By Nora Rasman, a White Unitarian Universalist.
This scenario concerns the recent, major increase of gentrification and forced relocation within Washington, D.C. It presents some of the challenges, miscommunications, and missed opportunities that are created with rapid economic growth and that fail to take into account the majority of residents. The scenario includes people born and raised in D.C. as well as people who have relocated to the city for work and/or school. Names were chosen from the Bible so as to not identify characters by race or ethnicity.
The scenario begins on the 14th Street NW bus, where two conversations are happening. It ends at a coffee shop in Columbia Heights.
- Adam, early 30s, lives in the U Street area and directs a local nonprofit. He moved to D.C. right after high school for a job and is interested in staying in the city permanently.
- Bethany, late 20s, lives in Columbia Heights and works for the D.C. government. Bethany was born and raised in D.C. After completing undergraduate and graduate studies away from D.C., Bethany is unsure whether she wants to stay in the city.
- Cain, late 20s, lives in the Mt. Pleasant area and works in food service. Cain moved to D.C. after completing his undergraduate studies and plans to move elsewhere for graduate studies within six months.
- Daniel, mid-30s, is working to complete a college degree while working at a retail store. Born and raised in D.C., Daniel currently lives in Hyattsville and would like to move back to D.C.
- Esther, early 40s, was born and raised in D.C., currently lives in the Takoma neighborhood of D.C., and plans to stay in D.C. permanently. Esther completed undergraduate and graduate school in D.C. and now works as a professor.
The scenario opens on a bus heading north on 14th Street NW. Adam is sitting near the front of the bus. Cain and Esther get on the bus at P Street and sit down together.
Cain: Again, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. Having a better understanding of D.C.'s history is really important. I have loved living in this city, but I'm really ready to move on. I've been here for four years already! I can't believe it.
Esther: Yeah. Well, I'm glad you've enjoyed your time here, and I'm glad we had a chance to sit down and talk. The city has really changed since I grew up here.
Cain: There is definitely a lot of new development going on around my neighborhood. I'm really excited about the new services coming in. We have grocery stores within two blocks of my home in every direction. And I heard they're opening another yoga studio.
Overhearing the conversation between Cain and Esther, Adam jumps into the conversation.
Adam: You know, people in the neighborhood were asking for grocery stores for the past few decades. And they are only now being built.
Cain: It's probably because of all the new people moving in. We've made it very clear to our Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner that we need more amenities in our community.
Adam: I highly doubt that. People in the neighborhood have been approaching the City Council for years without any changes. I think developers and local government wanted to encourage a specific type of people moving in.
Esther: Yes, I agree. There is a very specific type of development going on in the city. And it doesn't take into account the needs of all the District's residents.
Cain: I've heard that gentrification is a really big problem throughout D.C. I just don't get why people are taking it so personally. It's not like I'm the reason that people aren't living in the same neighborhoods any more.
Adam: That's exactly the issue. Most people with some money who choose to move someplace don't think that they are personally contributing to the displacement of established urban communities. The gentrification economic development model has been happening in D.C. for decades. Gentrification makes it really hard for businesses that are owned by people of color or locals to compete.
Cain: Hmm. Well, hopefully this won't be such a big issue in the city I move to when I go to graduate school in the fall.
Esther: If you look into the history and current patterns of community displacement in urban areas around the United States, you'll find that gentrification is not just happening in D.C.
Cain: I've been reading some blogs about urban planning and gentrification, but I will definitely look into it further.
A few rows back on the bus, another conversation is happening.
Daniel (on the phone): No, but have you seen the number of buildings they are putting up on 14th Street? It doesn't even make sense. They have a new condo building coming to the corner of 14th and U. I feel sorry for whoever is going to be living there. [pause] ... Yup, I'm on my way to the store. I'll call you later, 'bye.
The bus stops at 14th Street and Columbia Road. Adam, Cain, Daniel, and Esther all get off the bus. Daniel walks to a coffee shop.
Adam (to Cain and Esther): Well, have a good afternoon, you two.
Esther: You as well.
Cain (smiles): Thanks again for your time, Professor. I'll definitely stay in touch.
Esther: Have a good afternoon, Cain.
Cain and Esther hug goodbye. Esther walks to the coffee shop. Adam, Bethany, and Daniel are seated at three separate tables near each other.
Esther (to Adam): Funny seeing you again. That person really made me think about how we talk about displacement in D.C.
Adam: Same here. I'm not from here, but I've been doing grassroots organizing for about 15 years, and the city has without a doubt changed a great deal. I don't get how people don't see it.
Daniel: I think I heard you two talking on the bus. Yes, there has been some serious change in the area. Look at us sitting here drinking coffee. There are so many people in this coffee shop, it took me 20 minutes to get a beverage.
Bethany (to Adam, Daniel, and Esther): Sorry to be so nosy, but I couldn't help overhearing your conversation. You were talking about the changes here in D.C?
Esther: Yes . . . ?
Bethany: I'm really concerned, too. I'm a D.C. native, and I was lucky enough to go away for school. I now work in the Mayor's Office, and I'm heading up a task force between community groups and businesses. We know that a lot of development contracts have been given out without community benefits agreements being signed, and we want to change that.
Daniel: I'm all for community benefits. But it's my understanding that even though the agreements are supposed to be legally binding, the city lacks any enforcement mechanism. Like at the new development on top of the T Street METRO station—the agreement just plain wasn't followed.
Bethany: I'm not familiar with that specific agreement, but maybe Felix in my office has more information. Would you mind giving me your contact information? I would be happy to pass it along to Felix.
Daniel: Sure. Here's my card. Actually, I've spoken to Felix about it several times. But sure, go ahead and give him my information.
Adam: If you could give Felix my contact info too, I'd really appreciate it.
Bethany: No problem. Have a great day!
Bethany and Adam turn back to their coffee; Esther and Daniel continue to speak, their voices low.
Esther: Some of these young folks, even the ones who are trying to help the communities in D.C.—they don't know how much things have changed due to gentrification.
Daniel: I agree. I grew up just down the street from here. My family got priced out years ago, and I've been trying to move back ever since.
SCENARIO DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
1. What systems of privilege and discrimination are operating in the scenario?
2. Have you had similar conversations about gentrification or faced similar situations? How have you responded?
3. Are there ways in which you might have perpetuated systems of power and privilege, oppression and marginalization when choosing a place to live? Are there ways in which you have acted to name, reframe, and dismantle such these systems?
4. What did individuals do in this scenario that helped name, reframe, or dismantle systems of privilege and oppression? What else might they have done?
5. What Unitarian Universalist values and Principles are helpful in responding to situations like this?