On Saturday May 9, 2015, Andrew Lightman, Managing Editor of Capital Community News led a discussion of the socio-economic changes facing neighborhoods east of the River with Arrington Dixon, Chairman of the Anacostia Coordinating Council; Shareema Houston, Chair of Historic Anacostia Preservation Society; author and journalist, John Muller; Graylin W. Presbury, President of Fairlawn’s Citizens Association; the city’s new Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity, Courtney Snowden and Christina Plerhoples Stacy of the Urban Institute.
The discussion began with various definitions of “gentrification” which many on the panel agreed is one of several terms used to describe the shift in a community’s population from a lower socio-economic group to a higher one that often, but not always, falls along racial lines. Panelist definitions also acknowledged the multiple layers that form a part of the process. Gentrifiers and community members are not always separated by race. Additionally, the built environment of various neighborhoods, varying rates of home ownership, and the rationale behind city policies all play a role in determining the “winners” and “losers” in community change.
The transformation of a community usually involves the conflicting visons of many. Historic Anacostia Preservation Society Chair Shareema Houston pointed out that visions of transformation can fall along racial and socio-economic lines that do not take into account the spirit of communities already present. Arrington Dixon asserted engaging the community is essential in providing residents with the tools and education needed to make decisions that will benefit them in the face of community transformation. Courtney Snowden echoed his assertion by pointing out, “Having $220,000.00 dangled in front of you can be a dangerous thing. Communities need to be educated on what they’re being asked to decide upon.”
Arrington Dixon’s emphasis on the creation of an educated, engaged community whose residents are ready to tap into their capacity, knowledge and experience to make the decisions that will best benefit them is only a part of an approach that can mitigate the possible negative effects of gentrification. If the community is to be at the table with developers and respected when decisions are made about its future, Houston stressed, city officials should help it achieve its goals. Such a role on the part of city government would call for a change in the tendency, according to Andrew Lightman, of the city to “give away” property to developers. Deputy Mayor Snowden saw room for a new approach. As a city, DC is ready to negotiate from a place of strength, and developers and communities need to be in accord. The next steps will involve galvanizing all the resources available in communities in order to be more innovative and not falling into the trap of not realizing some of the current problems stem from solutions from the past. Dixon was also optimistic, highlighting the importance of being on time. For him, the community is ready. The critical step is to harness its potential, utilizing its historic value and the Anacostia River and park as a source of pride and spirit which can be transformed into job opportunities which will, in turn, create more options and economic ladders, allowing residents to make decisions that will best impact them and the fabric of the larger community.
The audience was made up of a large contingent of ward 7 and 8 residents whose questions reflected a concern regarding the city government’s role in seemingly giving away not only property but also control over the futures of neighborhoods and an apparent lack of concern in regards to derelict city property. Other residents pointed to the Anacostia River as an important resource that can be used as an economic and unifying source for city residents. Finally, some residents were curious about any current or pending comprehensive plans for development in wards 7 and 8. Resident enquiries echoed many panelists concerns involving the need for more community engagement and stronger willingness on the part of city officials to advocate on behalf of residents in negotiations with developers.