“Some neighborhood newcomers are looking for authentic experiences based on their expectations that inner-city Black areas are dangerous and exciting … Real estate developers and commercial businesses have tapped into this valued ‘edge living’ commodity and are selling it for a premium to those who can afford it … It seemed that the neighborhood violence gave some newcomers to the area bragging rights and something interesting to talk about at parties.”
Does this sound like any Shaw residents you know? I can honestly say that out of the thousands of people living in Shaw that I’ve met over the past 23 years, I have never met a single person who has mentioned living in a crime-ridden neighborhood filled with “gangs, drugs, and prostitutes” as being why they were attracted to Shaw.
But American University Professor Derek S. Hyra, author of the recently published “Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City (University of Chicago Press), claims that “newcomers” in Shaw were attracted by the idea of “living the wire,” referring to the Baltimore-based HBO drama “The Wire,” which glorified that city’s violent drug scene.
In his view, “The relationship between authenticity and Blackness is related to the stereotypical association of Blackness with poverty, danger, and excitement …”
Folks living in high-end apartments in central Shaw, like City Market at O, Jefferson Marketplace, Seventh Flats, The Shay, and Atlantic Plumbing, are paying thousands of dollars each month in rent. They were attracted by the neighborhood’s convenient location, excellent transportation access, the hottest dining and drinking scene in the city, and the residential amenities their buildings offer, like rooftop dog parks and barbecue pits.
These people didn’t decide to pay substantial rents every month so they could live in an edgy ‘hood, dodge bullets on the way to and from work or their favorite beer garden or ramen shop, or live closer to their favorite drug dealer. If they were looking for those experiences, they could be guaranteed those dubious amenities for a fraction of the cost elsewhere in the city.
Hyra complains that white “newcomers” don’t mix with older black residents, that they are “segregated” in a neighborhood whose diversity matches the city’s overall current racial makeup. He cites places where blacks or whites predominate because that fits his narrative, but ignores the places in plain sight where everyone goes, regardless of race or class.
Three examples are the O Street Market Giant Food store, the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library, and the water-play area at the Kennedy Recreation Center.
The aisles and checkout counters at one of the largest supermarkets in the city are the neighborhood’s great melting pot. Someone from almost every household in the neighborhood goes there, often several times a week, whether to pick up a prescription or buy a filet mignon for dinner.
Stop by the library and you’ll see a virtual United Nations, with crowds of kids from affluent and impoverished families enjoying story time on the first floor and adults upstairs using computers or reading, not to mention attending community meetings.
And in warm weather, the sight of black and white children frolicking and playing together in the spraying jets of water at Seventh and P streets is life-affirming.
But since black and white, old and young, straight and gay, lifelong Shaw resident and newcomer alike, all go to these places, you won’t find them mentioned in Hyra’s book.
Hyra argues that the District government only invested in new community amenities once lighter-colored residents started moving into majority black neighborhoods. In reality, the Kennedy Recreation Center was completed in 2003, the Shaw Dog Park debuted in 2008, and the new Shaw library opened in 2010, long before the boom.
Hyra criticizes what he calls the “Black branding” of Shaw’s rich African-American history. So presumably he would prefer that the hundreds of thousands of public and private dollars that have been spent erecting statues in Shaw of Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History, Duke Ellington, our city’s most revered native son, and Washington Color School painter Alma Thomas would not have been invested, and that adults and youth of all races should be deprived of inspirational tributes to exemplary men and women of color who have called Shaw home.
According to Hyra, the only benefits longtime African-American residents of Shaw gained through the neighborhood’s revitalization were a decrease in crime and an increase in grocery stores.
Apparently, the jobs that were created at over 300 new businesses in the neighborhood aren’t important. Nor are the tens of millions of dollars that have been invested in modernizing the neighborhood’s stock of subsidized affordable housing, which has ensured that low- and moderate-income families of color could continue to live in Shaw decades after their urban renewal-era apartments had deteriorated. And the construction of 91 new affordable senior apartments at the Hodge on Seventh at City Market at O, and Channing Phillips Homes’ 56 new workforce housing apartments?
Apparently, those improvements aren’t important enough to mention either.
Maybe Hyra should tell that to the folks who are living in these buildings and enjoying the same amenities as other residents who are paying many times their subsidized rents.
Hyra is white, lives in Alexandria, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress there in 2014. Maybe the reason for writing his book was because he wanted to “live the wire” and thought he might find it in Shaw.
Those of us who lived through the drug wars and the days of Wild West-style shootouts on our streets, and fought to build a neighborhood that respects its rich African-American history and its ethnic and economic diversity and enjoy eating and drinking in a safe, walkable neighborhood, don’t appreciate Hyra’s uninformed academic treatise on how we in Shaw live today.
Regardless of how long we’ve lived in Shaw or the color of our skins, Shaw residents are proud of our past, are glad the days of “The Wire” are history, and feel blessed to be able to enjoy a neighborhood that is the envy of many other parts of our city. Let Hyra take his laments and criticisms back across the river. Shaw welcomes everyone, but we’ll make an exception for him.
Alexander M. Padro has represented central Shaw as an advisory neighborhood commissioner since 2001 and has served as executive director of Shaw Main Streets since 2004.