By NATALIE HOPKINSON
May 12, 2017
WASHINGTON — Last month I spoke on a panel here, organized by the Historical Society of Washington, about how local authors like me use “place” in our work. The building where the panel was held — the Carnegie Library, a gleaming Beaux-Arts structure gifted to the city a century ago by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie — has become the latest sign of Washington’s gentrifying times: Apple recently released plans to convert the building, long a civic space, into a lavish retail store.
The city itself — like the Carnegie Library — is getting a brand-new operating system. In the latest update, residents are whiter, richer, more plugged in. What does that mean for the sense of place here?
Since the Civil War, the city has been a mecca, a beacon for black people like me, looking for freedom and opportunity. After nearly two decades of nonstop investment and influx of new residents (demographers say the city’s population is growing by 1,000 each month), we are trying to figure out who we are now. Black residents are still the city’s largest ethnic group, but newcomers are changing the culture drastically.
What now defines Washington for the nearly 700,000 people who call the city home outside the shadow of the monuments, the Capitol and the White House? Are we a stark-white, sterile, oddly cheery, computer retail experience?
The other day, as I walked out of my family’s Victorian rowhouse in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, I encountered a horde of people standing outside. They were wedged between a huge Dumpster and the 1895 rowhouse next door, where my former neighbor Ms. Maxine used to live, which is now being converted into luxury condos. They were listening to a lecture by a middle-aged blond woman on how to invest.