A City Divided

You don't have to look at the buildings or the people in Washington, D.C.'s historically black Petworth neighborhood to see that things have changed. Some say you just need to look at the dogs. "It used to be nothing but pit bulls and Rottweilers around here," says a longtime resident who gives his name as Lattimore Jenkins. He sits on a blue cooler across from a new condominium building. "Now you got them little baby dogs, Jack Russells, Chihuahuas."

The community has undergone other changes, of course. The tony apartments squatting over the Petworth Metro station where a vacant lot used to be. The bright red bikes, available to rent, lined up along a rack on the corner. The organic supermarket down the street from a decaying Safeway.

Maybe the biggest change is that now there are almost as many types of police officers in the neighborhood as there are breeds of dog: city police, park police, transit police. When development came in, patrols shifted their twice-a-week sweeps—on Tuesdays and Thursdays—to seven days a week. "You don't have the drug traffic around here no more," says J.R., an elderly man who leans forward on his cane and tips his Nationals cap when he speaks.

"You don't got the drive-by shootings no more," Jenkins adds. "You still have them, but you don't got 'em like it was. Ninety-Four, '95, wasn't nothing for someone to come up here in an old Caprice and shoot up the whole neighborhood."

Petworth's transition from a working-class, largely black neighborhood to one packed with young, college—educated professionals reflects trends that have transformed Washington, D.C., from the nation's murder capital to a post-September 11 boomtown. Combined with a drop in crime and generous tax incentives, the expansion of the federal government after 9/11 has made the District much more attractive to investors. Neighborhoods have traded open-air drug markets for farmers markets, while upscale restaurants and chain stores have bloomed in areas once scarred by riots. Newcomers, who otherwise would have decamped to suburbs in Virginia and Maryland, have started filling up the expensive new rentals that replaced dilapidated buildings.

But not everyone has been living in boom times. The federal government's expansion as well as the growing university and health—service sectors offered employment to those with college degrees. Meanwhile, many low-wage jobs disappeared. As a result, the boom exacerbated the city's expanding gap between rich and poor. It was this divide that brought down Mayor Adrian Fenty, just four years after he was swept into office on a wave of post-racial harmony.

The District has also become less black, as African Americans flee to greener, less expensive suburbs. In the past decade, the black population dropped at a rate of about 1 percent a year. The District, which once boasted a flourishing black middle class built on its historical status as a freedmen's haven, lost its black majority in February 2011.

Washington, D.C., has always been two cities. Washington spills out of downtown Metro stations at 8 A.M.; D.C. huddles on crowded buses at 6 A.M. On Sundays, when Washington goes to brunch, D.C. is in church. Washington clinks glasses in bars like Local 16 in its leisure time, while D.C. sweats out its perm at dance clubs like Love or DC Star. Washington has health-insurance benefits, but D.C. is paying out of pocket. Washington just closed on a condo; D.C. is in foreclosure. Washington is making money. D.C. never recovered from the 2001 recession.

A decade after September 11, Washington has metastasized from the suburbanish enclaves hugging Rock Creek Park to overwhelm most of the city's Northwest quarter. Some hard lines of de facto segregation still exist; the phrase "east of the river," a euphemism for the poorest and most destitute neighborhoods across the Anacostia, has the same meaning it did in 1990. But in neighborhoods like Petworth and Columbia Heights, the two cities are no longer separate but parallel, close enough to smell each other's breath but distant enough to avoid eye contact as they pass each other on the street.


THE STORY OF HOW this happened is simple enough. While most of the country was chuckling about Mayor Marion Barry's troubles with crack in the 1990s, the city was reeling from mismanagement of its finances and services. In 1995, the newly elected Republican majority in Congress curtailed the District's spending authority by establishing a control board to help rein in its half a billion-dollar deficit. Essentially a fiscal baby sitter, the board's chief financial officer, Anthony Williams, was able to overrule the city council's spending decisions. At the time, District residents recoiled against what they saw as an infringement against home rule, an issue that even now unites Washington and D.C. (Although the control board was eliminated in 2001, Congress still oversees the city's budget.)

Williams, though, helped rescue the city from financial ruin and won over enough of the District that it elected him to succeed Barry in 1998. As mayor, Williams streamlined city services and lured developers with tax breaks and subsidies. The crack era receded. Downtown became a place tourists wanted to visit. All this brought in new residents who no longer feared living, working, and playing within the city itself.

The earliest areas to see development—Penn Quarter, Capitol Hill, Chinatown—were low-hanging fruit for developers, says Eric Price, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development under Williams. "Some would ask how did it ever become so derelict, given its proximity to so much foot traffic and so many tourists," Price says. "You have 20 million people coming here every year, and you couldn't buy a hamburger downtown."

The changes, however, exacerbated the city's underlying racial tensions, reinforcing a sense that Washington was counting its cash while D.C. found it harder and harder to pay rising rents. The development was so uneven that many of the new restaurant and retail-sector jobs were also out of reach for much of D.C.—for people east of the river, the commute was so long that the jobs might as well have been in another county. "I mean, no one ever said it, no one would say, 'We don't want to go to this part of the city because it's blacker than the other part of the city,'" Price says. "But that's the challenge you face in every urban area, in terms of how developers choose. It's how banks choose, how equity investors choose."

When the economic crisis hit in 2008, white unemployment increased 1.1 percent. For black residents, it went up 5 percent, and for Hispanics, it nearly doubled. There was no housing crisis in Washington, where home prices remained stable. But for D.C., foreclosure rates went as high as 35 percent. As neighborhoods gentrified, housing prices rose, and more and more of the city's black residents sold their homes and fled—some because they had a chance to cash in, some because they couldn't afford to stay. Whether it's a flight of the black middle class or an exodus of the poor is hard to say, says Benjamin Orr, a research analyst at the Brookings Institution. Either way, he says, "the African American population is shrinking."

This wasn't by design. The District's officials are your average urban liberals waxing eloquent about green space and affordable housing. But good intentions couldn't alter the structural forces that created the two cities, even though officials tried. In 2005, after twisting a few arms and selling the property at a massive loss, officials finally convinced Giant to open a store east of the river. It was the first supermarket in that section of the city in nearly a decade.

The luxury apartments in neighborhoods like Petworth were another way city officials hoped to spread economic prosperity beyond downtown. "We wanted to see," Price says, "if that would attract other businesses and have a sort of collateral effect on creating other economic development in the area."

But even in neighborhoods where Washington and D.C. live side by side, Washington's newfound prosperity can seem as faraway to longtime residents as it does to folks east of the river. Gesturing at the Park Place Apartments from across the street, Lattimore Jenkins shakes his head and chuckles: "You gotta work a nine-to-five and sell cocaine just to live in one of them."

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