Clichéd images of city life are so ubiquitous that I laugh out loud when I walk through the city. In Petworth, I beam helplessly at a group of children playing in the jet of water coming from an open fire hydrant. I see a pigeon fly out of an attic window of an apartment being renovated in Shaw. Two blocks from our apartment in Columbia Heights, I watch as a car turns right without signaling, causing a man on a bicycle to slam into the car. “Jesus Christ! Watch we’re you’re going!,” the man yells and he hits his palms on the side of the car. On the sidewalk on 14th Street, there is a fish skeleton with the head intact, lying there with its delicate bones and glassy eye, as though a cartoon cat pulled it from a dumpster. These images, however representative of what city life should be, astonish me with their newness. When I give voice to this, my own astonishment, usually to my partner at the end of the day, I feel an urgency to see even more.
I am living in Washington D.C. for ten weeks while my partner is working a summer job. It is the first time I have ever lived in a city. I return to North Carolina for school in August. I have ten weeks to fill up on the images of this city: summer tourists with downcast eyes, not wanting to be identified as tourists; the gaggles of pretty girls on M Street in Georgetown, eating kale salads outside Sweetgreen; the exhaustion in the wrinkles and sweat of intumescent men on the Metro, riding the yellow line out to the last stop. Ten weeks, nine weeks, now only eight weeks left to see so much.
I try to tell myself that there is no urgency. The inevitability of D.C. has been there with every visit–the school trip to ogle at stately Mr. Lincoln and the boorish pole that people call the Washington Monument; the family vacation to each Smithsonian museum at the peevish age of fourteen (talk about inevitable); and the week-long visit to see my partner who was living in the tiniest bedroom in Shaw you can find for $1000/month. I see myself happy here in my memories and I imagine myself happy here in the future. I know that next year, or the next, or in ten or twenty years, I am going to live in this city. Our arrival here two weeks ago felt almost like a homecoming, as though the city had been waiting for us as much as we had been waiting for it.
Almost home, though. Two nights ago I dreamed we were swimming in the Watauga River. I know the river I dreamed was the Watauga because I could feel the rocky slickness under my feet when I crossed over. I dreamed dragonflies were flitting over the roll of the water. Trillium and Turk’s cap lilies bloomed along the banks. When I woke to the sun filling our sixth floor window, I had to close my eyes on the sight of 14th Street filling up with cars and people, making their way into the center of the city.
In 1930, when my grandfather, Elmer Lee Fryar, was eighteen years old, he left his mother and father on their farm in South Whitakers, North Carolina and moved in Washington, D.C. I doubt he knew it then, but he would live in the city for the next ten years. My grandfather was one of the millions of southerners who left for Northern cities and the promise of jobs during the early part of the twentieth century. Most of the migrants of the southern diaspora (more often called The Great Migration) stayed in their new cities, but some, like my grandfather, eventually came back home. For the entire decade, my grandfather rode out the Great Depression in the city I am now coming to know. I only know a few things about how he spent his twenties here, and most of them he wrote on the back of a photograph of himself almost fifty years after he left the city.
“I left Washington DC May 1940 after being there since about 1930-31. I worked fast food, also Childe Restaurant which was a very nice place to eat–lousy place to work and then a chain of food service (all paid 10-12 cents per hour 12 hrs per day – 6 days each week). Traveled 20 miles by st. car to work–same back home. I worked Life Ins. sales last few years.
I had enough–I came back home.
I stayed busy looking for a good girl for my wife and your mother–I found her at Mr. Van Taylor’s Everetts, NC. I am so Lucky.
From city directories and one census, I know where he lived in 1935, 1937, and 1940. In 1935, he lived out in Fort Lincoln, a far east neighborhood in the District, which served during the Civil War as a line of defense for the city. By 1937, he was living very near Lincoln Park, a former dump site during the Civil War, in a neighborhood now called Kingman Park. In 1940, he was living at Irene Burrough’s boarding house on 13th Street, south of Logan Circle. He made $1560 as a salesman that year, which, adjusted for inflation, is now about $26,000. I know my grandfather liked jazz. On a console radio in the barn when my father was growing up, he played Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton, both of whom were kicking in and out of D.C. through the 1930s. This is all I know about my grandfather, Elmer Lee Fryar, and his ten years in Washington, D.C. I reckon I am not going to learn too much more because I cannot ask him. He died in 2005, on Groundhog Day. Ten years for Elmer. Ten weeks for me.
In 1930, when my grandfather moved to the city, the neighborhood I am living in, Columbia Heights, was considered a suburb. It housed upper level managers of the federal government, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and high-ranking military officers. You could ride a street car for a half hour right into downtown. Located north of the U Street corridor, which housed Washington’s thriving middle-class Black community, Columbia Heights was, by 1940, a mixed-race neighborhood along its edges. Duke Ellington lived here. Later, Marvin Gaye did too. In 1968, violence in the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. left the 14th Street business district exenterated until the early 2000s. It was and is a majority Black and Hispanic neighborhood.
Now, Columbia Heights is considered central D.C., and it is praised for being the most diverse neighborhood in the District. In 2011, the New York Times reported that gentrification had come to the neighborhood “not with the usual creep but with a boom.” I can see this clearly. On my walk to the Metro I pass two pupuserias, an emphatically hip canned beer bar, a For Rent sign in the window of the DC Barber Center, the taqueria that makes their nopalitos salsa spicy, the District’s premier soccer bar and beer garden, and a boarded-up African-American funeral parlor. I can recover from many of the images of the city (including the fish skeleton), but I am having trouble with how conspicuous and seemingly guiltless gentrification appears.
D.C. is proud to have some of the strongest affordable housing protections in the nation. These include rent control, local rent subsidies that boost federal housing vouchers, a law to help tenants collectively buy their buildings, and an affordable housing production trust fund. In Columbia Heights, the city has invested more than $62 million to preserve existing subsidized housing and help residents purchase their buildings. But the median rent in the neighborhood has grown by more than 50 percent since 2000, even after inflation. Median home prices have more than doubled. This is largely a result of the size of the city, modest by most metropolitan standards. Across the District, the price of housing is driven by constrained geography and strict height limitations. These factors create a situation in which the city cannot build enough units to meet demand for housing, let alone affordable housing. This means demographic change and displacement, the twin pillars of gentrification.
I know that my presence here, even if it is for only ten weeks, is not helping the situation. Rebecca Solnit wrote in The Guardian last month about gentrification in her home city, San Francisco, which has likely seen the most savage changes in rent and livability than any U.S. city, and her words stung me. “Contemporary gentrification is an often violent process by which a complex and diverse urban environment becomes more homogeneous and exclusionary. It does to neighborhoods and cities what climate change is doing to the earth: driving out fragile and deeply rooted species, and pushing the poor past the brink.” Michael Henry Adams, writing for The New York Times about Harlem put it so simply: “There is something about black neighborhoods, or at least poor black neighborhoods, that seem to make them irresistible to gentrification.” I assuage my guilt by telling myself that I am only living here for ten weeks. How much damage could I do? The thing about gentrification is that you never want to think you play a part in it.
Fort Lincoln and Kingman Park, the two neighborhoods my grandfather lived in, were largely Black neighborhoods in the mid-1930s. Both were small, sparsely populated, and rural. Really I should be calling them areas or sections of the city. Neither of these neighborhoods had names yet when my grandfather lived there. Kingman Park has the honor of being the first D.C. neighborhood of single-family houses to be developed specifically for Blacks. Fort Lincoln boasts that it is the only planned community in the District. But that all happened after my grandfather left them. These neighborhoods were so small and new, I am amazed that there were street cars that my grandfather could take into the city. I want to think my grandfather moved to these far out places not just because it was affordable, but because he wanted to be around some green and some water. Kingman Park borders the Anacostia River and Fort Lincoln is still praised for its high perch, from which, I hear, you can see quite a view of the city. Maybe these places reminded him of his family, the farm in Nash County, back home.
When he moved into these communities, he was poor, young, and white, living among middle-class Black families. I do not and will not know how he felt about this. Gentrification was not a word, nor even a concept when my grandfather was living here, and I am not sure if I know enough about him or the history of these communities that I can really understand what kind of life my grandfather was living in them. But I cannot help but to draw a few parallels to myself, also young and white, trespassing, it feels, into places that are not my own, living here ten weeks, ten years, dreaming of the slick rockbed of my childhood river, the backyard chickens of his childhood farm, and hoping that we are not harming the places we live.
I feel inevitability everywhere in the city. We go walking along the Tidal Basin and I know I will live here. I look out the window of the Ethiopian restaurant in Shaw and I know I will live here. We buy peonies and peaches at the Eastern Market and I know I will live here. I sit in the marvelous glass-ceilinged courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery and I know I will live here. I cry the nopalitos salsa is so spicy and I know I will live here. I run through Mount Pleasant lost and happy and I know I will live here.
For now, for ten weeks, I am trying to love and learn this community from the people who live here, a solution that only works for ten weeks. When inevitability comes, I will have to make a difficult decision, one without a right answer. If I move to a higher-income neighborhood, where market forces and housing regulations have already pushed out low-income folks, I will contribute to continued racial and economic segregation by helping sustain the high cost of living there. If I move to a mid-to-low-income neighborhood, like Columbia Heights, I face the same problem I do now, this time with permanence aggravating my guilt. It’s enough to make anyone say “I had enough–I came back home.” I keep coming back to that one sentence, because despite my astonishment and joy for this city, D.C. is not–will not be–my home. Ten weeks to try to answer how I can live here without dreaming too much of home and how I can live here without taking someone else’s home.