Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood tackles gentrification using history

One of the greatest injustices in South of Market redevelopment has been the callous obliteration of its past. — Chester Hartman, Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (San Francisco: Glide Publications, 1974).

Urban planner Chester Hartman’s observation about San Francisco’s Yerba Buena neighborhood looms large as one Washington, D.C., neighborhood is trying to prevent its past from being displaced and rewritten as the forces of gentrification sweep through. Residents of Bloomingdale, an early District of Columbia suburb that was absorbed in the late 19th century by Washington, have mobilized to undertake an innovative interdisciplinary effort to seize control of the neighborhood’s future by gaining a better understanding of its past.

My latest article for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work examines Bloomingdale’s project. In the H@W piece I touched on how Bloomingdale residents and the volunteer researchers and community planners struggle to define gentrification. It’s not an easy task.

Older businesses share street fronts with newer ones like this yoga studio in Washington's Bloomingdale neighborhood.

Older businesses like the DC Mini Market share street fronts with newer ones like yoga studios and restaurants with patio seating  in Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood.

Since 1964, when the word “gentrification” first appeared in print, it has become vernacularized and a catch-all term applied by journalists, politicians, the general public, and scholars in disciplines like history and communications who work on the margins of sociology, geography, and anthropology. There now are dozens of definitions of gentrification. And, they extend well beyond British sociologist Ruth Glass’s initial narrow scope for its application: residential neighborhood change. Now, there is commercial gentrification, industrial gentrification, and a wide array of others.

For folks who live in gentrifying neighborhoods or who have been displaced by gentrification, defining it is at once as simple and complex as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 opinion on obscenity: they know it when they see it.

Howard University faculty members Carolyn Byerly (left) and Natalie Hopkinson (right) discuss gentrification in Bloomingdale May 21, 2016.

As Bloomingdale’s residents were getting their project underway, Howard University communications professor Carolyn Byerly was working with a batch of her graduate students to better understand how people in gentrifying neighborhoods speak about gentrification. Nine of Byerly’s doctoral students fanned out to Bloomingdale, Columbia Heights, and Petworth armed with open-ended questions for residents. They ended up interviewing 32 people, including community leaders, business owners, and members of the clergy.

Byerly and her students participated in the May 21 Bloomingdale Village Square community forum reported in History@Work. They distributed a brief summary report the students prepared at the end of their semester-long project. From the report:

The study was grounded in sociological research showing that urban redevelopment in the United States is resulting in the marginalization of Black people who are being pushed from their homes. This occurs when their buildings are sold to developers (who remodel them and increase rent or sale prices) or when property taxes rise making it difficult to keep up with the costs, particularly for those who are retired and/or living on fixed incomes. Recent census and news reports have revealed that Washington, DC, long known as “the chocolate city” for its dominant African American population, has become a multi-cultural city with a declining African American population. Younger, more affluent individuals, who can more easily afford the new housing and commercial enterprises, are replacing them. In 2013, 18 neighborhoods in Washington, DC, were identified as going through a process of “gentrification” (Freed, 2013). The process involves tearing down old buildings, erecting new ones, remodeling others, and redefining how public spaces will be used. The process of gentrification in DC has been documented by both governmental agencies and news media.

The Howard students queried people about what is good about gentrification and what are some of the negative aspects. They asked how peoples’ lives and neighborhoods have changed. One question that kept emerging on both sides of the study (asked by students and residents) was, “How do you define gentrification?”

Bloomingdale Village Square Forum (May 21, 2016)

Bloomingdale Village Square Forum (May 21, 2016)

The Howard study isn’t the first to tackle gentrification in Washington from a linguistic angle. Gabriella Gahlia Modan’s 2007 book, Turf Wars: Discourse, Diversity, and the Politics of Place, is a thick ethnography of speech behavior and neighborhood change in the District’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. Combined, the two studies offer innovative ways to understand the full spectrum of changes that occur in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Bloomingdale was thrust into the national spotlight last year when a longtime business owner announced that she was closing her family’s hair salon by posting a letter in the store’s window. The letter blamed gentrification as one factor in the decision to shutter the Jak & Co. hair salon. Like gentrification itself, the reasons for Jak’s closing are complicated by individual history, economics, geography, and public policy. Gentrification certainly played a key role in its demise.

That episode was my introduction to Bloomingdale.

Salon owner Latosha Jackson-Martin interviewed by a local TV crew, April 2015.

Salon owner Latosha Jackson-Martin interviewed by a local TV crew, April 2015.

I am looking forward to following along as Bloomingdale residents and outside scholars like Byerly and her students move forward with documenting gentrification, analyzing its effects, and strategizing ways to mitigate its effects in Bloomingdale.Their work provides a valuable source of comparative material for my work documenting gentrification and history in Decatur, Ga., especially the focus on communications.

Letter posted in the window of Jak & Co., April 2015. Reflected in the window are turn of the century homes being rehabilitated for new waves of residents.

Letter posted in the window of Jak & Co., April 2015. Reflected in the window are turn of the century homes being rehabilitated for new waves of residents.

Stay tuned for further dispatches from Bloomingdale. Meanwhile, click over to History@Work to read A Washington Neighborhood Uses History to Plan its Future.”

I would like to thank Prof. Carolyn Byerly for permission to quote from the unpublished May 2016 summary report, Reflections on Gentrification: How Leaders and Residents in Three Washington DC Neighborhoods View Redevelopment. The field research used to complete the report and summarized during the Bloomingdale forum was completed by Howard students Shamilla Amulega, Tiffany Copeland, Brittany-Rae Gregory, Tamara Owens, Finie Hunter-Richardson, Sharifa Simon-Roberts, Morgan Smalls, Ann-Marie Waterman and Mehri Yavari.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

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