Black people are from Jupiter. White people are from Saturn.
Or so you’d think, after reading Courtland Milloy’s column this week in The Washington Post, and the outraged responses of the white readers who chose to comment on it.
Milloy’s column was a discourse on the gentrification of the neighborhood around 14th and U St. in Northwest Washington. Like any good gentrification story, it started with an acknowledgement that the neighborhood is a much more pleasant place than it was 10 or 20 years ago, and ended with a lament about what was lost in the area’s transformation.
What touched the white readers’ nerves, though, was Milloy’s unadorned assertion that the people who have benefitted from the gentrification of 14th and U are mostly white, while the people who suffered the loss are mostly black.
“Mr. Milloy’s rose-colored rear view mirror makes for at best misguided and at worst racist & dead-wrong longings for a past that was far worse than today,” wrote OrderedChaOs, in one of the more polite responses to the article.
“Anyone who misses the blight, crime, screaming profanity, daily armed robberies of people just trying to walk from point A to B, creepy sexist comments shouted at women as they walk down the street (greetings I guess), jungles growing in backyards, parks converted to open air drug markets, etc. Just cross the anacostia river and bask in it,” opined HappyBoss.
If all these writers know about 14th and U is the violence, crime, prostitution and the despair that characterized the area for most of the past 40 years, their sharp criticisms of Milloy’s article are completely understandable. But if all they know about the history of 14th and U is violence, crime, prostitution and despair, they don’t really know 14th and U.
They don’t know about Annie Woodridge, known by all as Mother Dear, whose community center at 14th and R provided a much needed social safety net for otherwise neglected poor residents; or Theresa Davis' Free Evangelistic Church at 14th and T that helped many a resident recover from alcohol and drug addictions, or the tireless efforts of Rachel Beavens at Abarts Employment Services a block away to help residents find jobs.
They don’t know about Laura Murray, whose courageous stand against the Rayful Edmonds drug gang resulted in her home near Florida Avenue being firebombed.
What’s piercingly sad about this situation is that the courageous, heroic actions of people like Woodridge, Davis, Beavens and Murray are not what transformed 14th and U. The social and moral pressure they imposed on the criminals and the politicians in the District did not bear fruit.
The change at 14th and U was created by another group of people—the gays and lesbians, the young professionals, and the business interests who brought money, and the political influence money buys, into the neighborhood. Some of those people indeed acted courageously when they put their money, and their families, into a dangerous but promising neighborhood. Others were just following their financial interests. But they all emerged as winners.
So for me, the real questions Milloy’s column raises are these: Why didn’t Woodridge, Davis, Beavens and Murray get to benefit from the transformation of the neighborhood they lived in and fought for for decades? Why does all of the benefit accrue only to people with enough money to afford the radically higher cost of living there now? And why are almost all of those people white?
And, finally, what should we think about an economic system that rewards the heroism of one group of people—the well-heeled urban pioneers who drove the transformation of 14th and U—with a lovely neighborhood and real estate whose value is skyrocketing, while responding to the heroism of another group of people—the decent, hard-working black residents who suffered the most from the violence and blight of the old 14th and U—with a tax bill they could not afford to pay and the loss of everything they’d worked to build?