Anacostia--the next H Street? Try Old Town.
Mention Ward 8 to the average white Washingtonian and you're unlikely to hear any favorable remarks. Why is it that "black neighborhood" often reads as code for "bad neighborhood"? Basic sociology. History. Politics. At the root of it, ignorance and fear. These are not revolutionary observations. They're the repetition of a sad truth.
This is not to say I'm oblivious to the crimes committed in Historic Anacostia and nearby neighborhoods. Anacostia, like many DC neighborhoods, has its share of homicides, robberies, and sexual assaults. It is to say that the desire to commit a crime stems from desperation caused by socio-economic problems. That desire is not a race-based genetic trait. You don't steal because you were born black. You steal, perhaps, because you were born poor, didn't get proper schooling, and are unaware of better options, plus or minus factors XYZ.
So if you improve the socio-economic state of a place, it doesn't matter if white or black people are living there. Crime rates will go down. The real question, of course, is how do you heal all those socio-economic boo-boos while still preserving the historic and cultural integrity of a place. Ring in a Panera, a Starbucks, and Whole Foods and—boom!—problem solved, right?
No, that's just a case of the nasty “g” word. Anacostia won't grow as Anacostia simply because yuppies set up shop. Anacostia has to stay true to itself: its people and the potential of its community. It needs a solid middle-class base of educated blacks, open-minded whites, and people of all races and ethnicities who are willing to cooperate for the betterment of the neighborhood and Washington as a whole.
The Art of Ward 8 blogger, Charles Wilson, makes an interesting suggestion, one I've yet to hear from anyone else. He says, that instead of turning Anacostia into the next H Street, Ward 8 should look at Old Town as a model. His advice makes sense because the two places share three major characteristics:
• Both have waterfront property: The City of Alexandria's historic Old Town district lies on the Potomac River in Virginia. The river is one of Old Town's main attractions, with a large dock truly anchoring (pun intended) the district's colonial merchant vibe. Restaurants, shops, and the Torpedo Factory arts center overlook the river, while street performers delight weekend crowds at the dock. A number of tour boats leave from Old Town, including the Cherry Blossom, a reproduction of a Victorian riverboat. Meanwhile, Anacostia lies on the Anacostia River, a body of water often associated with filth. With proper time, attention, and $$$, the Anacostia River can see improvement in its water quality and therefore offer the public a cleaner, safer place to work and play. Anacostia should be the Potomac's sparkling sister, not its black sheep sibling. Beautiful waterfront property attracts business and homeowners, black or white, alike.
• Both have historic properties: Founded in 1749, Old Town's signature row houses date back to the colonial era. Anacostia was incorporated as Union Town about one-hundred years later, so you'll find many homes in the Victorian and Queen Anne styles. Anacostia also lays claim to the home of black social reformer Frederick Douglass, which is something you probably didn't even know because it's not marketed well. The main difference between Old Town and Anacostia is that Old Town's historic properties are pristine. Anacostia needs grants to bring up its overall level of historic preservation. It's already a registered historic district, but it isn't a popular tourist destination. With tourists comes money and we all know that (smartly spent) money solves (some) socio-economic problems.
• Both are full of families. Old Town and Anacostia are not generally neighborhoods for hip twenty-somethings. Those types flock to places like H Street because those places are full of bars, nightclubs, and trendy shops. Old Town eschews trends and aims instead for culture and elegance. It boasts plenty of family-friendly venues, from museums to restaurants to excellent public schools. Anacostia is already full of families, yet it hasn't earned the label of “friendly-friendly” because a) of crime, and b) it lacks those types of venues. Put those venues in place and we'll be serving the people who already live in the neighborhood, instead of gentrifying it. (Oops, I finally said it.)
I'm sure that other parallels between Old Town and Anacostia exist, and they're parallels that Anacostia should seek to strengthen. I'm not advocating for a carbon-copy of Old Town. I'm advocating for an Anacostia the whole city loves.
Are you with me, Washington?