A City Divided: September 11 Was Good for Washington, D.C.'S Economy, but the Expansion Has Not Helped Many on the Bottom

By Serwer, Adam | The American Prospect, September 2011 | Go to article overview

A City Divided: September 11 Was Good for Washington, D.C.'S Economy, but the Expansion Has Not Helped Many on the Bottom


Serwer, Adam, The American Prospect


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You don't have to look at the buildings or the people in Washington, D.C.'s historically black Petworth neighborhood to see that things have changed. Some say you just need to look at the dogs. "It used to be nothing but pit bulls and Rottweilers around here," says a longtime resident who gives his name as Lattimore Jenkins. He sits on a blue cooler across from a new condominium building. "Now you got them little baby dogs, Jack Russells, Chihuahuas."

The community has undergone other changes, of course. The tony apartments squatting over the Petworth Metro station where a vacant lot used to be. The bright red bikes, available to rent, lined up along a rack on the corner. The organic supermarket down the street from a decaying Safeway.

Maybe the biggest change is that now there are almost as many types of police officers in the neighborhood as there are breeds of dog: city police, park police, transit police. When development came in, patrols shifted their twice-a-week sweeps--on Tuesdays and Thursdays--to seven days a week. "You don't have the drug traffic around here no more," says J.R., an elderly man who leans forward on his cane and tips his Nationals cap when he speaks.

"You don't got the driveby shootings no more," Jenkins adds. "You still have them, but you don't got 'em like it was. Ninety-Four, '95, wasn't nothing for someone to come up here in an old Caprice and shoot up the whole neighborhood."

Petworth's transition from a working-class, largely black neighborhood to one packed with young, college-educated professionals reflects trends that have transformed Washington, D.C., from the nation's murder capital to a post-September 11 boomtown. Combined with a drop in crime and generous tax incentives, the expansion of the federal government after 9/11 has made the District much more attractive to investors. Neighborhoods have traded open-air drug markets for farmers markets, while upscale restaurants and chain stores have bloomed in areas once scarred by riots. Newcomers, who otherwise would have decamped to suburbs in Virginia and Maryland, have started filling up the expensive new rentals that replaced dilapidated buildings.

But not everyone has been living in boom times. The federal government's expansion as well as the growing university and health-service sectors offered employment to those with college degrees. Meanwhile, many low-wage jobs disappeared. As a result, the boom exacerbated the city's expanding gap between rich and poor. It was this divide that brought down Mayor Adrian Fenty, just four years after he was swept into office on a wave of postracial harmony.

The District has also become less black, as African Americans flee to greener, less expensive suburbs. In the past decade, the black population dropped at a rate of about 1 percent a year. The District, which once boasted a flourishing black middle class built on its historical status as a free& men's haven, lost its black majority in February 2011.

Washington, D.C., has always been two cities. Washington spills out of downtown Metro stations at 8 A.M.; D.C. huddles on crowded buses at 6 A.M. On Sundays, when Washington goes to brunch, D.C. is in church. Washington clinks glasses in bars like Local 16 in its leisure time, while D.C. sweats out its perm at dance clubs like Love or DC Star. Washington has health-insurance benefits, but D.C. is paying out of pocket. Washington just closed on a condo; D.C. is in foreclosure. Washington is making money. D.C. never recovered from the 2001 recession.

A decade after September 11, Washington has metastasized from the suburbanish enclaves hugging Rock Creek Park to overwhelm most of the city's Northwest quarter. Some hard lines of de facto segregation still exist; the phrase "east of the river," a euphemism for the poorest and most destitute neighborhoods across the Anacostia, has the same meaning it did in 1990. …

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