Over the last decade a lot of talk about gentrification in the District has framed the issue as a zero-sum game. If Target moves in, mom-and-pop stores move out. If affluent whites move in, poorer blacks move out.
Whites are definitely moving in, the Examiner's Liz Farmer reports. New data from the Census Bureau show that whites are leaving Montgomery and Prince George's County but moving into the District, Alexandria and Arlington County. Meanwhile, the number of blacks living in the District has fallen.
Over the last decade, blacks, who previously made up 60 percent of the population of the District, now account for 53 percent of the population. The number of whites living in D.C. has risen from 31 to 39 percent between 2000 and 2009.
Yet the area on the whole is getting more diversity -- and inbound affluence has raised living standards for the community.
According to the Examiner, suburban counties in both Maryland and Virginia have grown more diverse. The Hispanic population nearly equals the black population in Montgomery County, and the Hispanic population nearly doubled in Prince George's County. Asian populations in Montgomery, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun Counties increased -- and in other counties, they remained stable.
The recession and changing population trends have led to some race-oriented anxieties both nationally and locally. The background fear about gentrification is that whites moving in change the community for the worse while also improving it for the better. D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent Gray was able to convince voters that Mayor Adrian Fenty ignored the interests of D.C.'s historically black community in favor of its growing white community.
No one has put so fine a point on these anxieties as the Washington Post's Courtland Milloy, who called the election of Gray a "populist revolt." Milloy hanged heavy square quotes around "Fenty's hip newly arrived 'creative class' firing up their 'social medial' networks" -- writing off gentrifiers as "myopic little twits." Consider also Jason Cherkis's work for the City Paper on gentrification.
The sad thing about this anger-driven narrative is that it obscures the fact that the city’s recent progress has been overwhelmingly win-win. The improving public school system serves a mostly black and Hispanic student body. Milloy wants to cast Fenty as a plantation-style leader. I’m struggling to figure out how a system in which the city’s rich white families send their children to pricey private schools while poorer black households send their kids to crumbling public schools that perpetuate a cycle of poverty is less plantation-like than the one where quality public schools attract students of all backgrounds.
Generally speaking, bad economic times leads to zero-sum thinking, writes Matthew Yglesias (touching off an item by Berkeley anthropologist Rosemary Joyce), and zero-sum thinking leads to suspicion and xenophobia.
In the local context, too rarely over the last decade did we see acknowledgment that improving economic conditions leads to win-win scenarios. In Columbia Heights alone, the change has been monumental: A neighborhood still dangerous for all residents during Mayor Anthony Williams's administration is vastly safer for all residents on the eve of Mayor-elect Gray's administration. And it attracts more residents and more kinds of residents -- whites definitely among them -- as anyone can see who even passes through the water park at the corner of 14th Street and Park NW, where Hispanic, black and white children play.
Another aspect of changing demographics in the District is harder to measure and difficult to see but all the more important. As Avent writes: "Falling crime levels may attract white residents and boost white property values. But the kids not getting killed are overwhelmingly poor and black."