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Gentrification and its Discontents

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

(K Street at Dawn)

One side effect of studying the history of a city in depth is that you start to imagine it as it was, both the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. It's easy to romanticize a neighborhood as it may have looked during a different age, gilded or otherwise. Taking a walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, K Street, or any of the other thoroughfares that have now become lined with uniform, featureless, vaguely Rand-style architecture, I try to imagine how it may have looked a century before. I see federal style row houses, old mansions, beaux arts theaters. You can find fine examples of that architecture in other neighborhoods, just not so much downtown. At least not many. The modern buildings that seem to me as characterless and uninspired create a cold gallery that hems in your view and makes you feel like you're on a tour of which the theme is "which office building can be the least interesting."

When I first moved to DC in 2002, the only places that my friends advised me to go out was Dupont, Adams Morgan, and Georgetown. But as I discovered, other neighborhoods had so much to offer. U Street was at the time still lined with funky reggae clubs, a few jazz hotspots, and some cool underground bars. I enjoyed the neighborhood immensely. As time marched on it became downright fashionable. The rents started creeping up, old buildings were torn down for shiny large new ones with amenities like pools and gyms. Many more yoga studios than before. The G-word started getting thrown around a lot: Gentrification. The complexion of it changed too.

In my tours I talk about how DC's neighborhoods have changed, mostly in the course of the Madams tour and the Harlem Renaissance tour. Regarding the latter, U Street went from being the Black Broadway to the site of riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which gutted most of the businesses in the neighborhood. Then it hit a slow growth period in which it almost started from scratch again, but then welcomed new musical traditions, such as Go Go, Reggae, Brazilian Tropicalia music, even a huge punk scene in the 80s. So, it still had maintained its soul. There is still plenty of soul on U Street, no matter how many expensive restaurants show up. This is why I love the Harlem Renaissance tour: it's not just about DC in the 20s, but how despite the persistent gentrification that the neighborhood continues to experience, there is a soul to U street that just won't quit.

Even if you embrace the "new" DC, the one its become in the past 15 years or so, there is value to understanding how it got there and what came before it. That is the whole purpose of my tours, to provide insights into that journey. I invite you to join me at any time, to open that door to a different era and a different sound.

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