Sunday, June 24, 2012

NYT: "Farewell to Chocolate City" by Bloomingdale resident Natalie Hopkinson

See this New York Times opinion piece by Bloomingdale resident Natalie Hopkinson.

Farewell to Chocolate City
Published: June 23, 2012

``NOW, I`m not proud of what I did,`` my friend Donna said the other day, her voice
dropping to a low, confessional register.

Donna is black, in her late 40s and a graphic designer. Three generations of her
family owned a Victorian row house in Washington until a probate dispute a while
back forced them to rent in the Maryland suburbs. Driving home from work in the
city recently, she took a shortcut through the alley where she frolicked in her
youth, but which she now barely recognized, with its three-story decks and Zen
gardens that led onto sidewalks freshly paved in red brick.

Donna tooted the horn at a parked car blocking her path. The car`s owner, a white
woman, dawdled away in her garden nearby. With a blithe wave, the woman
suggested a detour. Donna refused. She intended to wait her out, but then the
words just tumbled out: ``If you didn`t want to follow the rules, you shouldn`t
have moved your white`` ~ and here she used an expletive ~ ``into D.C.!``

This is the rage, long simmering just beneath the surface, that is bubbling over now
that Washington, the once-majority-black city immortalized in George Clinton`s
1975 funk classic ``Chocolate City,`` has lost its black majority. But even
before the data corroborated (
that demographic milestone last year, Washington`s
makeover had created something of an identity crisis.

Ever since Washington was carved from two slaveholding states in 1791, it has been a
special place for black Americans. Lincoln freed the slaves in Washington about
nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation, prompting blacks from the
region to flock here. It was the birthplace of Duke Ellington and home to other
artists like Zora Neale Hurston and Sterling Allen Brown, who later fueled the
Harlem Renaissance. By 1957, blacks had become the majority of the city`s
residents, exceeding numbers in any major city in the United States. Ever since
Walter E. Washington was appointed mayor by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, the city
has been led by black politicians and shaped by black institutions. This has
fostered a sense of black privilege, swagger and, yes, the hubris that comes
with leadership.

For the past half-century, the city`s black majority has also yielded a distinct
culture. But in the midst of gentrification that is now fading fast. Last
month, hundreds of mourners streamed into the Howard Theater to say goodbye to
the late guitarist Chuck Brown, the godfather of go-go music, perhaps the city`s
only indigenous art form. The music that Mr. Brown created was once ubiquitous
here, but most newcomers today have never heard it.

The political landscape is changing, too: recent federal investigations have led to
the downfall of several members of the city`s black leadership, from the City
Council chairman, Kwame R. Brown, and the Ward 5 councilman Harry Thomas Jr.,
to two campaign aides for Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

During the decades that Washington had a black majority, national policy makers and
investors left the city`s aging infrastructure for dead. So it is astonishing
to witness the about-face that has accompanied the influx of white
professionals in the past decade. Now there are urban-friendly transportation
policies, lavish corporate spending on education and billions in private real
estate investment and development. As residents finally get the city they have
always deserved, many black Washingtonians are feeling the rage of the loyal
first wife, kicked to the curb as soon as things started looking up.

Move out of the way!

Black privilege has always been relative. The city`s median black household income is
$36,948; for whites it is $99,401. This demographic reality creates a crude,
ethically charged math, and everyone who owns a stake in Washington calculates
with it. The presence of white faces is the most reliable sign of the quality
of a school. The more white people move in, the higher the property values go.
The city`s population is growing, but each black family that leaves a school or
neighborhood makes it richer.

IT was Donna who was in the way. ``When you hear people say, `the good news is the
neighborhood is being gentrified,` it just makes you feel worthless,`` Donna
told me.

My own initiation in the ways of Chocolate City came nearly 20 years ago when,
after growing up black in nearly all-white environments, I arrived in
Washington as a freshman at historically black Howard University. The Washington
I encountered then was a strange, alternate universe: I saw black schools
taught by black teachers and run by black principals reporting to black
superintendents. Black restaurants. Black hospitals run by black doctors and
staff members. Black suburbs. Black judges ordering black police officers to
deliver black suspects to black jail wardens. And of course a black-owned music
industry, go-go.

In Washington, we were not ``minorities,`` with the whiff of inferiority that
label carries; we were ``normal.`` For the first time in my life, I felt at

Of course, Chocolate Cities aren`t perfect. I do not accept responsibility for Mr.
Thomas, who represented me on the City Council and went to jail for stealing
hundreds of thousands of dollars from youth programs. He does not represent
black people any more than the disgraced Illinois governor Rod R. Blagojevich
represents white people.

But that`s what segregation does. It allows problems like corruption, dysfunction
and poverty that are really historic, social and economic (and just plain old
individual bad behavior) to be cast as a ``black thing.`` Segregated
communities effectively quarantine all the American hurt, all the pain, all the
history, and give it a ``chocolate`` label. Today, as the quality of life
improves, there is a subtext to change, that in order to make progress, black
people must be pushed out of the way. They had it for 50 years!

Some days, walking the streets of Washington, a seemingly colder place where people
don`t always exchange greetings, I feel nostalgic for the days of black
privilege that George Clinton crooned about. But given the warmth of many of my
new neighbors of many races, I would like to see the transformation around me
as racial progress. The change in attitudes that caused a generation of whites
to release their fears and return to the urban centers their parents fled a
generation ago is the same change in attitudes that allowed millions of white
Americans, in the quiet sanctity of the voting booth, to vote for a black man
named Barack Hussein Obama.

Change happens. Where this change ultimately leads I have no idea. As we do move it
along, though, we would all do well to remember: Donna planted flowers, too.

Natalie Hopkinson is the author of ``Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.`` [also a Bloomingdale resident in Ward 5.]


JHolloway said...

Only time will tell whether the end of "Chocolate City" will be a positive or a negative phenomenon. Will the new mostly young white residents and the traditional mostly Black residents figure out how to coexist and live as amiable neighbors? Will the white residents who nightly walk their dogs learn to say hello to their Black neighbors? Will Black residents learn to not litter on their neighbors lawns and sidewalks? Maybe each side has a responsibility to reach out to make DC the new beautiful "Vanilla Fudge City."

Jay said...

I think the resentment comes from asking ourselves, didn't we deserve safe neighborhoods and decent grocery stores, schools or what have you before the white people showed up?