New to the Neighborhood: How Can Be Called an Urban Pioneer When Move to an Inner-City Neighborhood Where Families Have Lived for Generations?

Article excerpt

A YEAR AGO I MOVED INTO A ROW HOUSE IN NORTHEAST Washington, D.C., two miles from the Capitol. I paid $85,000, a price so low it's a punch line in a city where the average home sells for more than $600,000. The hot water heater was missing, and the bathroom tub drained into a downstairs closet. My house inspector, a dead ringer for the gravel-voiced actor Sam Elliott, tramped silently from room to room, occasionally pausing to pronounce, "It's not proper" The house was in foreclosure and had been vacant for a couple of years, so when I found crayons under the old carpet, I was spared the guilt of imagining them in still-young fingers. But once, someone had loved this place. The backyard bloomed with rosebushes staked with weathered shoelaces. With an FHA-backed loan and a savvy contractor, I gutted the house and renovated it. I found myself realizing a dream I'd assumed was miles out of reach: I was a homeowner.

A white, single professional in my thirties, I moved into a neighborhood of modest houses that is almost 90 percent black and where about a third of the population lives below the poverty line. I'm a gentrifier, a category of urban resident that has become a lightning rod for debates about the evolution of our cities. Last year, a study published in the Journal of Urban Economics found evidence of gentrification during the 1990s in the majority of the country's 72 largest metropolitan areas. But few places match the galloping pace of gentrificafion in the nation's capital. In the last 10 years, Washington's population has grown by five percent, after steadily shrinking since 1950. The white population is up by nearly a third. Since the 1960s blacks have been a majority in the District of Columbia, but that balance will likely shift in the next few years.

Unlike places such as Harlem in New York City, where yuppies have snapped up decrepit but once-grand brownstones, my neighborhood, which was originally settled by European immigrants, has always been working class. My two-bedroom is less than 800 square feet, upstairs and down, and lacks a basement. I love the neighborhood--known as Rosedale, after the recreation center on the next block-and feel proud and a little defiant to have pulled off a financial coup that's landed me a comfortable life in a place that some relatives and friends, and, especially, taxi drivers (who collectively form a modern Greek chorus of prophetic doom) describe as "sketchy." But it's with a mixture of pride and embarrassment that I hear myself called an urban pioneer. Because, of course, this is a long-settled neighborhood. It's only new to me.

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Many of my neighbors have lived in Rosedale for decades, and others can trace their roots back generations. They remember when the neighborhood was a mix of blacks and whites, before whites began to pick up and leave in the middle of the last century. They remember when blacks did their shopping on H Street because they weren't welcome in downtown department stores. They remember when the Rosedale playground was desegregated, largely due to the efforts of local resident Walter Lucas, who one day in 1952 led a group of black children over to play and was beaten and then arrested along with one of his assailants. They remember the riots that tore the area apart for three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and left the area's commercial spine, H Street, in smoking ruins. Fifty-year-old Stephon Starke recalls that word went out that businesses would be spared only if they displayed a picture of King in the window. His father had put a picture in the window of their house, but not at the liquor store he owned off H Street. Two Great Danes kept the store safe, but many other black-owned businesses did not survive.

H Street was in decline even before the riots. After ward, though some businesses reopened, many damaged buildings remained vacant. The street was a mute reminder of social failure. …