When I arrived to Washington, D.C. more than two decades ago
to attend Howard University, one of the first things I noticed was the diversity
of black people—all different kinds: rich ones, poor ones, bougie ones and the natives,
born and raised in D.C., who introduced me to mumbo sauce,
go-go music and New Balance sneakers. Nicknamed ‘Chocolate City,’ D.C. was blackity
black, made possible by arguably one of the blackest mayors of all time, Marion
Barry. It felt like home. But not anymore.
Today, when I stroll the streets, I feel like an imposter,
as if I don’t belong. The famed U Street corridor, home to Ben’s Chili Bowl
and former black Broadway, feels like something out of a J. Crew catalog or a
scene from the HBO series Girls. Yes,
some of the flavor is still there, hidden in the nooks and crannies of the
corridor—shout out to Marvin’s, Lee’s Flower Shop and Oohs and Aahhs
for still holding it down—but it is not the same. Where have all the black
people gone, I wonder to myself as I elbow my way through the melanin-free
Magazine ran a campaign aimed at millennials titled, “I am Not a
Tourist. I Live Here.” The campaign featured D.C. residents in T-shirts posed
in front of famous landmarks. The only problem: there were no black people
featured in any of the photos. All of the “residents” were white. Excuse me—these
gentrifiers really tried it. Despite efforts to depict the city as otherwise, D.C.
is still predominantly black. According to the U.S. Census, the city’s
population is 47.7 percent black and 44.6 percent white.
The campaign did not go unnoticed. Native D.C. residents Tony
Lewis, Jr and small-business owner and third-generation Washingtonian
Anderson caught wind of the campaign and decided to create a counter
campaign featuring native D.C. residents, the majority of whom were black. The
campaign, “Native, I’m From Here,” sought to make visible the people whose
families built the city and remained there even when it was at its worst.
Photo Credit: Gary Williams
The efforts of native Washingtonians are connected to others happening across the country to resist both subtle and hostile takeovers of cities and communities of color. From salad-bar bro to #BBQbecky, crusading gentrifiers and entitled white folks are catching heat for making claims to cities and thriving neighborhoods that existed long before they arrived.
In Oakland, Calif., last week about
2,000 people set up lawn chairs, barbecue grills and played
dominoes next to the lake along Lakeshore Avenue, the site where police
were called to enforce a rarely enforced law against charcoal grilling in the
park. In New York City, a dance-party protest, complete with a
Mariachi band, serenaded Lawyer Aaron Schlossberg
who insisted that English only be spoken in his
country while ordering a lunch.
Let’s be clear: Gentrifiers don’t want to share
neighborhoods with people of color, they want to take them over. The two chief
ways of doing this is to erase the representation of groups in citywide
campaigns aimed at attracting new residents to the city and the other is to use
law enforcement to enforce “quality of life” ordinances and laws.
The revitalization of neighborhoods is a good thing but
pushing people of color and entire generations out of communities is not. The
formula has become all too familiar: Whole Foods, Starbucks, new restaurants, luxury
high rises move in, people of color move out. Rents also skyrocket and low- and
moderate-income families can no longer afford to stay and are displaced.
Newsflash: Black people also like and deserve
high-functioning, well-resourced neighborhoods and communities. We, too, enjoy
nice roads, ample street lighting, coffee shops, modern living quarters and a
good glass of merlot after work.
There is still much work to do, but today, black people from
Oakland to D.C. said “I can show you better than I can tell you—we will not be
erased.” White Chocolate City? No, thank you.