Loie M. Faulkner
November 7, 2016
The City Market at O Street: Swanky New Digs or Gentrification Nightmare?
From the historic Howard Theatre and the U St. Music Hall to All Saints Bar and Baby Wale, the neighborhood of Shaw is a mishmash of old and new. Just like many areas of The District, Shaw is undergoing a revitalisation: a “renaissance,” as developers call it. One of the biggest proponents of this renaissance is Bozzuto (a development company) and their newest project, The City Market at O. This project, when fully completed, will be a sustainable, multi-use complex, including apartments, a Giant grocery store, and expansive (though still unclaimed) retail space (City Market at O). On their project webpage, The City Market at O team boasts of their own renewal, stating that the old market is “an evolution of what was–and a hip version of the best that is to come” (City Market at O). The site claims to be “the centerpiece in the rebirth of the entire district,” stating that it brings together past and present of Shaw (City Market at O).
The original O Street Market, now the location for The City Market at O development, is an institution in Shaw history. The structure was erected in 1881 as a public market to service the community; vendors would set up stands inside the massive brick enclosure and offer their fresh and handmade goods for sale (Wikipedia). When the market was first built, Shaw was home to primarily German immigrants, many of whom were vendors, as well as African-Americans. By the turn of the century, the neighborhood was almost entirely black (Wikipedia). This dominant population allowed for a rich tradition of culture and music; many refer to Shaw as the Harlem of DC, and Shaw was famously home to Jazz legend Duke Ellington (Wikipedia).
Unfortunately, the corner of 7th & O also has a deeply-rooted history of violence. In 1968, the Market was nearly destroyed in riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and suffered severe damage due to fires and looting (Wikipedia). Following the reconstruction of the building, the Market fell victim to a territory battle between dueling gangs in the 80s and 90s, and an historic shooting took place inside the market, leading to the death of a 15-year-old boy (Schwartzman). This dark past gave way to a resurgence in the area, and in the early 2000s, the Shaw seen today began to come to life; now, the residents of the neighborhood include long-term African-American families, many of whom have lived there for years, as well as young, cool, white folk known as “hipsters” (Schwartzman).
The emergence of this new population in Shaw lead to an increase in interest from developers–since there were more young, single people moving into the area, there was naturally a heightened desire for affordable housing. Thus, “The City Market at O” was born. And, along with the actual project, the website came to fruition.
This site strives for aesthetic first and foremost. The tagline of the project, after all, is “the element of style”; the homepage cycles through images of very stylish, skinny, multicultural young people, an adorable pup, and stunning rooftop images (City Market at O). These images all serve to represent various features of the apartment complex. These features include a complete gym and spa, a rooftop terrace, garage parking, the fastest WiFi and Cable around, and–the icing on the cake–a rooftop dog run (City Market at O). All of these state-of-the-art additions can be found on the website’s “Amenities” tab, artfully arranged overtop of a serene water landscape and a peaceful woman practicing yoga.
Most other tabs on the web page feature similar arrangements: a calming background with abstract geometric patterns underneath an aesthetically pleasing font and appealing primary image, whether a dog, an attractive young person, or an unattainable image of the building or a view of Shaw or DC. This arrangement works to entice and attract customers and convince them that The City Market at O really is the ultimate element of style.
As for the actual Market, Bozzuto claims that the new Giant is “the perfect homage to the O Street Market” (City Market at O). This, too, is focused on aesthetic. The sections for meat, seafood, and produce mimic vendor’s booths from the original Market; the interior is furnished with faux-brick and exposed rebar to pay tribute to the early architecture; even the decor is reminiscent of the 19th century, complete with fake street lamps at the registers and old-timey “street signs”.
All of these aesthetic choices work toward one common goal: reducing the appearance of gentrification in the Shaw neighborhood. A recent blog post by Alexander M. Padro, who has been writing about Shaw for decades, indicates that the effects of gentrification have been cleverly avoided thus far (Padro). He contests that, since new businesses have been opening in the area and affordable housing has, for all intents and purposes, been preserved, gentrification is not an issue in Shaw (Padro). This assessment is not entirely incorrect; all of the new developments in Shaw have fallen in the “affordable” range. Even The City Market at O, which is one of the nicer complexes, is relatively reasonable, with a studio apartment starting at $1,815 a month (City Market at O). That’s still below the D.C. average. However, as much as developers claim that they are leaving the spirit of Shaw alone, long-term residents disagree.
Many families, mostly African-American, have lived in Shaw for generations; they’ve been there through the 1968 riots, the crack epidemic, gang violence, and now the flooding of their home with young white people (Schwartzman). Many purchased their homes in which they still live for under $40,000–a number essentially unheard of in this day and age (Schwartzman). Now, these families are facing pressure to sell their homes from developers who want the property. Some homes go for $500,000, $850,000, even $1 million dollars now, but does that price make up for the memories and history tied up in those homes (Schwartzman)? Black residents feel the Shaw Renaissance is undermining their past:
“But this is not just any neighborhood. These owners are nagged by something deeper and more complicated than how far their new wealth would take them or how they would adjust to new surroundings. They fret about the future identity of the neighborhood, a bastion of black culture and history — their history — where Langston Hughes wrote poetry and Duke Ellington played piano, where African Americans started their own bank, built their own buildings and thrived for generations (Schwartzman).”
Developments like The City Market at O claim to “respect the past,” but if the residents do not feel their past is being respected, how can the developers make that claim?
Essentially, the views of outside observers are not in line with those of Shaw inhabitants. Though Bozzuto may use a strong graphics team and trendy language to reel in prospective renters, their statements are all but empty to Shaw natives–the element of style is not an element Shaw families need to survive.