Walking down Northeast’s H Street Corridor on a Friday night, it’s easy to see how this burgeoning neighborhood has quickly earned itself the title of D.C.’s hippest. Just ask Forbes (the go-to source for all things hip), which last week ranked the area No. 6 in “America’s Best Hipster Neighborhoods.”
Two weeks ago, the H Street Festival showcased the area’s trendy and youthful vibe. In addition to the standard food, drinks and entertainment, the festival featured performers who created live murals, a tattoo contest and three floors of music, ranging from electro-funk to vintage hip-hop, at the Rock N Roll Hotel, sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon. That festival was indicative of the area’s changing identity.
Looking beyond the newly opened yoga studios and ironically-themed bars, H Street has historically been known more for its crime than its creativity. But a recent gentrifying trend has drastically altered the character of this D.C. neighborhood.
“I’ve been on this block for the past 10 years, [and] it’s definitely a big change,” Tameca Herbert, a local shop owner, said. “It used to be ghost town here. …. You’d never see this many people walking on H Street.”
The corridor, which runs from Union Station to 17th Street NE in the heart of D.C., was a bustling commercial district until the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., left shops damaged in their wake. The neighborhood hadn’t been able to shake that dark history — until recently.
Just last Friday Herbert opened a consignment boutique on H and 12th Streets called Diva’s World, which sells reasonably priced vintage clothing for women. A native of the District, Herbert had previously owned a shop on 4th and H, but after the rent doubled from $2,500 per month to $5,000, she relocated in favor of a location closer to the buzz of the 1200 block.
Diva’s World stylist Mark Williams added that the boutique has seen a bubbling of activity since opening last week.
“A lot of people are excited about it being in this area,” Williams said. “People come in and they say that this is the best thing to happen here, because they had to go so far for consignment and vintage [before].”
Its location next to a vibrant night scene makes for good business, according to Herbert and Williams. They open Diva’s World from noon to midnight, allowing bar hoppers to stumble into the hot pink boutique as they’re making the rounds.
“We had one girl come in here and she picked out a cute little skirt and a top, and she said, ‘I’m just [going to] keep this on and go bar hopping,’” Williams said.
Williams and Herbert both hope the neighborhood will become D.C.’s new shopping destination — Herbert even called the area “the new Georgetown.”
“You can eat, barhop, [got to a] happy hour, hop in a cab or take public transportation, and it’s all here,” Williams said. “Unfortunately it’s taking business from other areas, but you know there’s enough room for everybody, right?”
Despite Williams’ optimism, the “G” word — gentrification — brings up uncomfortable questions about race and class. This process, in which longtime residents of the neighborhood are forced out because of a rise in housing prices and cost of living, complicates the sunny story of H Street’s meteoric rise. It’s becoming clear that there are winners and losers in this quickly growing neighborhood.
Herbert recalled a wig shop that recently closed after rent shot up from $2,000 per month to $10,000.
“The woman [who] used to own a wig shop was there for years. She was there since I was a little girl,” Herbert said. “She had to move out this year. Now it’s a hookah bar, but that wig shop had been there forever. She cried. She had been there a really, really long time.”
“I wouldn’t say that I don’t sympathize with them, but at the same time, things are changing,” Williams said. “It’s the 21st century, so people can’t expect everything to stay the same. … But I don’t look at it as a bad thing.”
Lon Porter, who is black and a native of Northeast D.C., also sees the neighborhood’s change as an improvement.
“Before this happened, this was like the wild, wild West down here. I see a lot of good in it,” he said. Porter remembers a time when H Street was synonymous with drugs, boarded-up houses and empty streets.
But last year, Porter opened up a locksmith shop, Georgetowne Lock, in the neighborhood; the rent at his former location in Glover Park was “too damn high,” he said jokingly. However, Porter admits the rent on H is higher than what it used to be, and he worries about the fate of the neighborhood’s older residents.
“A lot of black people who have lived here for years, they’ve gotten old now,” he said. “I don’t know whether they sell their place or give it to their kids or what they do, but it leaves their hands.”
Still, Porter’s business is his main focus.
“There may be some gentrification in the master plan of things, but I’m not at that level,” he said. “I’m trying to make my business grow, and I’m more concerned with that.”
But others are concerned about the consequences of these demographic shifts.
Nicknamed “Chocolate City” in a 1975 song by the funk group Parliament, the District has historically been a black cultural center. Beginning in 1957, Washington was the first American city to have a majority-black population, peaking in 1970 at 71 percent. But last year’s census data show that in the past 10 years the District has witnessed a dramatic change in demographics: The white population rose 31 percent, as the black fell eight percent, slipping below 50 percent of the population for the first time since the initial majority was established.
D.C. is home to the three most whitened zip codes in the last 10 years other than Brooklyn. For example, the 20001 zip code, directly adjacent to the H Street corridor, went from a 5.8 percent non-Hispanic white population in 2000 to 32.8 percent in 2010.
Maurice Jackson, Georgetown associate professor of history and African American studies, is pessimistic about this change.
“The city itself [is] losing. It’s not just a black thing, it’s a thing for the whole population,” he said. Jackson, who wrote an essay titled “Pricing the Soul out of Washington, D.C.” for The Chronicle of Higher Education last June, said the area is unique in its diversity and the opportunities it provides to learn about the rich African American history of the city.
“[It’s] not just a loss for black people, but it’s a loss for white people, too, and for the city as a whole. That’s why I phrase it ‘pricing the soul out of D.C.’ You aren’t just pricing the black people out of D.C.”
While the black population just lost its majority, the gentrification process has been going on for years. Beginning in the 1970s, a rumor known enigmatically as “the plan” began circulating around the city, suggesting that influential city government officials were trying to regain a white majority in the nation’s capital. This urban legend didn’t gain much traction, though. Most people recognize that ongoing demographic changes are the result of a variety of factors.
“[Gentrification] doesn’t mean every white person moving into D.C. has an ulterior motive, and it doesn’t mean every black person moving out of D.C. doesn’t want to,” Jackson said. “It’s a myriad of problems. … There are many things that we have to think about. Therefore, it becomes a collective responsibility of the whole city.”
How exactly the city can — and does — involve itself in the issue of gentrification was explored by Cole Lautermilch (SFS ’14) last summer through a Georgetown Undergraduate Research Opportunities grant. Working with assistant professor of sociology Brian McCabe, who taught the class “Urban Studies: The City” last spring, Lautermilch looked at how D.C.’s local government influences demographics.
“Some things I found in my research were, surprisingly, that the process of segregating and gentrifying happens in a very systemic way,” Lautermilch said.
Over the summer, he sifted through news archives to pinpoint when gentrification took place and constructed a map depicting how the process has moved through various parts of the city.
“Gentrification doesn’t look the same everywhere,” Lautermilch said.
The process started earliest in Logan Circle in the ’70s with young, educated, progressive, upper-middle-class professionals. It was a depressed market, with good housing stock and proximity to work and public transportation, and the individual buyers of property put “sweat equity” into homes, according to Lautermilch. But the process isn’t the same in H Street’s case.
“H Street is the story of the city government deciding the area needed to be gentrified,” he said. According to Lautermilch, the D.C. government has implemented several projects in recent years that are changing the area’s economic and racial makeup. One of these projects is the $1.25 million H Street NE Retail Priority Area Project Grant, which will award individual grants of up to $85,000 each to small businesses along the corridor. The city picks and chooses which shops to invest in — places that couldn’t get grants were hair salons and convenience or liquor stores.
An important player in this drama is Joe Englert, a Pittsburgh native who has made a career of opening themed bars and restaurants in gentrifying areas such as U Street and the H Street Corridor.
“He’s created a strip that yuppies — well maybe not yuppies, hipsters at first in 2006 — like,” Lautermilch said.
Englert first opened the Argonaut, which on its website claims the title “H Street’s true neighborhood gathering spot.” He then opened the Rock N Roll Hotel, Granville Moore and the H Street Country Club.
“[It’s] a caricature of a place that hipsters would like,” Lautermilch said of the H Street Country Club. “[Englert] created that base, [and] since then city government has been supporting development of that space.”
Understanding the ins and outs of local government can be a tricky process. Veteran businessmen like Englert easily capitalize on initiatives like the Retail Priority Area Project Grant, but not every H Street shop owner has been able benefit from these programs.
“It’s very interesting in terms of licensing, loans [and] approval, when you see what’s going on and what’s happening,” Amari Elbay, another H Street shop owner said of the idea that city government is picking which shops to invest in. “Where are all these people getting these loans to fund these clubs, housing, condos?”
Elbay, born and raised in the District, said that in spite of the successes of some of the shops and restaurants on the strip, he knows many who tried to get club or liquor licenses but were unsuccessful.
“I don’t know if it was a financial situation or a situation where people just couldn’t make it happen, but it’s just interesting,” Elbay said, unsure if there were other forces at play. Neither Elbay nor Herbert received any grants.
“There was no funding. It was just hard-earned money for here,” Williams said of the boutique’s startup. Herbert said working extra hours and saving up allowed her to splurge on a more expensive space with a better location.
Local government’s crowning achievement in the revitalization plan is the D.C. Streetcar project, which, after years of planning, is scheduled to open along H Street in the summer of 2013. The streetcar would benefit the revitalized H Street Corridor more than other neighborhoods, because the closest metro, Union Station, is 12 blocks away.
“My prediction is that it will be huge in driving further gentrification,” Lautermilch said.
But with a price tag of $1.5 billion dollars, the project had a hard time getting off the ground.
This July, D.C. Councilman Marion Barry attempted to slow construction progress, saying that the project cost more than it was worth.
“It doesn’t seem like a well thought-out plan,” Barry said in an interview with The Washington Post. “They haven’t even figured out how to get over the H Street Bridge.”
Despite the impact of programs like the Retail Priority Area Project Grant and the streetcar plan, many say that gentrification is more of an outcome of natural fluctuations in interest than specific government initiatives.
“Part of the gentrification story has always been a set of people looking for a new area, an authentic area,” McCabe said. “Whether it’s H Street now, or U Street 10 years ago, or even the Georgetown neighborhood, which was a predominately black neighborhood until the early 1900s, history is repeating itself.”
The important thing, McCabe tells his students, is to consider the impact of this inevitable process.
“We might value diversity, we might value living around people that are different than us — different cultural traditions in the same place — but you reach this tension whereby you have to ask, ‘Does me moving in, does that wash out the cultural traditions that were there?’” he said.
Lautermilch, who this semester is living by Eastern Market, an area he describes as “gentrifying, mostly gentrified,” asks similar tough questions.
“I think regardless of my intentions, I am, wherever I chose to live, a gentrifier,” Lautermilch said, admitting that his educated, upper-middle-class background fit the category of the resident who is traditionally slated as “gentrifier.” But Lautermilch recognizes that the process isn’t just black and white.
“I ask myself, ‘Does my presence make it harder for longtime residents? Or can I be a part of the community?” Lautermilch said.