The Complexities of Urban Transformation

Tangle of Multi Colored Wire

1.  Exhibit

Freeman, Lance. There Goes the Hood : Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up. Temple University Press, 2011. ebrary,

In Lance Freeman’s book titled There Goes the Hood : Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up, the central argument is that there is no one view of gentrification any more valid than another. The concept of gentrification, like many concepts, may be interpreted differently by different people. What I admire about this book is that it heavily relies on interviews with a plethora of people. I have been used to the concept of gentrification being a indirectly violent phenomenon, but as an interviewee states in Chapter 4 titled, “Making Sense of Gentrification,” “I think gentrification is good in certain respects in that it brings things to a neighborhood what it really never had. Like an all-black neighborhood never had as much police protection as their white counterpart. So it brings that. Plus it brings investment” (98). That’s a view not many of my previous sources are willing to explain.

To use such a source would allow me to truly map the complexity of urban development and its relationship to gentrification. No matter how false or true a claim may be, it must be supported. Although I wholeheartedly believe that “urban development” is a gilded term for gentrification, this source allows me to expand on what people may think if they view the opposite. It allows me to further my credibility because I will have a balance of opinion.

2. Argument

Huning, Sandra, and Nina Schuster. “‘Social Mixing’ or ‘Gentrification’? Contradictory Perspectives on Urban Change in the Berlin District of Neukölln.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 39, no. 4, July 2015, pp. 738–755.

In Sandra Huning’s and Nina Schuster’s ‘Social Mixing’ or ‘Gentrification’? Contradictory Perspectives on Urban Change in the Berlin District of Neukölln, the central argument suggests that terms like “social mixing” and “gentrification” not only describe the transformation of a place, but are embedded in its transformation. The argument is developed by viewing the Berlin district of Neukölln as a lense to explore this phenomenon. As Huning and Schuster state, social mixing refers to “the ideal of social mixing refers to hegemonic middle-class values of individual achievement, capacity and lifestyle and thereby stabilizes existing power relations.” They suggest that the term gentrification describes the same phenomenon, but from  a different perspective. Huning and Schuster describe gentrifications as a means to “protest against the loss of affordable housing and the displacement of poor residents.” Both views have weight to them and both are equally valid.

To use this source in conversation with my other sources is to surface complexity in the issue regarding gentrification. Development, social mixing, and gentrification are all connected, yet unique in their way of describing the same phenomenon. After reviewing this source, I plan to further the argument presented by understanding how it relates to Neukölln and applying it to the Howard Theatre. Shaw has transformed into a mixed community, which allows me greater agency to truly explore the diversity of perspectives it holds.

3. Exhibit

Ley, David, and Cory Dobson. “Are There Limits to Gentrification? The Contexts of Impeded Gentrification in Vancouver.” Urban Studies, vol. 45, no. 12, Nov. 2008, pp. 2471–2498.

In their Are There Limits to Gentrification? The Contexts of Impeded Gentrification in Vancouver, David Ley and Cory Dobson analyze the positive and negative consequences of gentrification. They acknowledge both sides to how one may approach gentrification. On one hand they acknowledge that with gentrification comes development and investment. Yet, Ley and Dobson both understand that, “Districts with impeded gentrification would have a minimal stock of older or newer residential properties with architectural character; they would have limited access to environmental amenities or desirable cultural institutions, but could well be near working industrial sites; and generally they would be lower-income and often immigrant neighbourhoods, including districts of deep poverty, some distance from existing élite areas” (2475).  Because of the intensity of such a phenomenon, they also suggest that activism is bound to occur to reverse these trends. Ley and Dobson elaborate, “Sustained neighbourhood mobilisation has led to a distinctive local moral culture that accepts the right to the city for poor people” (2494). By making such a statement, Ley’s and Dobson’s publication ultimately suggests that there will always be pushback by local residents against the forces of gentrification disguised as urban development, and that this is a trend worth exploring.

Initially, I viewed the process of gentrification as one with an endgame. The endgame was to pretend to preserve an area’s culture, but ultimately substitute it for another. A complete takeover. However, Ley and Dobson offer a convincing argument. As long as there is perceived injustice, there will be some resistance. This makes me curious as to how Shaw is reacting to “development” in the area. It makes me want to explore the ways in which Shaw has resisted, how it has resisted, and how effective was it. The publication has offered me a new platform to explore my built environment.

The Barriers

Metal gates locked with a rusty chain and lock
“One of the closed lots in Shaw. Dominic Moulden, who has been organizing residents in Shaw for 30 years, says the city is still failing to meet the most basic needs of some residents, particularly when it comes to housing.
Raquel Zaldivar/NPR”

This picture illustrates a very real problem in Shaw. On one hand, Shaw seems to be improving. It seems to be developing, and along with the new developments, Shaw seems to be a place where there is newfound opportunity. That’s at least what most developers and newer residents would like us to think. But, like the caption and its picture, what use is this if developers and urban planning institutions no longer care about the previous residents? As the description suggests, Washington doesn’t see the wellbeing of these residents as a priority. I think that should be criminal.

Leaving Home and Going Nowhere

An elderly black woman looking forlorn as she holds an eviction letter in her hands
“Joan Scott, 70, sits with her belongings and holds the envelope that contains court papers that she signed agreeing to leave Brookland Manor.” 

I don’t know what else to say about this photograph other than the fact that it’s intense. The photo puts an actual person behind what seems like abstract ideas I can only talk about by reading about them. This photograph begins to connect everything I want to eventually bring to light. Although I haven’t taken this photograph (I’ve obtained it from here), I believe it’s important to include in my culminating project the human aspect to this, a.k.a. the aspect that matters most. We can talk about the socioeconomic trends about Shaw in the broadest to narrowest of terms, but it loses an important part if we don’t ask people like the woman pictured above questions like, “What happens?” “Will you be alright?” “Do you have a place to go?” The photograph really exemplifies the power that seemingly arbitrary political institutions have to transform an individual’s life for the worse.

Patriotism in Shaw

A grayscale black soldier salutes surrounded by the American flag.
“Support Our Troops” – 1513 Rhode Island Avenue NE

According to this website, this mural not only has general American history embedded into it, but family history as well. The mural is painted in front of a store called “Good Ole Reliable Liquors,” and it’s owner, Mike Toor, supports troops because he has family in service. To him, this piece means so much more than the display of patriotism just for the sake of it. To him, this means honoring his family. Like many murals in Shaw, this one features a black figure. Honoring black culture is quite common in Shaw.

Getting Stepped On, Getting Stomped Out


Mural depicting cattle being stepped on
Mural near the Howard Theatre. 

This mural is located near Shaw’s Howard Theatre, and the image above was obtained from this website. Of course, with most street art, it’s difficult to understand what context it holds. But here’s my interpretation:

The imagery is intense. A pig in a suit being stomped out by a disembodied foot in front of a sea of reds, oranges, and yellows. The pig is holding money, and if you look closely, you might be able to make out some faces in the “fire.” This clearly shows anti-capitalist sentiment in DC and the need for what I assume to be greedy capitalist pigs to quite literally stomped out from Shaw.

I find this especially thought-provoking because it’s an entirely different narrative than one I have seen in other platforms. On the websites of developers, for example, the way they view their actions in Shaw is largely optimistic. This, however, tells a different story.

Pencils as Guns in DC

Black woman holding a pencil as if it were a gun

“Education is a Powerful Weapon” – 312 Florida Avenue NW. This mural is quite iconic in Shaw. The vibrant colors and confident stance of the figure depicted certainly extends a strong message; “Education is a Powerful Weapon.” What I especially admired about this mural was the nature of the figure depicted. She’s standing strong, proud, and tall. And like many residents of Shaw, she is black.

Shaw has quite a rich and vibrant history, but it has repeatedly been marked by crime and unrest, especially after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I believe this mural wishes to transform this notion of a violence-ridden city. I believe it speaks volumes about DC’s black community fighting the generalizations forced upon them due to crime with something much more empowering and benign– education.

The (De)Construction of Shaw

Run-down building guarded by fence
A run-down building next to the Howard Theatre. Photographed by me.

This is one of three buildings directly to the left of the Howard Theatre. The buildings on the left of the theatre all look run-down and something directly out of a post-apocalyptic novel. I may be exaggerating this slightly, but I think it’s important to understand why these buildings may look out of place.

The area surrounding the Howard Theatre looks relatively new. The houses are beautiful and painted. The cars surrounding them are glimmering. Even the Theatre has been reconstructed. It appears as if Shaw has been undergoing rapid transformation and has become “the next big thing.”

These buildings, however, have been lost in time. The last time I was here, I didn’t see the long fence around them. I didn’t see the windows removed on the upper stories. Because everything inside had been stripped away, I’m not sure what the buildings have been used for. I’m unsure if this particular building was where someone lived or if it was a hair salon persay. It just seems so out of place.

Southern… Efficiency?

"Southern Efficiency" painted on a window with cherry blossoms behind it.
Window to a restaurant called “Southern Efficiency.” Photographed by me.

So here’s a window of the restaurant many people in Shaw were waiting to get into today. My initial thoughts were, “Wow, the design is nice. It looks so inviting.” The logo of the restaurant clearly alludes to an older style and revokes nostalgia of a previous time period. I especially liked the cherry blossoms in the background of the window.

Although the window is gorgeous, I wanted to know more about the restaurant. I was not going to wait for several hours in a line to find out, so I decided I’d go to the restaurant’s website. Interestingly, I looked at the menu and did not find anything unique. I didn’t even find prices so the assumptions I’ve made in my previous post were probably

The question then becomes, “Why?” Why was this place so famous? What was going on? Why were so many people willing to sacrifice the time I wasn’t? It was clearly an important social scene. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask the people what they were waiting in line for. I should have, though. It would have provided me with valuable insight.

That Cool Place in Shaw

A long line of people waiting for a restaurant
A long line of people waiting to enter a restaurant called “Southern Efficiency” in Shaw. Photographed by me.

As soon as  I exited the Shaw-Howard U Metro Station, I was immediately greeted with a line that spanned almost the entire block. I was really confused at first because I didn’t understand what the line led to. However, since it was my second time visiting the area for field work, I took note of the type of people waiting. They were young, they were primarily white, and it was clearly a type of social setting. Turns out, they were all waiting to go into an eatery called Southern Efficiency. Although I was extremely confused at first, I soon concluded that the new residents of Shaw are indeed looking to fully integrate themselves into their community. By going to local restaurants, this is just one way they are doing so. Still, if the line is composed of people primarily of one ethnicity and of a similar socioeconomic background, there must a reason why. Perhaps the eatery is a little too expensive for everyone to enjoy.

Walking Through Fire

Block quote in corner of walls
Interior wall design in a cafe called Uprising Muffin in Shaw. Photographed by me.


This quote is painted in a corner of a cafe called Uprising Muffin in Shaw. The quote reads:

“I’ll walk through fire if this is what it takes to take me even higher then I’ll come through like I do when the world keeps testing me.”

This is the same cafe that I’ve written about in an earlier post. I think that, although the cafe seems like it may appeal to the typical hipster millennial gentrifying Shaw, the quote may speak to the residents.

Think about it. Long-time residents in Shaw, who have largely been categorized under low- or fixed-income, have consistently been overpowered by developers in the area as well as newer residents. To walk into the cafe and glance up at such an inspiring phrase may mean that life is characterized by struggle and that’s okay. However, the nature of the quote also suggests that they should not be passive about their status in society. Rather, they should actively shape the course of their life.