Redevelopment plans at the RFK Stadium and Armory Campus in Southeast has some merchants hoping that it would provide a chance for their businesses to thrive despite the many changes in demographics and culture gutted by gentrification.
“Like a lot of Washingtonians, I have great memories of football and concerts at RFK, and will be a little sad to see it go,” said Nathan Harrington, director of the Ward 8 Farmer’s Market and chair of the committee to restore Shepherd Parkway. “That said, the car-centric layout and acres of parking lots at RFK are the legacy of a failed, bygone era in urban planning in the 1950s and ’60s.
“It’s been a disaster for urban communities and for the much-abused Anacostia River,” Harrington said. “The redevelopment gives us a chance to do better, but with runaway gentrification and politicians in the pockets of developers, I have my doubts.”
Gentrification fast became an ugly word in the District and in many places around the country. Lifelong residents — mostly African-Americans and other minorities — have been priced out and sold out.
And when the pillars of once-proud neighborhoods are forced to leave, the mom and pop shops that have catered to their needs for decades — if not centuries — also have found themselves no longer useful for a newer and very different neighborhood makeup.
“In the areas where my wife and I own businesses, it’s nearly impossible for the average Southeast resident to move to,” said Omekongo Dibinga, a professor of Cross Cultural Communication at American University who owns three District area yoga studios with his wife. “The Northeast area called Ivy City where we have one our businesses have vacant lots that are over $500,000.”
Much culture and diversity is lost when people are forced out by gentrification, said Calvin Warren, an assistant professor of American Studies at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at George Washington University in northwest D.C.
“Black small-business owners might lose property or are forced to sell because of increased rents or competition from big chains moving into the area,” Warren said. “This is also a loss of black wealth. If this process continues, I think it will be harmful to most African-Americans who are unable to buy property in these areas.”
And it’s not just in Washington, D.C.
“Gentrification is currently happening in Tucson, Arizona,” said Andres Portela, a public relations manager in the Grand Canyon State. “I can see the effects through my neighborhood with the rising cost of housing and downtown and university communities where we have seen the cost of rent jump so dramatically due to the influx of homes being purchased and flipped. … I worry about businesses.”
In the New York neighborhood of Harlem, where municipal housing buildings, rundown structures and dilapidated businesses were turned into expensive townhouses and dwellings for Fortune 500 companies and an office for former President Bill Clinton, some argued that the benefits of gentrification far outweigh any negative.
“I’ve lived in Harlem for the past five years and so I have witnessed firsthand the benefits of gentrification,” said Mark Derian, an author, publisher and psychologist. “Gentrification is an improvement to a neighborhood. It’s natural urban advancement and its human nature to advance.
“We cannot be victimized by gentrification any more than we can be victimized by someone starting a successful business,” he said.
Sherice Alford, who lived in Harlem for 37 years before being forced out by gentrification, disagrees.
“Harlem was home for me and so many African-Americans,” Alford said. “Sure, there were boarded-up buildings and crime, but what’s forgotten, what’s lost, is how strong the neighborhood was and how we worked to fix these things without the help of the city or federal government.
“The prettying up [of] Harlem could have and would have been successfully accomplished had we received the same kinds of breaks these white-owned businesses and these non-black new residents got as incentives to take our neighborhood from us,” she said.
A report at governing.com, noted that in New York City, and especially the Manhattan borough, the year 2015 may be remembered as the year the neighborhood store suffered a mass extinction. Small retail businesses have been closing their doors at a rate that longtime students of the city’s commercial life say has no precedent in their memory.
At the beginning of 2016, in a much-publicized departure, Café Edison, a Times Square institution, gave up after 34 years at the same spot.
Since then, every few days has seemed to bring news of another small business closing — a shoe store, a diner or a hole-in-the-wall cheese shop. Multiply those closings by a few hundred to get an idea of what is happening these days on the New York commercial front.
For decades, the Hollywood Styles Barbershop shop has occupied a small brick storefront just off Seventh Street, a stretch of Shaw that typifies much of the change in that D.C. neighborhood. Convenience stores and Ethiopian takeout joints housed in beat-up storefronts carry on next door to upscale coffee shops, bakeries and bars.
Shop owner DeLonta Dickerson told NPR that barbershops are some of the few remaining businesses from the old Shaw. Like churches, barbershops can remain a link to the neighborhood long after people move away.
The chrome and vinyl chairs lined up on each side of the small space have seated generations of the same families. Dickerson started coming there as a kid and took over the business in 2009 when the shop’s longtime owner died.
Over the years, Dickerson has seen new condos rise on every corner and a subway station crop up across the street. He leases his storefront, and while he figures the owner could sell out to a developer one day, he doesn’t think about it much, he told NPR.
“I’m not sure if I’d go for another space, or if it’s something that I’d just want to leave behind,” he said.