Friday, August 24, 2007

The new neighborhood

This is a repost of one that was lost when I deleted the old blog. It provides good background information for topics I hope to address in the future, so I've reposted it. Unfortunately, it's the only post I still had in Word.

According to some definitions we still live on Capitol Hill. The local mother’s group, the local paper, and most realtors all call our address “The Hill.” Others call this area “North Capitol Hill” or, best of all, “SoFlo.” (The ad for our apartment read: “New York feel in a DC Victorian.” I’ll tell you one thing this place doesn’t feel like: New York.) The historic name for our neighborhood is “Old City” or “Near Northeast.” Until Union Station was built the area was full of Irish immigrants living in tenements and dying of typhoid. The new train station destroyed that neighborhood pretty effectively.

Later, the area became one of the premier black neighborhoods in the city. The main thoroughfare, H Street, was once the third-largest commercial stretch in town. In the late fifties and early sixties H Street started to decline due to a drop in the population of the area. The H Street bridge was put in during that time, cutting the neighborhood off from downtown and preventing building for a three-block stretch. In 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, riots swept through the city. Days of looting and arson decimated our neighborhood and several others. Some of those areas have recovered but, forty years later, H Street is still lagging a bit. Forty years.

Our family very consciously decided to live in this “transitional” neighborhood. We’ve actually moved in just as gentrification is starting to hit and things aren’t as affordable as they were a year or two ago. Our apartment is beautiful but the other buidings on our side of the block are pretty dilapidated. Across the street are a halfway house (we think) and a couple of vacant properties next to a large schoolyard. The corner is a seedy liquor store. Stretched between the seedy store and a large, historic burned-out building are several more dilapidated properties. The backside of the block is actually pretty nice once you get past the weedy lot behind the burned-out building. Our block is pretty typical. We’ve taken several different routes to church over the last couple weeks and seen the same pattern on block after block north of H Street.

There are encouraging signs of life, too. A big developer is putting in an enormous luxury condo building at one end of H Street. The best coffee shop ever is doing a brisk business despite being one of the only operating commercial entities for blocks. Since we’ve moved in, we’ve seen two vacant lots near us begin rehabilitation. A high-end farmer’s market has managed to pull off a second summer. The new condos, the farmer’s market, and the coffee shop are all wonderful. They’re also full of rich, white people (and temporarily poor white people, like us). The local population and the local culture here are very distinctively black. There’s a lot about that culture that seems pretty downtrodden and depressed at the moment, but there is a certain vibrancy and richness to the history of the black community in this neighborhood. The money is pouring in fast to this section of town and I wonder how many of the local, long-time residents can afford to keep up.

If we were settling in Washington long-term, we would definitely try to buy in this neighborhood. In the meantime, we’re excited to see how things develop over the next year, but I always wonder as we push our fancy double stroller down the street past our new neighbors, “Are we part of the problem?”

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