Gee, which is worse

by Sonny Bunch on August 12, 2012

I get it. The Chocolate City has changed. It isn’t what it used to be, and I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that D.C. was once so marred by murder that it was nicknamed Dodge City or that there is now a hipster bar on U St. that holds the same name.

Stephen A. Crockett, Jr., “The Brixton: It’s new, happening and another example of African-American historical ‘swagger-jacking'”

“While most of the block was filled with abandoned buildings, there were three row houses across the street that were the epicenter of a very active drug market [in 2000]….The violence was pretty bad back then. At least once a week there would be gunfire, and our construction crew would dive into the trenches that were being built as a water inlet for the project. The gunfire was so frequent that diving into the trenches became a weekly routine. To shield ourselves from the bullets, we built a large mountain of dirt between the project and the street and an armed security guard was hired to patrol the site 24 hours a day.”

—Harrison Square land development manager Billy Smith, “Facts and Fictions of D.C.’s Gentrification.”

There is a moral idiocy to Crockett’s sentiment that is obvious and appalling and all-too-common to the anti-gentrification set. It run something like this: “D.C.’s residents turned the city into a murder-riddled wasteland run by incompetent drug addicts with a crippled economic base and cratered real estate value. But it was our murder-riddled, economically unviable wasteland run by incompetent drug addicts, dagnabbit!” What a joke.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Freddie August 12, 2012 at 11:17 am

Well, yes. But I mean, there’s a much more coherent critique of gentrification: after the neighborhood is improved, the poor people get priced out of it, forcing them to leave homes and neighborhoods they’ve occupied sometimes for decades, and sending them to other poor neighborhoods where they have to endure the same terrible conditions of their former neighborhoods. This could be ameliorated by special zoning regulations, rent controls, and social programs designed to keep law-abiding poor people in improving neighborhoods. Complaining about impositions on the free market or whatever is usually inapt in such a case, as gentrification is very often the result of heavy-handed governmental influence in the first place. But often, the new white upper class residents want to force out even the law-abiding poor people, which is fucked up.

So caring about the displaced poor people who don’t get to enjoy the benefits of an improving neighborhood is not moral idiocy, even if that annoying essayist is guilty of the same.


Sonny Bunch August 12, 2012 at 11:40 am

As you say, there is certainly a case to be made about the human cost to poor, law-abiding citizens who live in a gentrifying area. For those who own and keep up their properties, I’m in favor of working out some sort of accommodation to help them to stay (lower property taxes, etc.). For those who rent…well, someone else owns that property and has maintained it and invested in it during downtimes. The owners deserve to benefit when the market picks back up. The market interventions available to help renters are limited and tend to have unintended consequences like reducing the stock of affordable housing.

Anyway, Crockett isn’t making that argument. As Karol notes, he’s wondering which is worse: the name of a hipster bar or having a city with the highest murder rate in the nation. That’s not just moral idiocy: It’s moral insanity. And it’s representative of the mindset that runs through a great deal of “Gentrification is terrible!” pieces.


Karol August 12, 2012 at 11:30 am

Freddie, Crockett is saying he’s not sure which is worse: constant murders or a bar commemorating a time of constant murders. I don’t think it’s debatable which is “worse.”


Sonny Bunch August 12, 2012 at 11:41 am



Freddie August 12, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Oh, I don’t disagree. Not at all. I just want to keep the focus where it belongs. (To me, anyway.)


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