Jane Jacobs died two years ago last week, but if she’d lived, and visited me in my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., I’d like to think she might have written a book about it.
I moved to Columbia Heights, smack dab in the geographic center of the District of Columbia, last fall as I was reading Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. For me, these two events are indelibly twinned, impossible to stop from informing each other. As I got further and further into the book, it seemed that the Jacobian dramas spelled out so plainly in Death and Life were being reenacted outside my front stoop just for my benefit.
But there’s more at stake than that. Gentrification has moved in on Columbia Heights and the 14th St. NW corridor that anchors it faster than I could imagined. Historically, Columbia Heights was the epicenter of the Salvadoran and Mexican immigrant populations in Washington, and African-Americans have always been a significant demographic. The neighborhood was burned and discarded by many after the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. 40 years ago (another inauspicious anniversary), and brought back to life by the Metro subway system’s appearance there in 1999, followed by a massive investment of private capital. By and large, white people are a new thing, as are gorgeously rehabbed row houses (like the one I live in), wine shops, Starbucks, condos, sushi bars, big-box retail, skyrocketing real estate values (up over 30 percent since 2006), trendy neighborhood bars the long-time locals don’t go to, and basically anything that entices more and more young professionals, artists, musicians, and nonprofit types to move in. Still, the bullets fly. Violent crime is still common enough to revive the (frankly imperialist) illusion that my roommates and I are urban settlers, taking a risk beyond moving somewhere merely trendy.
Colombia Heights still asserts its own multi-ethnic identity. The scent of pupusas (stuffed tortillas, native to El Salvador) and roast chicken still wafts down the street. My next door neighbors play in a mariachi band, and we hear every note. We know spring has arrived when Hispanic women start selling fresh sliced mangoes on street corners. A pirate radio station plays amazing Spanish-language music that I’d have to invest many hours in tracking down myself. Soccer players dominate the field at Harriet Tubman Elementary night and day, and the Gala Hispanic Theater offers (subtitled) productions from across Latin America.
This level of income and cultural diversity, mixed uses, and intimate human scaling are something Jacobs would have loved about my part of the city, and it’s what I love about it. But she would have recognized threats to this balance as well. A big box retail complex called DC USA is the site of the District’s first Target. The monolithic building is out of scale with the neighborhood, and absolutely beloved by residents. On its façade are slightly extended cantilevers and parallel planes that come across as a last ditch effort to get its suburban massing to move. As Jacobs taught us, cities are harmed when they’re not treated as such, and I’m suspicious of such a huge development. How much of our cherished street life will this building consume? I fear it’s exactly what Jacobs warned of when she wrote of the disruptive effects of “cataclysmic money,” but I cannot begrudge the community these new jobs. Twenty-two percent of the residents of our ward live below the poverty level.
The paradox seems to be, the more you develop, the more you raise property values, the more you eliminate affordable housing, the more you raze the demographics of a neighborhood. For me, suburban big-box retail is just the loudest starter’s pistol in a race to strip my neighborhood of its communal identity.
There is no Robert Moses lording over Columbia Heights, paving elementary schools over with freeways. Instead, there’s me and thousands of people like me with furniture from IKEA, newly minted degrees, and eclectic tastes in cooking and music, stuck on a continual loop of remaking neighborhoods over in our own image, and then leaving for the next “up and comer” as soon as we realize what we’ve wrought. If my neighborhood, or any place like it, is going to learn anything from Jacobs, it’s that we have to save ourselves from ourselves, balancing development with the perseveration of infrastructure and demographics. Jacobs made it clear that these two factors are never to be separated.