Greater Greater Washington

GGW discusses: The focus on Anacostia

Why do so many stories about displacement, gentrification, and other housing shifts concentrate on this neighborhood instead of the many others east of the river?


Fairfax Village. Photo by moelauher on Flickr.

Our contributors continue their discussion about the recent NPR story and displacement versus gentrification with some thoughts on how Anacostia is unusual among neighborhoods on its side of the river.

Veronica Davis writes:

Anacostia has become the poster child neighborhood for urban renewal, but the Anacostia story cannot be extrapolated to the rest of what lies East of the River. While some areas East of the River face challenges of blight, poverty, and high crime, that is not the "East of the River story."

Neighborhoods such as Hillcrest, Penn Branch, Dupont Park, Benning Heights, and Fort Davis have remained middle class enclaves throughout their history. These neighborhoods pride themselves on their civic engagement, well-kept homes, and relatively low crime.

Geoff Hatchard says:

Why do media reports about east of the river so often focus on Anacostia, to the detriment of other neighborhoods in wards 7 and 8?

For a unique point of view, let's look at the housing stock. All things considered, there are many choices that go into purchasing a house, but they include length and type of commute, size of house, type of house (rowhouse, apartment building, detatched, etc.), schools, and nearby amenities (grocery, bars, restaurants, other retail).

Many of the neighborhoods in ward 7 and 8 that have detached houses, like Hillcrest, Penn Branch, and Washington Highlands, also lack retail, have low-performing schools, and are at least perceived to require an automobile trip to get to employment centers.

If given a choice, many buyers will choose a place elsewhere that also has detached homes where they'll have to drive, but might have better schools and more retail nearby. We seem to have an unlimited supply of that type of housing stock in the metro area.

Anacostia (and Fairlawn, for that matter, but how many consumers of the Washington Post, local TV, and NPR have ever heard of Fairlawn?) has rowhouses. There is a limited supply of them in the metro area, especially older, solidly constructed rowhouses. Outside of some DC neighborhoods and Old Town Alexandria, there aren't any, and most are not cheap.

Comparatively, though, the rowhouses in wards 7 and 8 are cheap. If people want that kind of housing, and they're not wealthy, they're going to be looking there for a home (or in Trinidad, or other neighborhoods outside the favored quarter).

People are realizing that neighborhoods built in that manner (close houses, porches or stoops in the front, less reliance on the automobile) tend to be pretty nice places to live.

Due to their relative scarcity, supply and demand kind of dictates that the prices in these neighborhoods will continue to rise. Business owners will see the interest and will open stores to cater to the new money coming in.

That increased interest will draw the interest of the media. That's why we see stories about Anacostia, and not about houses selling in Fort Dupont or Marshall Heights.

Is it fair that the people who have lived there for years have not been catered to by businesses in the same way? Of course not, but that's another story on its own.

The fact that Anacostia has a commercial district that can be quickly turned into something like 14th and U NW, it's the closest neighborhood to the area west of the river, and its easily-recognizable name which matches a river and a Metro station certainly doesn't hurt.

Veronica O. Davis, PE, has experience in planning transportation, urban areas, civil infrastructure, and communities. She co-owns Nspiregreen, LLC, an environmental consulting company in DC. She is also the co-founder of Black Women Bike DC, which strives to increase the number of Black women and girls biking for fun, health, wellness, and transportation. 
Geoff Hatchard lived in DC's Trinidad neighborhood. The opinions and views expressed in Geoff's writing on this blog are his, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer. 

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Don't leave out Capitol View!!! Think what you might of Wal-Mart, but it has recognized that there are upwardly mobile residents in the area that have money to spend! Architects, doctors, computer specialists, government employees, etc. are all here in Capitol View. We are getting involved, snitching(!), and demanding attention from the Wilson building.

by ronnie on Feb 21, 2011 12:10 pm • linkreport

I'm curious what EOTR neighborhoods you might suggest for someone looking to buy who is looking for a community that is engaged, reasonably safe, and would have a reasonable commute to the Gallery Place/Chinatown area by transit. Not owning a car is preferred but is a possibility, just not for commuting.

by Kate on Feb 21, 2011 1:58 pm • linkreport

Media types only know "Anacostia" and probably think the name applies to most of Southeast, esp. any neighborhood with problems. For the most part, they don't know much about DC beyond NW and the inner suburbs. It's on reason why the coverage of local affairs by "big media" here is so awful.

by Rich on Feb 21, 2011 2:07 pm • linkreport

I thought "Anacostia" normally referred to the entirety of DC east of the river.

by Roy on Feb 21, 2011 2:08 pm • linkreport

Everyone thinks that their neighborhood is safe and secure and that problems are always isolated or remote or have mitigating factors. It's rarely true in an objective look based on a common standard.

The difficulty is that some people grow up in violent communities, and learn how to survive and often times, those who survive in violent communities aren't a particularly interesting target. Therefore you can rationalize that "it's not that bad" or that's just part of living in the city. It's not until you live in a truly safe city/community that you see how awful your own neighborhood can be at times.

by eb on Feb 21, 2011 2:19 pm • linkreport

@Roy -- Anacostia refers to the entirety of DC east of the river in the same way that people use Washington, DC to refer to pretty much everything between Baltimore and Richmond.

@eb - I find your comments offensive, but also just plain wrong. There have been other posts on neighborhoods by neighborhood crime stats which support the point that not all neighborhoods east of the river have high crime rates. Also as I understand the background of the posters, they didn't grow up east of the river, but moved there as adults negating your point on that level.

by Kate on Feb 21, 2011 3:08 pm • linkreport

@Kate.... depends on if you are looking for (condo, single family) and your price point. There are plenty of communities with active and engaged civic association.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Feb 21, 2011 3:37 pm • linkreport

Interesting discussion. My work took me all over the city and frequently to far NE and all over farther out SE.

I think its a misinformation problem, coupled with some realities/ prejudices.

1) the large bridges (over Benning, but more so the 11st st and the bridge over Penn) are auto-centric, massive and not pedestrian friendly. Compare this to, say the Key Bridge. Its a large psychological barrier.

2) the lack of bars/restaurants/destinations. I know there are various amenities sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods, and actually I think the everyday retail is somewhat efficient, if not pretty, depending on where you are. But there needs to be items of interest to draw folks from throughout the metro area. I think this is starting to happen, especially with all the good work the bloggers/activists are doing. Much more needs to happen though.

3) There is, typically at least, a large percentage of visible, mentally ill/homeless/pandhandlers. Not necessarily more than say downtown or CH, but there are less people walking these areas. This isn't the neighborhoods' fault, often that is the only place where owners will accept the subsidies and rent is at an appropriate level. However, I don't think a lot of 'preppy' people make this distinction, or understand that these people are generally harmless.

However, this is all changing. I was struck by how whites were becoming better and better represented at the Safeway at Minnesota/and Benning. And this was mid-2008.

I do think the combination of incredibly cheap prices, great locations, having tons of civic minded residents who don't tolerate any crap (both young and old) and reasonably solid metro access means nothing but improvement in the coming decade. And by improvement I don't mean more whites, I mean more young professionals, more homeowners who are invested in their community, better press and more businesses opening up.

by H Street Landlord on Feb 21, 2011 3:37 pm • linkreport

@Kate,

I would check out the single family homes near Deanwood metro and historic Anacostia (ideally on the edge of it nearest metro). The neighborhoods in NE and SE are generally quite well served by buses also, but those can slow down significantly west of the river. Depending on what you're trying to get you can find condos for like 60k too.

Not sure if I would really think that makes a whole lot of sense compared to Trinidad prices, however, especially given Trinidad is much closer in.

by H Street Landlord on Feb 21, 2011 3:48 pm • linkreport

Kate don't take it personally, it's more meant at human nature in general. People in CH/Petworth think their neighborhood is 'safe', people in NW think their neighborhood is safe. It's all part of the human condition to think where you live is safe, until you're a victim of crime. The most telling statistic that represents "how people perceive" your neighborhood is to turn on the crime stats and filter out everything but "assaults". Then look on a Ward by Ward basis and you start to see where people develop their notions about 'safety'. It's relative to where you came from and what your expectations are.

Saying that "my neighborhood is safe" when the neighborhood immediately adjacent to you is not safe, is willful ignorance. That's like saying my street is safe, when the next street over is an open air drug market. You might feel safe, but people considering your neighborhood aren't necessarily going to agree. Violence spills over, someone gets a bad address and now you're in the middle of it.

"New people" moving to an area that has the same level of violence where they came, are going to have the same level of comfort.

No one moving to Anacostia from say Madrid where there is no fear of personal violence on the street are just not going to feel safe. But you can justify 'feeling safe' any way you want to get through your day. It will be safe when kids aren't killing kids.

by eb on Feb 21, 2011 3:55 pm • linkreport

@Kate, eb didn't say anything about crime EOTR or any specific area. I read eb's comment as a generalization about living in differnt places and I actually related to it from my own experience.

My experience: I lived in Shaw from 1990 to 2001. Before that I lived in similar nieghborhoods in Chicago ~1980-1990. I was VERY offended and rather disgusted by the ignorant comments I heard from others (people I met who lived west of Connecticut Ave or not in DC at all) about how I lived in a terrible place. It was my home. They were dissing my home! To my face! It was as if they thought I accepted their perspective and agreed with them that I lived in a "terrible" place. The rudeness is still exceptional. I was happy there and liked my neighborhood a lot, not least of all because it was so cheap to live there (at the time, 2 blocks from the U St. metro).

Then I moved to a neighborhood on the cusp between Woodley and Cleveland Parks in 2001. The change that eb describes is reality. I had a certain way of walking around and a "don't fuck with me" attitude and body language that I'd learned from living 20yrs. in neighborhoods like Shaw was c. 1990. I accepted a certain amount of crime and grime.

After living in Woodley/Cleveland Park my body langauage relaxed and a level of stress and viglance for personal safety I had accepted and no longer noticed in myself began to lift, along with my expectations of crime-free-ness and litter-free-ness in my neighborhood (its only the zoo visitors who are the litterbugs).

when I lived in Shaw I was attacked on the street and my life was threatened 1 block from my home; multiple times we had police looking through our yards for hidden/discarded guns used in crimes; we heard gunshots often enough to not really "notice it" anymore; in my time there at least half a dozen murders happened within 3 blocks of my house (one was 1/2 a block from my house. I was walking my dog and I stopped to read all the messages on the street shrine the victims friends' put up. You could see where the guy was shot and stumbled several yards because there were blood stains. It had just happened a day or two earlier. I looked down to find my dog licking the blood soaked sidewalk.)

Kate. In the 10 years I lived in Woodley/Cleveland Park nothing like that happened. In fact once I left my car unlocked by mistake overnight with exposed valueables in it. They were not stolen! I was shocked. I tested this by leaving interesting looking things in my car purposefully unlocked over night several nights in a row. My car was not touched. It was like I'd gone to a different planet.

I find ebs comment neither offensive nor wrong.

Its always enlightening to leave one's home to see it from a different perspective, be it leaving the USA and living as an ex-pat or just moving to a different part of the same city.

No one should have to live with the level of crime and grime we lived with in Shaw (near 9th and T NW) c. 1990. Everyone deserves to live in a neighborhood as crime and litter-free as Woodley/Cleveland Park.

by Tina on Feb 21, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

Thanks Tina. You eloquently expressed my feelings.

by eb on Feb 21, 2011 4:19 pm • linkreport

@eb,

Saying that "my neighborhood is safe" when the neighborhood immediately adjacent to you is not safe, is willful ignorance. That's like saying my street is safe, when the next street over is an open air drug market. You might feel safe, but people considering your neighborhood aren't necessarily going to agree. Violence spills over, someone gets a bad address and now you're in the middle of it.

The interesting thing is that, in many DC neighborhoods, that perception matches the reality. On Capitol Hill, for instance, a difference of just a couple of blocks makes a huge difference in shootings, burglaries, assaults, thefts, you name it. Crime is local; in DC, crime is hyper-localized.

That's not to say that some folks don't have a poorly calibrated sense of risk, but I can walk three blocks northeast of my house and walk streets where people are getting stabbed and shot not infrequently. Hasn't happened in 4-5 years closer to my house.

by oboe on Feb 21, 2011 4:22 pm • linkreport

@eb you are just repeating the same dumb point. and if you think there is no street violence in Madrid, well that just proves you know as little about Madrid as you do East of the River.

by eli on Feb 21, 2011 4:22 pm • linkreport

eli: How about you start using that world class education of yours by articulating a logical argument. Liar liar pants on fire is for kindergarten.

oboe: I'd argue it doesn't make a difference. The violence always spills outwards from the epicenter, especially in warm weather. We have carjackings and robberies with weapons well into "the nice areas" of Capitol Hill. To some, it's an aberration, to others in an indication of a still "unsafe" neighborhood. Even with a carjacking at the end of my block I still feel safe in my neighborhood, but there are folks I know from PG county that want to be walked to their cars when they leave my house at night.

by eb on Feb 21, 2011 4:41 pm • linkreport

Right, but that feeling of being unsafe may not map with the actual risk. Take as an example the carjackings on the Hill a couple of years ago. It was precisely because they "leaked" into a relatively low-crime area that the carjackers were caught. Was that because the cops only care about rich folks getting carjacked? No, it's because there's a relatively low "floor" to the violence (that and highly motivated and cooperative residents) so it was easier for MPD to establish a pattern. They determined that carjackers were striking in the area around 14th and Tennessee because there was easy access to Maryland Ave, and from there out Bladensburg or Benning Road. So they set up cruisers on those points of egress, and caught the carjackers in short order.

There was a recent armed robbery just off Lincoln Park recently, and the robbers were caught by an MPD foot patrol a few blocks away.

Generally speaking criminals don't strike unless they feel there's little chance of being caught. The greater the chance of that happening, the less crime in a given micro-neighborhood. Obviously bad things can happen to anyone anywhere, and when bad things happen a few blocks away, it gives anyone pause. But the numbers are what they are.

by oboe on Feb 21, 2011 4:51 pm • linkreport

Great post. Kate asked about EOTR housing options, and I think Skyland/Naylor Gardens is another oft-missed stable area, with nearby shopping and so forth. Lots of rentals, and some homeownership, too: http://www.mannadc.org/detail/property.cfm?property_id=10&id=103

by mtp on Feb 22, 2011 4:00 pm • linkreport

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