Mr. Laing Goes to Washington

Norman's HouseLast week on the sad occasion of the passing of my father, Clarence Laing (love you, Dad), I went back home to the metropolitan DC area. Because of my father’s illness, I have traveled back and forth between Pittsburgh and D.C. over the last month and a half and have felt a sense of foreboding in looking at DC and thinking about the Hill District. Washington is changing. Quickly. Buildings, posh restaurants and Dunkin Donuts are sprouting up everywhere and I see “White” people in places I never saw them before. Even places like where I stayed last weekend, Anacostia/Fairlawn, S.E. Washington D.C. (there is some debate as to whether Fairlawn is in Anacostia or is a separate neighborhood) Together, these characteristics serve as the sign of the feared and/or desired “G- word” (gentrification)

Growing up in Silver Spring, MD, if DC was “Chocolate City” then Southeast D.C. was “Dark Chocolate City” and, like the Hill District, the stories that were often told about it, usually by outsiders to outsiders, were of one form of deprivation or another. When Black boys met and played the “where you from?” card game, saying “Southeast.” was an Ace and saying “Silver Spring” was like a 4, or something. But, also like the Hill, Southeast D.C., one-time home of Frederick Douglass, has brought forth some powerful history and gotten stigmatized by the nightly news, more so than its daily life. So, last weekend, I was kind of bugging off the fact that my wife had booked a weekend stay in Southeast, D.C. (apparently I had been told in advance, but hadn’t listened).  A weekend stay across the Anacostia River? To my mind, just imagining that this part of D.C. could be a place for tourists to want to stay was a bit of a shocker, but I wasn’t hip to a trend that apparently is pretty strong and that is The online comments show folks from all over the world. I had an interesting texting conversation with the owner of this house, Norman, and he expressed 1) Anacostia has gotten a bad rap for too long; 2) There are some interesting demographic changes; 3) Racial diversity is not necessarily a bad thing for the hood. We really enjoyed our stay and if my mother’s house get’s tight again, we will definitely go back. I just talked with a fraternity brother of mine and he has a friend stay with him for short periods of time while she rents out her upper East Side New York house for periods up to as long as a month. I checked to see if there are Hill District houses on this website and even found one in the Sugar Top section. Apparently this is going on in cities all over the country and with the economy and hotel costs what they are, this will only grow. I was saying to my wife we may want to put the house we now rent out on annual basis on airbnb at some point in the future. What impact might this have on a street? On notions of neighborhood and community?

What does all this mean for the Hill District and my sense of foreboding? Pittsburgh is no D.C. and thus the Hill District is no Anacostia. So, we are not talking an apples to apples comparison. However, I will say that soon after we crossed the bridge into Anacostia there were signs for ONE BEDROOM HOUSING-COMING SOON that put me in the mind of the Hill (see my earlier post on The Residencies at New Granada  Square). But, what is my role in gentrification as a Black person in the professional class who has bought two homes that were built by non-profit community development corps as part of a redevelopment strategy?  Not long after we purchased our home on Dinwiddie St. there was an article in the New York Times, arranged at least in part by the Hill District Community Development Corporation, titled “Revival for a Black Enclave in Pittsburgh” that discussed our family and quoted me in the context of what was then a new phenomenon of “Black gentrifiers”. Interestingly, my wife, born and raised in Hill District public housing, didn’t fit this frame and was not included in the story. Towards the end of the article this trend of Black gentrification was juxtaposed with a quote from a young, unnamed Black man saying “Ain’t none of this got nothing to do with me”. I wonder if this young man had his own sense of foreboding.

5 thoughts on “Mr. Laing Goes to Washington

  1. TLed

    Sincere condolences for the passing of your father.

    have the opposite experience: Raised in Pittsburgh, living in the DMV for the last 20 years. When I got to DC in the early 90’s, the city was literally giving houses away. Now some of those same houses are worth $1M. I took advantage of some of the homeowner programs and bought my first home. Some of these houses lay abandoned in our communities for decades, yet we saw no value in them until someone else took interest.

    IMHO, the most insidious thing the American experience has done to many of our people is strip them of the fundamental urge to act in their own best interest. What do we do about that?

    1. Justin Post author

      TLed, Thank you very much for your condolences.

      I have few questions/clarifications that I hope are not irritating or take the conversation further than makes sense for this format. Can you remember which neighborhoods had the houses at very low prices and now are very expensive? When folks showed interest after others showed interest, what did this new/renewed interest look like? Did people complain on the side? write letters? I ask because I would like the blog to serve as a place to talk & think about tall questions at a ground level.

      You are speaking of Black folks in terms of our people and losing a fundamental urge to act, right (my wife says that’s clear) If so, that’s a heavy question and in the context of the Hill, I need to think more on it. I think my hesitance is rooted in a concern that that question seems very close to the “how do we get the parents of poor Black children to really be involved, or care, because without that there’s no chance…” which is often a professional class version of an idea that seems perilously close to “niggas ain’t never going to be…” which, for me, feels immobilizing, like a thought trap. Even a way to pick on the little guy and not speak to or of the oppressive forces, both historical and current, that we see around us that might explain certain behaviors. Do you have ideas on it?

      TLed, don’t feel obligated to try and respond to all of that. You just provoked a response and those comments are put out there generally as well in response to you (I think my days of reading “Dear Abby” are coming back to haunt me). I appreciate you taking time to check out the blog and respond. Thank you.

  2. decollins1969

    Justin, been in Silver Spring now for 13.5 years, and been living/visiting DC for much longer than that. My students and long-term DC residents (Black and White) have complained about the opening up of the area to gentrification over the past decade or so, between new ballparks, business interests and high-priced apartment buildings and condos. The short answer is, with gentrification comes a much different sense of community, and in some cases, no community at all, depending on the racial and income-level composition of the gentrifying and those who can’t afford to stay.

    1. Justin Post author

      Hey Donald, Maggie, these are some really interesting points you are making and I can’t really come with a response I like, so I will think some more and talk to some more folks and post later more directly on issues of race, class, community and gentrification. Thanks for reading and commenting and please check back. Donald, a whole convo could be had on Silver Spring’s changes, those are pretty significant as well.

  3. Maggie Forbes

    Justin, I am so sorry to hear about your father. My heart goes out to you and your family.

    I lived in DC in the 70s, Capitol Hill. A serious, not pretty gentrification thing was going on then. To my ear the “What’s your neighborhood like?” party question translated to “Is it white yet?” Pittsburgh, with all if its wonderful housing stock, still isn’t a mecca for young people just out of college (as NYC, Boston, DC and to a lesser extent Philadelphia were/are “Not sure what I’m going to do, have no connections, but I’d like to live there…”)

    I agree with decollins1969’s comment re community and gentrification. I worked on the North Side for 15 years, in Carnegie for 8. Both seemed to be a 24/7 commitment — but offered an extraordinary sense of community. I’ve lived in Regent Square for 30 years. Lovely neighborhood, with a vibrant little business district. The transition is from old to young — I’m doing it in reverse! Have friends, nice neighbors, people to exchange small talk with. But I don’t feel engaged as I did on the North Side, in Carnegie, and after only a short time of working here, on the Hill.


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