Gentrification is the idea that you invest heavily in low-income, inner-city areas with new housing and commercial projects.  The theory is that if you build amenities and housing attractive to middle class residents, they’ll move to urban areas closer to their place of work, bringing their tax dollars with them.  Keep in mind that just because middle or upper class people live in a city, doesn’t mean it’s been gentrified.  There has to be a revitalization effect involved.

Some of these projects are extremely successful.  Others are a total waste of money.  I want to look at one gentrification project that’s pretty good, and another that’s pretty bad.  Both located in the DC area.  Pictures included.

My positive gentrification example is the Columbia Heights neighborhood.  Columbia Heights is about 4 miles from the US Capitol Building, located in the northwest quadrant.  Like many inner city areas, it started off as a middle class enclave where white collar workers could commute easily to work and back.  Wikipedia reports that it was “the preferred area for some of Washington’s wealthiest and most influential people” during the early 20th Century.  Indeed, when walking around the neighborhood today one can see plenty of beautiful architecture and wide streets.  Gradually, demographic shifts led to African-Americans moving to the area in great numbers.  After the Washington, DC riots in 1968, Columbia Heights suffered from enormous “white flight” and loss of tax revenues.  For the next 30 years, it was mostly a slum.

MetroRail opened a subway stop at Columbia Heights in 1999.  Since then, the neighborhood has been transformed.  With direct investment and tax incentives, businesses, restaurants, and a variety of apartment complexes have sprung up.  The neighborhood is quite diverse, with lower income families living near young professionals.  According to DC statistics, the Asian population tripled, while the white population increased by 2/3 between 1990 and 2000.  This was even before the opening of the subway, so the ratio has almost certainly increased since then.  African Americans and Hispanics still form a vast majority, but its an increasingly diverse blend of incomes and racial backgrounds.

Screenshot from Google Maps:

columbia sky

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia article on Columbia Heights.  Though you can’t see it, the entrance to the subway is directly to the left of the bus:



A poor example of gentrification can be found just outside southeast DC in Suitland, MD.  The northeastern and southeastern quadrants of Washington are not known for being particularly safe or prosperous, and unfortunately the Suitland area is no different.   Suitland Manor, a large slum complex on the north end of Silver Hill Road, was called one of “the most deadly three square blocks in the country,” by police Lt. Robert Nealson in the Washington Post. The WaPo article goes on to list the Suitland area as drug ridden, and recommends bussing students through the area to school, even if the students only need to walk two or three blocks.  The Wikipedia article goes on to list Suitland as one of the most dangerous places in Prince George’s County, MD  and in the country as a whole.  From a visual perspective, the main Suitland-Silver Hill intersection is as bad as it sounds.  Everything is asphalt and low-rise strip malls.  Most of the storefront is abandoned, and the businesses still around include a number of pawn shops and restaurants of dubious quality.  There is a Popeye’s and a Rite Aid, but this is hardly the stuff you can build a community out of.

The gentrification effort seems a little unfinished.  The new Suitland Elementary School cost an estimated $15 million, but the neighborhood surrounding it is so dangerous that they want to bus all the students in from afar.  A far worse example is the Suitland Federal Center.  At a price tag of over $400 million, the US Census Bureau maintains its headquarters here along with the Naval Intelligence Center and offices related to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Fundamentally, this seems like a good idea: a massive influx of federal workers would do much good for the community.  As of 2001, Suitland has a subway station within walking distance of the Center.

The problem is implementation.  The Suitland Federal Center is surrounded by a cast-iron fence, 8 feet tall.  Between the tightly patrolled gates and the facilities themselves are hundreds of yards of parking and open grassland.  This creates, in effect, a self-sustained island.  The Census Bureau itself has cafes, a full cafeteria, and a gym, so there is little incentive to make contact with the immediate community.  The aforementioned Popeye’s is at least a 20 minute walk from the front door of the building, and there are no sidewalks leading out towards the main streets.  If anything, I would feel this fortress mentality would only worsen the community.  The “outsiders,” likely poor and uneducated, can only catch glimpses of the 10,000 or so affluent federal workers who file into the Center each morning.  If that doesn’t breed resentment, I don’t know what else might.  Lack of space in downtown DC can’t really be blamed either, since new agency buildings are popping up left and right near the National Mall region.  If real gentrification was what the planners were going for, they should have placed the entrance right on the street.  Require the normal procedures for people to enter the building, of course, but at least make an attempt at community integration.  When guests come the Census Bureau, they are always told to stay in Alexandria, VA since there are simply no hotels anywhere in the vicinity.  Though it almost goes without saying, no employees live anywhere near the facility either.

This is the satellite map of the Suitland Federal Center, graciously provided from Google Maps.  The black outline represents the huge fence, and the red rectangle represents the three deadly blocks:


Here’s a view of one of the open gates to the center, again from Google Maps.  The gate is normally closed during work hours.  The circled building is the Census Headquarters; the building in the foreground has since been demolished, shrinking the “island” even more.   Behind this photo is a Chinese restaurant and a few shabby stores in a strip mall:



I think gentrification can be a wonderful thing.  I like living in cities, so any effort to make downtown safer and more lively is good.  Creating a fortress like the Suitland Federal Center or the Renaissance Center is a big no-no .  So is displacing a bunch of poor people just so some young professionals can move in.  Maintaining a reasonable mix of lower income families and yuppies, along with their associated places of work, is an incredibly difficult balancing act.  Columbia Heights seems to be on the right track.  Suitland has many years to go.