This morning, as a part of a community effort driven by a coalition of local nonprofit organizations including the Latin American Youth Center which houses my school, I participated in my first ever “Community Canvas.” The objective of the community canvas, beyond simply to collect information about what concerns residents have, what issues they need addressed, and what services they either need or can help provide, is to engage the community in a discussion about what matters to our community and how we can all do our part to build a stronger place to live for all of us. And it was through those discussions this morning that I had one of the most enlightening three hours of my life- learning from neighbors, connecting the dots between services and the people they serve, and coming to understand the differences and changes that bring us together, and sadly, often drive us further apart.
Over the course of those three hours, and covering only about 4 blocks of terrain in South Columbia Heights D.C., I witnessed and heard first hand the effect of a rapidly changing community, and peered through a window into the effects of a country feeling a loss of some purpose and possibility. The questions ranged from what major concerns you have about your community, to what organizations, people, or government agencies are making a positive impact, and what would you be willing to do to help out in your neighborhood. One of the things we talk about in education a lot is crafting questions in a way that allows multiple levels of entry or access points. In other words, no matter what your experiences, you should feel like you can respond to the question in an open way that draws on who you are and what you have to share- not a universal expectation. I didn’t realize how effective these particular questions would be in opening up dialogues that exposed a neighborhood bound by a common sense of responsibility and engagement, but yet in many ways still deeply and dangerously divided.
Through my first set of interviews I encountered mostly well-education, upper middle class or in some cases upper-class individuals who were active in their community and cared deeply about making it better. Some had already established neighborhood or block email lists, organized a neighborhood watch, organized a clean up or block party, and often volunteer or donate money to help local causes. But what they also had in common was a concern about lingering crime, littering, loitering, and fellow citizens not as concerned about the wellbeing of their neighborhood as they were. Asking what could be done to make their neighborhood better, three out of four of them, unprompted, said “bring Adrian Fenty back.” One man told me “He suffered from the successful black man syndrome….if you’re black and successful people see you as arrogant, your own community [turns on you]. So now we’re just going back to the old ways. I’ve been there.I don’t want to go back.”
Some approached the conversation on an individual level- speaking to what we should all do to pitch in and make our neighborhood better. Some approached the conversation on a community level- speaking to what we need to do collectively to improve our common space. And many also approached the conversation on a political level, arguing that while individual action was good and needed, what was really hurting them and their families the most was the lack of real political reform, whether it be health care costs, mortgage payments, or property taxes. I heard a real concern from people that they thought those who could afford to weren’t doing their part to make the country a better and stronger place. As one man of Ethiopian descent but who has been in the United States most of his life told me- “People keep telling us we can’t fix these problems because we’re broke. We’re not.” And yet still others talked about our particularly difficult and unfair circumstance in affecting change. One man who has lived in this neighborhood for many years but is now being forced out by increasing property values and gentrification told me, “ Until we have representation- we can’t affect much,” he said. “We have no right to petition in this city.” The constitution affords us that right, but we don’t have it right here, hr argued. But what stood out to me was an interesting take on gentrification from a victim of it. “I say- mission accomplished,” he said. “I worked hard to make this city a better place and it has happened. I wanted to make this a great place to raise my kids. I did that. My kids are older now and I’ve got to move to Southeast because we were successful. But I see strollers every day passing by on this road and it doesn’t matter what color the parents are…we did that. That’s a success.”
And from his experience began my final set of interviews that stretched beyond the newly gentrified Columbia Heights past Sherman Avenue onto Girard Street where the neighborhood takes a turn into the past- where concerns aren’t about a plastic bottle littered on the sidewalk, but as one man described to me a serious pattern of young people throwing full bags of trash and even feces into his back yard. The man was black and has lived in the neighborhood for a long time. In his mind, he is no perpetrator of gentrification- yet he sees a personal gentrification as his only way out of a situation no one wants to help with. He says he’s saving up to invest in a new porch and a new look for his house so they won’t feel like they can sit around and drink without his permission. The man wanted a free community gym, and some help getting a loan.
As I walked further down Girard St. wondering whether it was time to call it a day and end my route, I saw a group of four young black men (some boys), sitting around smoking pot in front of an apartment building down the road. “I’m not done yet,” I thought to myself. I approached them and asked if they would mind chatting about their neighborhood. They didn’t seem too excited about the idea, but they agreed.
I sat down with them and went through the first few questions…”How long have you lived here?” “All our lives” they answered. I continued, “What are some of your major concerns about the neighborhood?” “The police…police harassment,” one said. “Man, fuck the police,” another responded. But then another, slightly older man with them, fired back. “Man, the problems out here aren’t about the police. Anywhere you go you’re gonna have police, you can’t stop that. The problem here is we being invaded. We’re losing our street, our neighborhood.” “Look,” he said, as he pointed to the end of the block. “Down there we got a new condo building going up, at the end of the block the same. Half these houses been converted into fancy apartments. Before long we’ll be out of here…nowhere to go. That’s the problem we got. You guys talking about the police…come on!”
As I dug deeper I got at something even more intriguing. I asked them what they thought their neighbors were concerned about. They didn’t hesitate. “They’re concerned about us. They’re concerned about crime and drugs.” And they were mostly right. One kid spoke up- “You know they worried about getting their cars keyed and shit stolen, maybe they should say good morning back once in a while, stop acting so damn afraid of us like they can’t look at us in the face. Then they wouldn’t have to worry about no shit...It’s about respect.” They didn’t want problems, but they were also initially short on solutions. They felt that there was no going back and their time was running out in what to them is their city and their block. “Soon this won’t be a black city anymore,” the older said.
“You know, we used to play tag on this block, but now all of them moved in.” I was trying to connect the dots. I thought to myself- why can’t they play tag in a gentrified neighborhood? As they continued talking and my mind began to wander, the lines filled in. It’s about fear. Nobody acts the way they want to act when they feel threatened. We act irrationally when we fear for ourselves, for our family, for what we know and love. Their reaction isn’t a helpful one, but it’s a human one. They want more, but don’t feel like they can get it. “What happened to the Save our Streets program?” they asked. “You know, they have some great conflict resolution classes. I took it. We need that up here, but now they gone.” They told me they had met their councilmember, but they didn’t feel like anyone in government would listen to them. The developers mattered more.
So where does that leave us? Maybe we are a community that is increasingly unified, but not united; a community of purpose and progress, but with problems yet unsolved. But I also had a sense that this is a neighborhood of really great people. All of them cared about their community and wanted better for it. Even in anger they expressed a sense of pride about their city and their community. It was satisfying to hear that everyone could mention critical neighborhood resources and many already use them. And those that might be new to the neighborhood have a real understanding of the burden that being part of that change carries. Most of them want to help out. Many volunteered to tutor or to escort a student to school in the morning, or host a neighborhood discussion on local issues.
Change is never easy, and the frustration that real fundamental change wasn’t happening ran deep. But in the midst of good people, good projects, and most importantly, goodwill, one can have faith that though it may at times seem distant, good shall come.