A recent opinion column in The Informer about the term “East of the River” suggested that beginning last year I had “embarked on an ill-fated attempt to rebrand the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.” The writers penned a doom and gloom view of our neighborhoods, focusing on banal tropes like poverty, “crack and crime.” In conclusion, they said my efforts were tantamount to “gimmickry.”
You will not find anything hopeful, nor any constructive ideas or solutions proposed in the nearly 1,000 words they wrote. You will, however, find factual errors. Accordingly, allow me to set the record straight and define my objective.
I began using the term “East End” when I was mayor, not last year. Why? Because “East of the River” had become synonymous with “the other side of the tracks.” Those of us who live here understand that the decades-old phrase means no such thing, but outsiders — and investors — too often see things differently. Rebranding is a device employed by the real estate industry and image-makers across our country. Look no further than the thriving “NOMA” neighborhood, an amalgamation of Truxton Circle, Sursum Corda, Eckington, and near Northeast. The term NOMA didn’t exist a decade ago, nor did the investments that are bringing vitality to a neighborhood that once struggled.
A generation ago, when Dupont Circle was becoming a hot spot in which to live and invest, Logan Circle was anything but. It wasn’t long before people started calling the area Dupont East; soon that neighborhood got hot, too. Have you ever heard of Brighton? Probably not, because we now call it Brightwood.
The name was changed to avoid confusing the District neighborhood with a town in Maryland.
We can bring the story closer to home. Anacostia was once “Uniontown,” but after the Civil War, towns with that name were formed in several states. Again, to avoid confusion, the name was changed. No one is saying we should change the names of our neighborhoods. “East of the River” isn’t a neighborhood. Indeed, it is no different than “west of the park.” Both are geographic terms that sadly have come to suggest division, segregation and are loaded with negative connotations.
Updating terminology doesn’t change reality, but it can be helpful toward achieving progress and eliminating preconceived notions. It is sad that the writers to whom I am responding feel as though a new term necessarily disparages an older term. Their reaction is antithetical to achieving the progress we all seek. I welcome all constructive criticism and positive debate. Dialogue is the wellspring of ideas.
Every day, I work to bring economic development, improved health care, safer neighborhoods and first-rate amenities to our neighborhoods. If more people open their minds and shed their bias because we say “East End” instead of “East of the River,” then what is the harm? Surely, there is no downside in trying. Most certainly, when I use the term it elicits a curiosity and sparks conversation. That is a good thing. Residents of Ward 7 and Ward 8 shouldn’t feel negatively about where we live.
Using the term “East End” strives to instill pride, optimism, and hope in people who have every right to feel that way, not apologetic for the geography in which we reside. It is hard to understand how the writers drew the conclusion that this was ill-fated. In fact, my experience with this fledgling effort has been just the opposite. At a recent Council hearing on health that I conducted, every person who referenced geography referred to the area as the “East End” with no mention of East of the River.
The “East End” of our city has beautiful vistas and breathtaking views. So, there is nothing smacking of gimmickry about renaming the area. This is about a genuine effort to create the kind of image that conjures a positive future for all of us.
Vincent C. Gray is Ward 7 D.C. Council member and former mayor.