Washington, DC: Beyond the White House

Lucy Moore RSS / 06.12.2007. u 18:08


It’s official. I am a DC resident.  

True, I do carry a North Carolina driver’s license, and I will still vote in the Tar Heel state come next November, but in the wee hours of one Sunday morning a few weeks back, I was initiated into the reality of life in Washington, DC – I was mugged.  

I had been out at a party not too far from my neighborhood, and at the end of the night my roommate and I decided to walk the mile or so back to our house. Just before turning down our small side street, I heard someone running behind us. Despite the late hour, my suburban naiveté kicked in, and I said to my roommate, “Scoot over, a jogger’s coming.” But instead of passing us, the “jogger” grabbed me from behind, yelled, “give me your purse,” yanked it off my shoulder, and ran away.

(I should point out, this was a truly mild mugging. I’ve heard stories of friends beaten black and blue by gangs and knocked unconscious with two-by-fours to the back of the head. Physically unharmed, I was lucky.)

As the purse thief ran off down the well-lit but very empty street, my roommate called the police. Standing there on the street corner, I fumed at the thought of all the credit cards to cancel and the personal documents to replace. Then the police arrived, and when I gave them a physical description – young, black, male – I was disheartened to realize that I would now be even more inclined to racially profile my own neighbors. But when the officer said, “Unfortunately, ma’am, this kind of thing happens all the time,” I was not surprised.  Because while Washington, DC is the capital of the US – a nation that prides itself on its democracy, freedom, and equality – it is also a city reputed for its violence and racial tension. And while Washington’s current crime rates and racial violence are not as horrific as they were even fifteen years ago, recent gentrification has brought a young, working professional class back into the city’s poor black neighborhoods – the perfect environment for petty, and sometimes not so petty, crime.

But Washington and its black communities have not always been so crime ridden. In fact, for many years, the city was a major center of African American culture and intellectualism. Despite its early days as a hub in the North American slave trade (slave auction blocks once dotted the city) Washington was home to a sizable, pre Civil War, free black population. And by the turn of the century, its black community was thriving. Black owned businesses spread, and even dominated the neighborhoods around historically black Howard University.

As well established as the black community of Washington was, however, African Americans were continually treated as second-class citizens in a largely segregated society. Matters only grew worse beginning in the 1950s when affordable suburban housing, mixed with fears of school desegregation, sparked not only a wave of white flight (the move of working and middle-class white families out from urban centers) but also an exodus of those black middle-class families who could afford the move.  

Then in the spring of 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. set the nation’s capital aflame. Riots broke out in predominantly black neighborhoods, including the one I live in now. In three days of violence, twelve people were killed, more than 1,000 injured, and over 6,000 arrested.  But the riot’s greatest disservice to the city was not the destruction of its store fronts, buses, and cop cars, but rather the damage done to its reputation. Starting that year, Washington, and many American cities, became associated with dangerous urban violence, and in the decades that followed, the city more than exceeded its own reputation.  Crime rates soared as poverty tightened its grip on the remaining locals – a trend that did not subside until well into the 1990s.

But this is not the DC I know.    

Starting in the mid 1990s, crimes rates dropped across the board, and a wave of gentrification brought young professionals like myself back into some city neighborhoods.  The result: large swaths of newly renovated townhouses bespeckled with public housing holdovers, and a class of affluent young people from colleges nation wide residing in a community where barely 9% of its high school students ever go on to earn college degrees. In other words, two drastically different economies have come to share not only the same city, but often the same city block. 

From my own house, for example, if I leave heading West, I walk past fresh painted homes, a school, and a stylish café-bistro. But if I head East, I pass a church-sponsored housing project, a police car parked 24/7 at the metro entrance, and a run down 7-11 convenience store.  

All round gentrification is a peculiar trend. It brings investment back into dilapidated neighborhoods, but with it come daily reminders of glaring inequality for all involved.  For myself and other working professionals, the reminders serve as a reality check: life isn’t all cubicles and after-work happy hours. But for locals, encroaching reminders of disparity must prove far more difficult to stomach. I am sure that for some, I and other gentrifiers are little more than unpleasant symbols of economic disparity. And apparently for others, we’re little more than easy targets.

And as it turns out, that Sunday I was just that – an easy target for a very hungry mugger. When my next credit card statement arrived, his only purchase was $15.36 at the local McDonalds. That’s a hell of a lot of hamburgers.



Komentari (10)

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Milan Novković Milan Novković 18:58 06.12.2007


Imagine you could go back in time, before the incident. And have a tick box somewhere that would erase the incident from your memory and prevent something similar from ever happening to you again!

Would you tick the box?

If not, and if we had other boxes, just those little ones, not the obvious "world peace" and similar, which ones would we want to tick.
Jasmina Tesanovic Jasmina Tesanovic 19:00 06.12.2007


my experience
s56a s56a 19:32 06.12.2007


Cheer-up, Lucy, Xmass coming! I hope you had big Thanksgiving turkey in NC. Wouldn't be easy from Serbia...

The only incident I had in my 62 years occured recently close to my Ljubljana home when a youngster threatened me with a knife because of loose -month old samoyed dog. No trouble in NYC or Sao Paolo.

Just remembered mugging in London in 1970-s I hope this woldn't repeat in January for Serbina New Year.
kuki kuki 19:35 06.12.2007

Washington :(

Maciji kasalj.
Don't get me started on Detroit!
Ilija Gromovnik Ilija Gromovnik 22:05 06.12.2007

Sounds like ...

Sounds like Logan Circle, China Town or Columbia Heights every day. Not sure where you live. I remember back in the early 90's anything east of 16th St. NW was considered a bad neighberhood. In the early part of this century I noticed that many of my friends started buying up property where, just a few years back I would have never ventured into. And then the big condo boom happaned and people started buying up anything and everything. 9th st, 6th st and 4th street NW. Luckily, all my friends have never had the same experiences you have, but I do think that they are still tempting fate. The people who have lived in those areas are not too keen to see upwordly mobile young WHITE people taking the place of their friends and neighboors. Of course, it's not the same in every neighborhood. I suggest China Town in large groups, downtown clubs around K street, and of course anythign west of Adams Morgan. I stick to MD suburbs in Montgomery County.
mihaela mihaela 01:01 07.12.2007


There is still a possibility he WAS a jogger.

He was just casually running around the block, following his usual route, breathing properly and everything, and then, all of a sudden, felt slightly hungry. "Man, this healthy livin' is sure giving me a McCrave... Got to... eat... can't thing straight... " It was just then that he saw you two strolling down the street and thought to himself "Aeh... What the hell!"
Lucy Moore Lucy Moore 15:48 07.12.2007

Re: Otherside

I love it. a great thought experiment. if only it was true...
mihaela mihaela 17:06 07.12.2007

Re: Otherside

Thanks Lucy.

You see, he was simply embracing his overly-spontaneous self.

How very inspiring...
jinks jinks 09:48 07.12.2007

So much said

with one word.

recent gentrification has brought a young, working professional class back into the city’s poor black neighborhoods

gentrification : the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents

This is one of the tasks that resides somewhere in the near of far future of Serbia, it’s gentrification … during and after the invasion of the second commie generation on Serbia (the commie sons and daughters, like S. Milosevic, M. Markovic, M. Miskovic, V. Hamovic, V. Lazarevic, M. Kostic, Z. Raznatovic, ... ) ones that fled and the others that stayed here to by out and own everything and everybody that were paid for with some patty cash in early ‘90s. Like the merciless invasion of locusts, they have devastated the Serbian middle class in several waves of plunder and pillage, which now needs it’s (as you said) gentrification.

Regarding the black US community: which percent of u.s. wealth is owned by it’s black population, and which percent of black population has the college and higher education.
tnosugar tnosugar 15:57 17.12.2007

Re: So much said

actually, at a recent conference on tourism in Montenegro, a panelist said that local authorities should consider the ethnic pattern of their holidaymakers. Put simply, 'you're not going to hit the big league if you keep having Serbs and Albanians on your shores'.... so much for ethnic tolerance...

As for DC and the racial population in the US, two things have to happen in reinforcement of one another:

White people (and the predominantly white administration) have to accept black people as their equals in the human, evolutionary, intellectual, ethical and every other sense at all levels
Black people have to find it in their hearts to forgive the past ills and atrocities committed against them and stop using them as an excuse for not succeeding in the modern day capitalist environment.

A difficult task indeed, because one single gunshot or any discriminatory act (or mugging) sets the process back to square one.

This generally can apply to many situations with ethnic and 'racial' minorities worldwide.



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