paycheck to paycheck, but she say no upside to selling-not for a million dollars, not for any amount. Ultimately, more than half the owners decided not to sell. The developer’s proposal went nowhere. In June 2013, B.J. still had no regrets about turning it down. ‘This is not just a house,’ B.J. said. ‘This is my home. This is where my kids come home from school and bring their friends to visit. This is where we can have a barbecue in the backyard. It’s a small backyard –but it’s mine’”(Castaneda, 245). The rejection of the developer’s plans raises the question, did the tenants of Riggs help preserve the history and authenticity of Shaw? If some citizens are more willing to sell their house than others, who has more pride in their neighborhood? Does willingness to sell necessarily mean the locals no longer have pride in their neighborhood? A similar question could be asked of new residents of Shaw, or any neighborhood for that matter. If new tenants are working to preserve the unique qualities of Shaw while others are willing to move for money, then what really makes someone a true native. As long as they are following the culture of the neighborhood, then anyone could be a local.

Another view of Shaw rowhouses

Another view of Shaw rowhouses

Though this analysis may make Shaw seem like a bunch of theoretical propositions, it is important to remember that the history behind Shaw is real. Shaw will always be known for it’s rich, African-American culture and brightly decorated streets. It will always bear the name of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw from the Civil War, or remember the riots that fought for racial equality, both further strengthening the African-American history of the area. Though the residents of the neighborhood may not fully reflect that today, the history and stories behind the buildings and stores is what tells the real story. This research goes to prove that the exterior and interior, even digital points of view all tell very different stories of very different times and people. Whether Shaw is a reflection of good or bad gentrification, or the revitalization of African-American culture in a DC neighborhood, Shaw holds the narrative that no other neighborhood can compare to.

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