All Souls Unitarian is not your average kind of church. That becomes clear before walking through the door. It’s located at the intersection of Harvard and 16th Streets in Northwest, D.C., which also houses the Washington Family Church, the Scottish Rite Temple and at least three embassies. But All Souls church stands out immediately with its solid neoclassical façade and tall steeple.
At any given time on that bustling corner, car horns and police sirens ring through the air. But on a Sunday morning you can still hear music coming from the church. One particular day inside the nave congregants wave their arms back and forth to the sound of an electric guitar.
Some of them embrace and others cry while mouthing the words to a familiar tune: Purple Rain. This is the first Sunday after news broke that music icon Prince had died at the age of 57.
When the final chords of the song fade away, the congregants erupt in cheers and applause. The people in the crowd are young, middle-aged and old. They are black, brown, white, and speakers of Spanish, French and English.
The scene is one of those moments you know will linger in your mind for years to come. It is a reflection of the principles of diversity and community All Souls was founded on nearly 200 years ago.
Located in Washington D.C.’s ward 1 where the Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan neighborhoods meet, All Souls has seen a lot over the years. The church’s associate minister Rev. Susan Newman Moore, 59, grew up in Adams Morgan. She said the area has changed drastically over her lifetime, but the All Souls Unitarian Church has been a constant.
“This has always been a community church. We have 1,300 members and about 965 acting members,” Moore told me during an interview. “We call it the justice church because we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.”
All Souls is the kind of place that appointed its first black senior minister the year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It’s the place where D.C. mayor Adrian M. Fenty signed the District’s gay marriage equality law in 2009. Rev. Moore said she loves the church’s rich history and how it has been a symbol for equality in the D.C. community.
But as the city continues to embrace human rights, it also progresses in troubling ways. Yes, crime rates are down and the buildings are nice; ward 1 is a place people actually want to come now, Moore said.
But the residents she grew up with are gone, replaced by luxury condos and young, white professionals. A number of longtime residents have fought to stay put, but most of them simply can’t afford to live in the area anymore.
Washington, D.C. is one of many cities across the country to become a battlefield for residents: the rich versus the poor; the old versus the new; black versus white. The subject of this battle is gentrification, the process of urban revitalization that results in affluent newcomers replacing lower-income residents.
Over the last 30 years gentrification has been highly debated among public and academic circles. British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term in 1964 to describe the process of pushing low-income people out of parts of London. At the time scholars suggested gentrification was a natural process of neighborhood evolution, but many perceptions have since changed.
In 1986 Neil Smith and Peter Williams published a collection of essays titled Gentrification of a City, which became an important resource for understanding the structures that contribute to this process.
“If we look back at the attempted definitions of gentrification, it should be clear that we are concerned with a process much broader than merely residential rehabilitation … As the process has continued, it has become increasingly apparent that residential rehabilitation is only one facet … of a more profound economic, social, and spatial restructuring. In reality, residential gentrification is integrally linked to the redevelopment of urban waterfronts for recreational and other functions, the decline of remaining inner-city manufacturing facilities, the rise of hotel convention complexes and central-city office developments, as well as the emergence of modern “trendy” retail and restaurant districts.”
Gentrification in the U.S. has been policy-driven, with efforts to clean up inner-city streets referred to as the “broken window” approach.
Social scientists George Kelling and James Wilson first introduced the concept of broken window theory in a 1982 article for The Atlantic. The idea behind the theory is that smaller community problems like crime will escalate if governments do not address them aggressively and quickly.
The broken window approach had a significant affect on the U.S. criminal justice system. A notable example happened in New York City, where Police Commissioner William Bratton put this theory to practice. Beginning in the early 1990s, he cracked down on turnstile jumpers, panhandlers, unsolicited windshield washing, disorderly conduct and public drinking.
Under his direction felonies and homicide rates were said to dramatically decrease. But the crackdown also imprisoned many low-income minority residents for petty crimes.
In recent years the U.S. has seen a correlation between gentrification trends and policing methods. The broken window approach is an undercurrent of gentrification because some governments use it as a way to attract new residents.
Among the city’s top five fastest gentrifying cities, Washington, D.C. is second after Portland; it is followed by Minneapolis, Seattle, and Atlanta, according to Governing.
But despite this recent focus on the District’s changing landscape, gentrification has been an ongoing issue since the 1920s. In the newly released book Capital Dilemma, D.C. gentrification is divided into four phases.
The first wave took place in Georgetown, a historically black, working-class area. In the 1920s and 30s white, young professionals came into the area to fix up homes, attracting even more newcomers. The second wave took place in Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill as a response to the influx of white-collar federal workers during World War II.
As part of the third phase, developers bought large apartment buildings during the 1970s and evicted the current tenants. D.C. is currently experiencing the fourth wave of gentrification. This follows government efforts to stabilize the city after a 30-year period of dilapidation sparked by consuming riots in 1968 following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
“I was in the fifth grade in 1968, and I remember all of 16th street was on fire,” Rev. Moore said. “After that there was a massive white flight and blacks were pretty much the only people still living here.”
After the majority of white residents fled the area, the black population reached a high of 71 percent in 1970. The post-riot problems were exacerbated by the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 80s and 90s, which saw widespread addiction and a surge in violent crime.
In order to spark economic growth and promote “diversity” the local government pushed campaigns to curb crime and poverty, and to attract developers. Soon enough Starbucks and Whole Foods replaced mom-and-pop shops. Older and minority residents filtered out, replaced by young, white and affluent professionals.
D.C.’s ward 1 is an interesting case study to examine the city’s larger redevelopment trends. It is the city’s smallest, most densely populated ward with 76,000 people. The area consists of eight distinct neighborhoods: Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Kalorama, LeDroit Park, Mount Pleasant, Pleasant Plains, Park View and U Street/Shaw. Ward 1 also receives some of the city’s most extensive revitalization projects, which have been met with mixed opinions.
Washington, D.C. had very few Latin American restaurants when Jose Reyes, 61, moved there from El Salvador in the 1970s. But the face of D.C. was changing, with a number of immigrant communities coming in. Between 1970 and 1990 the Latino community grew to make up 5.4 percent of the D.C. population, according to the American Immigration Council.
Jose and his wife Betty decided that Latino in D.C.needed a taste of home. In 1982, they opened the Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant El Tamarindo in Adams Morgan. Over the next 32 years Jose and Betty weathered recessions and the neighborhood’s drastic redevelopment.
Today El Tamarindo remains in the same spot, and it has even expanded. The restaurant is now a fixture for Latinos in D.C., which houses the country’s fourth largest Salvadoran population.
“The neighborhood changed very much in that time,” Reyes said during a conversation with me. “El Tamarindo is the only business that is still here from when I started. We are very lucky.”
The American Immigration Council reports that the foreign-born share of D.C.’s population has gone from 9.7 percent in 1990 to 14.4 percent by 2013. These immigrants have increasingly come from Latin America, with Latinos comprising about 45 percent of the city’s new immigrants in 2011.
But D.C.’s most drastic changes are not the result of new immigrants. D.C. was the first city to have a majority black population, garnering the nickname Chocolate City in reference to the 1975 song by the funk band Parliament.
That black majority is now gone. Between 2000 and 2013 blacks decreased from 46 percent of ward 1’s population to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the ward’s white population grew from 32 percent to 54 percent in that time. And many of these white newcomers have much more money than the minority residents.
The influx of wealthy residents can be explained by a series of development campaigns that drove housing, grocery and restaurant prices up throughout the city. Many could no longer afford to live in their neighborhoods.
The D.C.-based Urban Institute launched an extensive, data-driven web project called Our Changing City. According to the data, the price of a single-family home in ward 1 increased from $166,278 in 1996 to $630,706 in 2013. In February 2015 the median rent prices for a one-bedroom apartment were $2,100 in Columbia Heights, $1,990 in Adams Morgan and $1,550 in LeDroit park.
But as Garance Franke-Ruta pointed out in The Atlantic, many of the city’s longtime residents left well before developers came in.
"It’s very clear from the data on D.C.’s Census Tract 44 … that the black population dropped dramatically long before any of the so-called “culture vulture” venues came in. More that 1,100 people left the neighborhood between 1980 and 2000 — a third of the population. That’s a profound population loss, and coincided with a time when just about the only new major development in the area was Marion Barry’s Frank D. Reeves Center project…"
And she’s right. D.C. lost nearly a quarter of its population between 1950 and 1990 due to poor city infrastructure, a struggling economy and a surge in crime due to the crack/cocaine epidemics.
But let’s put this into perspective. At the height of D.C.’s crime levels in 1991 it experienced 479 homicides in one year. With a population of 600,870 at the time, the homicide rate was a staggering 79.7 murders per 100,000 people.
Alternately, at the height of New York City’s crime levels in 1990 the homicide rate was 31 homicides per 100,000 people. This paired with high levels of poverty, poor school systems and very few inhabitable spaces were enough to drive anyone away from D.C., black or white.
Though many residents left the area during this period, the District still had plenty of people living there. Most of them were low-income blacks who couldn’t afford to pick up and leave. What they needed was a government solution that could improve their quality of life.
But ultimately, the nation’s capital had become a national embarrassment. Local and federal authorities wanted to tackle the city’s crime with swift force.
In 1989, George H.W. Bush created the Office of National Drug Control Policy and appointed William Bennett as his “drug czar.” In September of that year President Bush announced his plans to the public during a broadcast from the Oval Office.
“We are determined to enforce the law to make our streets and neighborhoods safe,” President Bush said. “So to start, I’m proposing that we more than double federal assistance to state and local law enforcement. Americans have a right to safety in and around their homes. And we won’t have safe neighborhoods unless we’re tough on drug criminals.”
The revived war on drugs led to mass arrest campaigns. Over time, the crackdown did contribute to lowering crime rates, giving city mayors like Marion Barry and Anthony Williams freedom to push for large-scale development projects that would attract middle and upper-class residents.
In the end, however, the war on drugs and the subsequent development initiatives were bandaids for much deeper problems: poverty and systematic inequality. If anything, both worsened these issues by incarcerating masses of low-income minority residents and pushing the people who remained out of their homes.
Today crime is down and the economy is booming, but there’s a central question to ask when assessing these developments: Who are all these changes for?
Unfortunately, D.C.’s history and data suggest the core strategy of neighborhood revitalization is to bring affluent residents to replace those who are seen as low-income and less desirable.
What Vickey Wright-Smith, 50, misses most about her Columbia Heights neighborhood block is the sense of community. Wright-Smith moved there in 1988 to attend law school at Howard University. Being a college graduate of Penn State University, she had plenty of experience being one of a few black faces among the crowd.
But her move to D.C. gave her the opportunity to connect with people from a shared cultural background, she told me. She remembers when young boys offered to get groceries for elder neighbors. She remembers when nearly everyone on the block would gather for backyard barbecues.
When she thinks about the evolution of her neighborhood over the years it leaves her feeling conflicted.
“Walking down 14th street there were a lot of abandoned buildings,” Wright-Smith said. “To see what it has come to now is actually amazing. It makes me proud to see that development, but I do miss the people.”
Today Wright-Smith can count five or six people who have lived in her area for the length she has. A number of them have passed away, but most left because of the rising costs of living and a feeling of isolation. She looks for the silver lining and tries to maintain the sense of community she felt 18 years ago.
Every year Wright-Smith throws a block party to bring the old and new residents together; but of course it’s not the same, she said. She hopes the government and community leaders will find a way to improve city and also maintain its history and culture.
Joshua Silver agrees that urban development is a balancing act, one that must move the city forward without leaving vulnerable communities behind. Silver is a neighborhood planner for wards 1 and 2 with the D.C. Office of Planning. As someone who has experienced the benefits of development first-hand, he resists using “gentrification” to describe ward 1’s evolution.
“Cities change over time for various reasons,” Silver said in a phone conversation. “There are policies being discussed among the city’s legislators right now in terms of finding ways to preserve some equity and increase affordability”
Silver does have a point. The reduction in crime rates and construction of improved housing facilities led to a huge housing boom in the early 2000s. This attracted newcomers from all over the world, allowing the D.C. population to grow for the first time in 50 years. In ward 1 specifically, the population grew by nearly 3,000 residents from 2000 to 2010.
Violent crime rates are on a downward trend despite recent upticks the last couple years. The mid-2000s saw D.C.’s lowest violent crimes rates in over 20 years. And even with the increased cost of living and hardships for longtime residents, there are some positive signs for the future.
Since 2007 D.C.’s police chief Cathy Lanier has emphasized better community engagement through one-on-one interactions between officers and citizens.
She has also taken a stand against traditional forms of broken windows policing, which involve cracking down on minor offenses and saturating high-crime neighborhoods with officers.
“When you’re doing zero-tolerance policing, who are you picking up and who are you alienating? Your residents, your victims and your witnesses. Now they have no respect for the police. They have no reason to speak to the police,” Lanier told Governing.
There have also been efforts to address urban displacement from a political standpoint. One such initiative is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which gives tenants the right to purchase their building if the landlord decides to sell it. Housing cooperatives have worked with success in D.C. and other cities to keep housing costs down and give tenants more control.
Carolyn Gallaher, author of The Politics of Staying Put, told American University that displacement would likely be much worse without TOPA, however the law’s reception has been mixed. In her research Gallaher found that TOPA is not as effective in low-income residences as it is with middle-income ones.
Additionally, she explains in the book that “the city officials in charge of regulating TOPA have also failed to properly regulate the process or reign in landlords and developers trying to skirt the law.”
It’s clear D.C. has more work ahead to ensure residents have affordable housing options, but gentrification trends go beyond economics. They also affect the residents’ cultural connections and “sense of place,” said anthropologist Sabiyha Prince during a panel discussion about D.C. gentrification.
Rebuilding these community ties is a major focus for Brianne Dornbush as executive director of the Columbia Heights Initiative. The initiative is a nonprofit organization dedicated to organizing events and exchanges for residents in Columbia Heights. These include summer movie nights, holiday parties and an annual summer festival.
“Whether you’re here a year or 11 years we want to help you thrive,” Dornbush said during a conversation in her office. “We are really invested in finding ways to reach community groups that we aren’t now.”
This outreach will include social media and a community blog, in addition to printed newsletters and presentations at local churches, she said. The initiative hopes to create a model that can be applied to other neighborhoods and cities.
Cultural considerations like these tend to be neglected in favor of economic interests, said Brandi Thompson Summers, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, during the panel discussion.
Washington, D.C. and other cities around the country have taken a neoliberal, free-market approach to urban development, she said. This approach prioritizes uninhibited economic growth rather than intervening to reduce systems of inequality.
Researchers like Summers and residents like Vickey Wright-Smith believe politicians and community leaders need to develop ways to improve struggling neighborhoods without ignoring or further disenfranchising the city’s most vulnerable people.
“I believe there’s a way to find a balance,” said Wright-Smith. “But I’m really wary because these changes are happening right before your eyes and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
About the author
Candice Norwood is a 2016 graduate of American University with a master’s degree in international media, an interdisciplinary program that combines coursework in media production and international relations. Her research areas include international race, gender and cultural relations. She has written for organizations including NPR, The Washington Post and Vox.com.