Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Columbia Heights has come a long way, but...

Last Friday, Petula Dvorak, the metro columnist for the Washington Post, published this article entitled "Columbia Heights still has far to go." The piece is a dismal portrayal of the neighborhood that is my home from the perspective of two poor neighborhood residents.

The article left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Because I am really not sure what the point is. It seemed to say that despite the incredible changes that we've seen in the last few years, for the "have nots" in Columbia Heights, life is just as bad, and there's no hope. It casts Columbia Heights as a place where the gentrifiers gleefuly dance around in our new parks and malls while the long-time poor residents are still just poor and desperate.

Today, a new resident responded with a letter to the editor rebutting her characterization of the neighborhood. I wish that I had taken the time to write to The Post, because unfortunately, this response is in many ways just as bad as the original piece.

The author writes:

...As for criminals lurking in the shadows waiting to prey on immigrants carrying wads of cash, I could not help but chuckle as I thought about my own experience. I am often out after dark in professional attire or jeans and shirts appropriate for someone in their mid-20s going to a bar. To anyone looking, it is clear that I carry a Blackberry and an iPod, not to mention a wallet and a rather unthreatening stature. Yet, I have never felt uncomfortable or at risk of being accosted.

To this, I can only say, are you out of your mind? I am, frankly, dumbfounded that anyone would choose to move to Columbia Heights without so much as looking at a crime report. As much as Ms. Dvorak's portrayal of the neighborhood is absurdly one-sided and bleak, this response is just as idiotic in its ignorance of the reality of life in the city.

Crime exists in Columbia Heights. When Target/DCUSA opened, the poor did not magically become wealthy. Nor did they disappear. Their lives went on, just like everyone else's. And with poverty comes crime.

Ms. Dvorak paints an absurdly dismal picture of the effects of the development on the most desperate. Without a doubt, the availability of Target, Giant, and many other stores and services that did not exist a few years ago has benefitted everyone -- especially the poorest, who probably do not own cars. Shopping for basic necessities of life would have meant a trip on public transit to who knows where. I seriously doubt that anyone would say they preferred NOT being able to walk to Target and Giant. This has brought convenience, basic services, and jobs to the neighborhood.

But the author of the letter I quote above seems equally ignorant of the reality of life in an inner-city neighborhood. Crime happens. You can never forget that.

I love Columbia Heights. I can think of nowhere else I'd rather live in DC. But I never forget that safety cannot be taken for granted. I don't think it's unsafe here, but I certainly wouldn't walk around late at night advertising my iPod to anyone who happened to see me. At least, if I wanted to keep my iPod. I wouldn't do that anywhere in DC, frankly, becase that's just plain stupid.

Ms. Dvorak's piece is, at best, a misleading and badly-researched article with a hyper-narrow focus, and at worst, gentrification-hating and fear-mongering. While her point still eludes me despite discussing and thinking about it several days later, she's right about one thing: there are, apparently, some people in the nieghborhood who are totally unaware that all is not completely right here. At the same time, the vast majority of people who live here do not live in fear. We love our home and community, and there is certainly hope for the future.

The development has brought many positive changes to the neighborhood, especially for the poorest residents. But it's still new. This place is truly a grand experiment. I can think of nowhere else that's had such a dramatic transformation in such a short time. The fact that there are still many problems is hardly a surprise. But so far, there are many positive signs. The Target is the first-of-its-kind store: a big-box plunked in the middle of a walking community. You know what? It works. It offers amazing convenience without requiring a drive to the suburbs. It keeps people in the neighborhood and out of cars. It saves time and money.

But social problems don't disappear overnight. No amount of development, no matter how big and shiny and new, can make poverty magically vanish. We have a long way to go, sure. But we've come a very long way, too. Just because our problems haven't gone away completely doesn't mean we shouldn't recognize the positive things that we have accomplished and keep working to make things even better.


Stephane said...

These three blocks make me feel like I am in Fairfax. Don't like it!

HP said...

I can't say I'm much of a Columbia Heights fan (I find the new development aesthetically lacking in charm) but I do think it's probably to the benefit of local low-income residents that the big box stores have introduced employment opportunities. Creating jobs *in* neighborhoods where people live is smart planning, and may help those residents who hold them in the long-term. Methinks it's a bit early to evaluate the success of development in CH either way.

Boomhauer said...

Bulletin to the Washington Post and Yuppies:

Moving to a neighborhood where a Target and Best Buy were jackhammered from Bethesda and dropped into DC in the middle of a neighborhood full of subsidized low-income housing will create a nasty, combustible mix.

The only thing that'll reduce crime will be real estate prices. When it becomes more lucrative for owners to sell than take vouchers, the overconcentration of low-income housing will fix itself.

dcalex said...

Most of the Columbia Heights blogosphere's reaction to this article was righteous indignation, as you say, no better than the original article. Your take on it is the best I've seen. Aside from the gratuitous insertion of the latte comment at the end, I thought the article represented a perspective that is too often ignored and needed to be heard.

Jamie said...

@dcalex, thanks. I didn't like the article, but it wasn't because I thought the perspective she portrayed wasn't a legitimate perspective. Obviously I am just as troubled by the opposite perspective from the young letter-writer.

It was because she picked and chose exactly who she wanted to talk to, and what she quoted, in order to make a point which I don't think is entirely accurate.

I think that this perspective is important to understand, but I also think that if her article had even a smidgen of balance to it, it would have passed the laugh test and been a lot more thoughtful. There was only a single passing comment to the effect that there were positive things as a result of the development for poor people, the guy who said "I'm not going to move out now."

All the development has certainly helped almost everyone here, particularly at the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum for whom shopping for necessities was certainly difficult if they didn't own a car. Jobs have been created. None of this garnered a mention in her portrayal, which to me just made it sound anti-development, anti-gentrification and axe-grinding. She didn't come out and say it, but it read like "we got all this new stuff but so what." That's totally unfair.