Black Branding and Gentrification in Washington, D.C.

Derek S. Hyra, Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017)

Luxury apartments tower over subsidized housing. A Whole Foods Market is a stone’s throw from a food pantry. Young professionals sip $15 cocktails across the street from a corner market selling cheap soul food to go. The mostly white patrons of a yoga studio stream past congregants of established African American churches.

How did this scene of contrasts come to be? What drew these different communities together, and how well do they coexist?

The cover of Derek Hyra's book, "Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City," published by the University of Chicago Press in April, 2017

These are the questions sociologist Derek Hyra sets out to answer in Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, his new book about the causes and consequences of gentrification in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood of Northwest Washington, D.C., Hyra, an associate professor of public administration and policy at American University, explains that this story is longer and more complicated that it would seem from a survey of the landscape today. The neighborhood has been famous among Washingtonians for decades, known as D.C.’s “Black Broadway” in the 1930s and 1940s, ground zero for destructive riots following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and infamous for its open-air drug markets in the 1980s and 1990s.

Today, Shaw/U Street exemplifies the racial and economic shifts that have transformed Washington, D.C.’s urban environment in the last several decades. Between 1970 and 2010, Shaw/U Street’s population dropped from 90% African American to 30%. From 1990 to 2010, median home values increased from $173,000 to $587,000. While some celebrate Shaw/U Street’s gentrification for creating a mixed-race and mixed-income neighborhood—partially due to stable subsidized housing—Hyra demonstrates that underneath this supposed success are persistent social tensions that diminish the quality of life of Shaw/U Street’s long-term, primarily lower-income, African American residents.

Scholars of gentrification generally focus on how it occurs, and most agree that it results from a combination of political and economic shifts and consumers’ choices about where and how they want to live. Hyra calls these “productive” and “consumptive” factors, and he takes up both in the first part of his book. He asks: What broader political and economic factors have produced change in Shaw/U Street? What lifestyle factors draw predominantly white, upper-income individuals to this predominantly black, lower-income neighborhood?

The corner of 7th St. and T St. The Howard Theater (far left) stands next to luxury apartments squeezed behind old storefronts. Image from Google Street View.

The corner of 7th St. and T St. The Howard Theater (far left) stands next to luxury apartments squeezed behind old storefronts. Image from Google Street View.

Hyra explores the first question in Chapters 2 and 3, in which he provides a valuable summary of D.C.’s political history and explains how global, federal, and local forces intersected in the early 21st century to prime Shaw/U Street for redevelopment. Most important was growth in the finance and defense sectors, which stimulated job growth in and around the nation’s capital. These new jobs brought thousands of young people to the city and boosted downtown development, which then spread to nearby neighborhoods like Shaw/U Street. Between 2009 and 2012, nearly 12,000 millennials moved to D.C., more than to any other U.S. city.

D.C.’s relationship with the federal government and the growth of its economy provide necessary context for neighborhood change, but they are not enough to explain why thousands of young, white professionals moved to Shaw/U Street specifically. In Chapter 4, Hyra argues that the main factor drawing newcomers—especially white newcomers—to the lower-income African American neighborhood is intentional “black branding” and the consumption of black culture. He proposes two ways that black branding occurs. The first is the promotion of historical black entertainment or cultural icons through historic preservation and heritage tourism. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cultural Tourism DC, a city-wide heritage tourism agency, worked with local historians and community groups to guide heritage tours and install sidewalk kiosks that show historical photographs of the neighborhood in the 1930s and 1940s, when U Street was the largest African American neighborhood in the country after Harlem and got the nickname “Black Broadway.” Evidence of this kind of black branding is visible in the larger Shaw/U Street built environment. Murals on the main commercial streets depict black celebrities. Private establishments, such as restaurants or luxury condominiums, feature names of the era’s most famous black literary and musical celebrities, including Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and Marvin Gaye.

Jazz pianist Count Bassie playing at the historic Howard Theater in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood. Photo by William P. Gottlieb, 1941.

In the second process of black branding that Hyra identifies, newcomers are not drawn by a mainstream, celebrated history of black intellectuals and artists of the distant past, but by what they perceive to constitute “authentically” black neighborhoods of the present: a sense of danger and intrigue associated with urban poverty and “iconic ghetto stereotypes.” Hyra coins this process the desire for “living the wire.” (His phrase references HBO’s television series, The Wire, which dramatizes the violence and poverty of Baltimore in era of the War on Drugs.)  Through troubling examples from his ethnographic research in Shaw/U Street from 2009 to 2014—the straight white man who attempts to buy 40-ounce bottles of liquor and lottery tickets for a “hood”-themed party, or the upscale speakeasy disguised as an abandoned building next to a “ghetto-style liquor store”—Hyra demonstrates the ways “living the wire” affects both social dynamics and the built environment. He calls newcomers drawn by this type of branding “tourists in place” and analyzes their disconcerting motives for moving to the neighborhood: “The younger newcomers, the tourists in place, seem more concerned with consuming ghetto-inspired culture than connecting and identifying with those struggling with the ills of racism and structural inequality.

Hyra raises important questions about who should be allowed to brand a neighborhood

Discussing both kinds of Black branding, Hyra raises important questions about who should be allowed to brand a neighborhood, and what impacts public histories—whether Cultural Tourism kiosks or The Wire—have on contemporary neighborhood dynamics, no matter the intent of those who write and promote them.

Hyra is most interested in what happens after newcomers arrive in the neighborhood, and he spends the remainder of the book examining gentrification’s impacts. While other gentrification studies focus on the detrimental effects of residential displacement due to rising property values, Hyra adds to an understudied facet of gentrification by focusing instead on what happens when residents are not displaced and old and new residents are forced to interact. This section draws most directly from his ethnographic methods, and his inclusion of anecdotes and quotations from residents makes his discussion rich and inviting. In Chapter 5 he explores conflicts that emerged as the neighborhood began to change, and makes another important contribution to gentrification literature by exploring the role of intersectionality, or the many social identities that comprise an individual or group. He focuses specifically on the intersections of race, class, and sexual orientation to show that while salient, race is not the only source of tension during neighborhood change. For example, one conflict pitted members of longstanding black churches against gay men—black and white—wanting to open a nightclub. In this case, sexual orientation and religious beliefs usurped the place of race in neighborhood alliances.

A view of 14th Street, a main corridor in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood. A wine bar and pawn shop share the same block. Photo by the author, May 2017.

A view of 14th Street, a main corridor in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood. A wine bar and pawn shop share the same block. Photo by the author, May 2017.

Hyra’s most original contribution comes in Chapter 6 when he challenges the common belief that low-income residents who are able to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods generally benefit from the increase in economic activity, decrease in crime, and new amenities. Because many low-income African American residents of Shaw/U Street live in church-owned and cooperatively-owned subsidized apartments, they have been able to stay when they otherwise would have been economically displaced.

Hyra makes a compelling case that while not physically displaced, these residents have been politically and culturally displaced in the neighborhood

Hyra makes a compelling case that while not physically displaced, these residents have been politically and culturally displaced in the neighborhood, which fosters resentment and withdrawal from community life. As the balance of race and wealth have shifted, black residents have lost seats on local governance boards and have been outvoted. Past sources of neighborhood and cultural pride, like black churches and go-go music clubs, have been replaced by amenities like dog parks and bike lanes.

Hyra find that not only do long-term, lower-income, African American residents suffer political and cultural displacement, but also that interaction across racial groups does not occur as much as might be expected in a mixed-race, mixed-income neighborhood. He calls this division within the neighborhood “micro-level segregation.” He concludes by sketching out possible solutions for achieving social connection, which include fostering “third spaces” where all feel comfortable, providing living wages, and ensuring the “original population’s tastes and preferences are expressed in the built environment” (167). While these solutions are not fleshed out in any detail, the gesture toward policy and action is welcome.

The former Dorsch’s White Cross Bakery, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and soon to be redeveloped. Photo by Smallbones, March 2012.

Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City is a pleasure to read, and Hyra smoothly integrates clear explanations of urban theory with illustrative examples from his research in D.C.’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood. His focus on how gentrification affects the low-income, African American community that remains is thought-provoking and provides an important counterpoint to the optimistic yet misguided idea that a neighborhood’s demographic diversity automatically leads to meaningful interaction.

Hyra’s study is so generative of new theory and so rich in examples from his ethnographic research, however, that it can be confusing. For someone familiar with Washington, D.C., and its local institutions, some of the claims seem inconsistent. For instance, while “living the wire” is a catchy phrase and the theory is backed up with troubling examples from Hyra’s neighborhood research, he applies it too liberally. In one case, he chides the popular restaurant, coffeehouse, and bookstore Busboys and Poets for “drawing on stereotypical notions of blackness” by serving catfish and hosting spoken word events. Yet Busboys and Poets celebrates black literary and musical artists, not disinvestment and crime. It is arguably branded black in the heritage tourism sense, but not to encourage “living the wire” or exploit a history of racism and structural inequality. In a later chapter, Hyra in fact praises the establishment as one of the few in the neighborhood that successfully brings together black and white patrons for meals and intellectual engagement. The consequence of these inconsistencies is a problem for this book because the stakes—how to foster meaningful relationships among groups differentiated by race, class, age, and sexual orientation—are in fact quite high.

What are we to make of a place like Busboys and Poets? The popular D.C. restaurant at its 5th and K St. location. Photo by Tony Webster, May 2014 .

Although Hyra embraces the concept of intersectionality in describing conflicts among neighborhood groups, this work misses opportunities to employ it elsewhere. For example, in his discussion of heritage preservation as a form of black branding, he suggests that white developers have reframed black history into a tidy and entertainment-themed narrative to attract more white people to the area. Yet in a later chapter he describes a case in which black developers, drawn to the neighborhood because of its popularized black heritage, wanted to build a mixed-use development to attract more black business and intellectual elites. This put them in direct conflict with a black business owner serving primarily lower-income residents and showed how black branding is about race and class. On a related note, the book could have benefited from an early discussion of Hyra’s own intersecting identities. Only in the last chapter do readers learn he is a straight, white male in his early forties, identity characteristics that are essential for understanding the perspectives he brings and was able to gain during his ethnographic research.

Not all of Hyra’s many original theoretical phrases—cappuccino city, gilded ghetto, living the wire, diversity segregation, and third spaces—receive the support they need to be useful. His overarching concept of the cappuccino city, used to describe black cities (coffee) becoming whiter (milk) and more expensive, does not actually take into account the nuance of black branding and examples of intersectionality, which he so compellingly articulates in the book.

Yet while not fully developed, Hyra’s concepts challenge readers to interrogate their applicability, and for this reason they would be excellent to debate in policy circles or undergraduate classrooms. Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City starts essential conversations about the importance of social connections within changing neighborhoods. It is a worthy introduction to urban theory, 21st century development trends, and the history Washington, D.C., for scholarly and public audiences alike.

Featured image: The corner of Florida Ave. and 4th St, in Washington, D.C., NW. Photo by David B. King, October 2013.

Rebecca Summer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is working on a dissertation about the changing functions and cultural meanings of alleys in Washington, D.C. She has also conducted research about the benefits and unintended consequences of historic landmark designation for urban neighborhoods, both in Washington, D.C., and in Madison, Wisconsin. Website. Contact.

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