We were sitting at a table at Eatonville, a high-end soul food place modeled after the life and works of Zora Neale Hurstoned and owned by the same people who own Busboys and Poets, where the cocktails start at $8 and the grits are seasoned with jalapenos and gruyere. In other words, it’s kind of bougie. KS and I were sitting at our table waiting for our entrees to arrive and reflecting on how good life is right now–we are living the fabulous social lives we dreamed of as children, wherein we travel to different cities to see our friends and wine and dine ourselves at fabulous restaurants.
I forget precisely how, but this conversation grew into a recognition of ourselves as Black gentrifiers. I said something to the effect of, “I don’t see how me being a middle-class person moving into a historically lower-income Black neighborhood because the rent is cheap is any different than some White person (a la my housemates) whom everyone is quick to call gentrifiers.” This prompted KS to posit, “What exactly is the problem with gentrification again?”
Me: It’s not okay to just move into a neighborhood and force people out of their homes and communities.
KS: It’s not like you’re physically dragging them out of their houses. When their lease is up, their lease is up. If the rent goes up after the lease is up, how are you to blame?
Me: Because white demand is what makes it possible for the landlords to increase the rent and know they’ll still have tenants.
KS: But we’re not white.
Me: That doesn’t make it better. We’re still coming in and changing the feel of these neighborhoods.
KS: I just can’t see neighborhood improvement as a bad thing.
Me: Why does it have to come at the expense of Black and Brown peoples though?
KS: You’re right–it shouldn’t. Black and Brown people shouldn’t be stuck in the hood to begin with. They should be able to move up and out of the hood to better areas too. Projects were created as stepping stones, not as places for generations of a family to live.
Me: Fine, okay, you’re right–gentrification is a symptom of a larger problem known as capitalism. In an ideal world, the turnover rates in projects would be really high and we wouldn’t be systematically undercutting a group of people by “improving the neighborhood.” But in a patriarchal racist capitalist system like ours, there’s always going to be an underclass. We can’t just go, well, it sucks to be them but it’s not our problem. We’re driving poor Black people out of their homes. Where are they supposed to go? DC used to be like 85% Black. Now we’re hanging onto that majority by the skin of our teeth at 50.4%.
KS: But why is that a problem?
Me: Because you lose the feel of the place. DC used to be known as an enclave of Black culture. Marvin (a bar down the street from where we were) is called Marvin because it’s where Marvin Gaye hid when he was in exile. All up and down the U Street Corridor used to be stomping grounds for the Black elite when the city was still segregated. Once upon a time, that’s what you thought of when you thought of DC–jazz music and Black people in all their finery. Now you think of DC and think of yuppies on the Hill. And there’s nothing wrong with yuppies on the Hill–I’d be fine if we could think of DC as being both of these things simultaneously–but we don’t, and I have a problem with that.
A few moments pass. I sip on my $11 cocktail. I look around the room.
Me: THIS is gentrification. The fact that places like this are soul food places in this city, rather than little hole-in-the-wall places on the corner. I like this place, but this place is inauthentic.
KS: *acknowledges the truth of my statement*
Me: Oooh oooh! That’s it! That’s why gentrification is problematic: it makes Black culture inaccessible to the common Black person.
And with that our food arrived, and we ate.