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Can D.C. Really Handle a White Mayor? Can D.C. Really Handle a White Mayor?

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The Next America | Policy

Can D.C. Really Handle a White Mayor?

Washington, now booming, is no longer "Chocolate City." Could a white mayor in a gentrifying town escalate racial tensions?

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Then and now: U Street, once the black Broadway, in the 1980s and today.(Michael Horsley (left); Richard A. Bloom (right))

Le Diplomate is a new French bistro on 14th Street NW, part of a Philadelphia-based chain, Starr Restaurants, that calls itself "one of the fastest-growing multi-concept restaurant companies in the United States." It boasts that Le Diplomate is an "homage to French cafe culture," but homage does not come cheaply. The entrecôte de boeuf is $38, and the sole meuniere is $48. Nevertheless, the place is always packed with the ambitious young, many of whom may know that, not long ago, this site housed a rundown dry cleaner on a strip famous for its prostitutes.

A few months ago, Jack Evans announced his mayoral bid in front of Le Diplomate. At 60, he is the longest-serving member of the D.C. Council and the head of its powerful tax-writing committee. The sandy-haired Georgetown resident is also an attorney at Patton Boggs, one of Washington's top law and lobbying firms, where he practices securities law. (D.C. council members can hold outside jobs.) "This is the city I want to lead in the future," Evans told the crowd. "A city that the world looks to, not just because it's our nation's capital but because it's the capital of urban renewal, of revitalization, and of a new way forward." It was a fitting speech for a financial architect behind, and proselytizer of, everything from mega projects (like the Washington Convention Center that helped revitalize downtown and a major-league baseball stadium) to Le Diplomate.

 

When he ran for mayor in 1998, Evans came in third in the Democratic primary in this very Democratic city—garnering just 10 percent. Washington was the first major black-majority city in the United States. For decades, it was known affectionately as "Chocolate City," a nickname from a Parliament-Funkadelic song. At their height, blacks were 71 percent of the population. This is the town that elected Marion Barry mayor four times; every mayor since home rule began in 1973 has been African-American.

Evans has a shot at becoming the first white mayor in modern memory. Population data in this city of 600,000-plus residents are murky, The 2010 census had the black population at just about 50 percent and the white population in the high 30s (the rest are Latinos and Asians). But despite the less reliable surveys in the three years since, no one doubts the city has become more white, more affluent, and more unequal. In fact, Washington is the third-most-unequal city in the country, and the gap is growing, according to an analysis of census data by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. This fits with a national trend in which wealth is returning from the suburbs. A new study from William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, shows that cities are growing faster than suburbs for the first time since World War II. Development has changed the demography, and vice versa.

Race and wealth and urban confines are always a combustible mix. Think of the Protestant-Catholic fights in 19th-century New York or the late-1960s riots that scorched so many cities, including Washington. Here, blacks are moving out, whites are moving in, and poor and middle-class families are finding fewer options within the "ten miles square" that the Constitution designated for the American capital. Only 7 percent of whites in D.C. live below the poverty line, compared with nearly 40 percent of blacks, according to 2012 estimates.

 

A city that gets its development and gentrification right—or at least avoids the "urban renewal" catastrophes of the 1950s and 1960s—can thrive. A city that pushes its poor to grim suburbs (think of the banlieues outside Paris) suffers. If American mayors of diverse cities want to enrich their communities, they need to figure out how to navigate race, or else they'll crash on the rocks. The District's 2014 election is about figuring out how.

A SMACK IN THE FACE

Like the tide, Washington's population has ebbed and flowed. In the past decade, the black population dropped by 18 percent while the white population grew by 25 percent, returning the city to an earlier mix. In 1960, 45 percent of the city's population was white. By the 1970s, the number had fallen to 28 percent. And whites weren't the only ones leaving: Poor black wards saw the greatest population loss. From 1970 to 1980, the population dropped from 750,000 to 638,000 and then more in the years afterward. It seemed like anyone whocould leave did.

In the 1970s, this exodus wasn't because wealthy whites had shown up with exposed-brick bars and condominiums to gentrify out the poor people. Washington's infrastructure was collapsing alongside a rise in crime, poverty, and general chaos. At the same time, Prince George's County, across the border in Maryland, went from white and working class (George Wallace was shot there while campaigning for president in 1972) to a mecca of black suburban living. With African-Americans as well as whites leaving, there were plenty of abandoned properties back in D.C. for commercial and residential developments, notes Roderick Harrison, a senior demographer at Howard University. Many of the fanciest condos in the U Street corridor were, for instance, built on vacant ground.

But development, even on empty lots, lifted prices in occupied homes, and displacement began. Homeowners and apartment owners—stuck with a rent-controlled stream of income—reaped profits by selling. Renters were vulnerable to gentrification because they have no equity to cash in on when property values spike, so many of them in upwardly mobile neighborhoods had to find other places to live. And Washington homeowners were disproportionately white: Today, they represent 38 percent of the population but 51 percent of the homeowners; blacks are 50 percent of the population but just 42 percent of the homeowners. With D.C.'s affluent population and government-driven employment, "nothing will stop this trend for the next 20 years," Harrison says.

 

Much of Washington, however, is still waiting for the boom. Across the Anacostia River lie the poorest wards in the city. The big redevelopment of St. Elizabeth's Hospital (the psychiatric facility where Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., still lives) is underway, as the new headquarters of the Homeland Security Department, but the campus-wide project won't be completed until 2026. So, for now, the black residents in the neighborhood view the changes on the other side of the Anacostia with, at best, ambivalence. The French bistros haven't made it over the John Philip Sousa Bridge. (In fact, one steak chain opened a branch across the watery divide, only to see it fail.)

Barry Farm is a public-housing complex named for the white plantation purchased by the Freedmen's Bureau after the Civil War and parceled out to former slaves. It's east of the Anacostia River in Ward 8, a section of the city that is 93 percent black. Detrice Belt, who has lived there for 17 of her 28 years, calls the living conditions deplorable, citing rodents among other ills. (Barry Farm is slated for refurbishing, and residents are wary, fearing that they'll be displaced far from loved ones and that their community will be broken up.) Still, she has warm feelings: It's home, after all, and she loves the neighborhood. This is where her 5-year-old daughter can play with friends, and her mother lives across the street.

But now, Belt has started to see white people jogging down the street—which she interprets as a sign of things to come. "I'm just so shocked seeing that," she says. "At first when I've seen it in other parts of the city, I say, 'You have your part.' Now it's becoming a problem, because I see these people are going to come and get this land and this property." Black mayors have pushed policies "that have hurt us," says Schyla Pondexter-Moore, a 37-year-old activist with Empower DC, referring to what she sees as unchecked development. But Pondexter-Moore, who was born in the city and lives east of the Anacostia, notes the symbolism of a possible white mayor: "It kind of lets you know that D.C. is changing. We've never had a white mayor; it's kind of like another smack in the face that you all are displacing people of the city to the point we're really not here anymore."

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Not far away, young men hang outside corner stores on Good Hope Road in Anacostia. Some are vacant, but a renovated library also draws good crowds; there are even a few art galleries. Terry Scott, an arts community organizer, relays the sentiment of other residents. "It's almost like this five-to-six-year tsunami on its way," he says. "I hear often, 'I don't want to see what happened to U Street to happen here.' " Elvin Johnson recently bought the Kutt-N-Upp barbershop up the street. Scott has painted it a hip gray and orange. He wants more business and improvement, but, like others, without displacement. "I just hope I can remain in the community," he says.

THE FENTY AND THE GRAY

That line of thought has its proponents at City Hall. "We need development," concedes council member Marion Barry of his Ward 8. "But not crazy kind of development." The onetime "Mayor for Life" ran the city from 1979 to 1991 and again from 1995 to 1999. He has held elective office more or less continuously since 1974. Sitting in the mayor's ceremonial office, after his council colleagues have left one of their regular breakfasts, Barry discusses the changing city he's helped shape since 1965. He's 77 now, and during his journey from Itta Bena, Miss., he's become a masterful politician, an ex-convict, even a gunshot victim. (The young council member took a bullet in 1977 when a Muslim group laid siege to  the capital.)

Barry waxes color-blind about the prospect of a white mayor. "It depends," he says, "who the white people are and what their platform is. Helping the poor? Uplifting us out of poverty? Black folks aren't going to be supporting you just because they're blacks. They want to get something out of it. That's politics." Still, he notes the changing faces on the D.C. Council. There used to be just two whites; now there are seven. "They're all good people, but nobody [is] working-class" except for him, Barry says. "I come out of the working class and organizing. It's a very different philosophy." 

Sometimes racial politics here are polarized, and sometimes less so. In 2006, Adrian Fenty, a young council member with a black father and a white mother known for their popular running-gear store, won the mayoralty by taking every ward. Four years later, after Fenty pushed controversial education reforms and was maligned for his management style, the vote split along racial lines: Blacks overwhelmingly supported the man who would become the current mayor, Vincent Gray, who is African-American, and whites backed Fenty.

This time the dynamic is not so predetermined. There's no runoff. The top vote-getter wins the nomination, so a modest number of votes in a crowded Democratic primary field, especially one with low turnout, can end the contest. For that reason, all of the mayoral candidates, regardless of race, are working across the city's eight wards. It's not like a presidential race where Democrats ignore Texas and Republicans don't bother with Vermont.

So far the major white candidates are Evans and council member Tommy Wells. Each represents a racially mixed district: Evans hails from Ward 2 (running from Georgetown to Shaw) and Wells is on Capitol Hill. Skin color and sandy hair may be all they have in common. Evans worked his way up through securities law and politics. Wells is a trained social worker and former school-board member. At least in terms of perception, Evans is seen as more pro-development, although Wells proudly boasts of the new supermarkets in his ward. "We've got seven," he says. Wells plays up questions of livability. His tag line is "Making D.C. a Great Place to Work, Live, and Raise a Family," but when it comes to development, the differences between the candidates are more tone than substance. Wells goes the furthest with his pledge to push developers to reserve 30 percent of new units for affordable housing, but passing that kind of requirement won't be easy.

The leading black candidate is Muriel Bowser, who could emerge as the front-runner. (More than a year out, there's been no public polling in the race.) Young and charismatic, with the most cash on hand, she represents the heavily black and middle-class heart of the city that Fenty, her mentor, served. She reminds voters that she's Washington born-and-bred—unlike Wells and Evans. And her emphasis on pride is a not-too-subtle swipe at Mayor Gray.

That's because the feds are investigating Gray's 2010 campaign for possible corruption; four aides to Gray have taken plea deals. The U.S. attorney, Ronald Machen, hasn't indicated whether he'll exonerate or indict the mayor, but until he makes up his mind, the city waits. Despite the polarized vote in the last election, Gray, 70, has moved easily between the city's black and white worlds. As a young man, he was in a Jewish fraternity at the city's George Washington University, and he could win the Democratic nomination in a crowded field.

THE SWIRL OF RACE

Development questions take up much of the candidates' energy, because answering them correctly is the only way to preserve Washington's social health: What is the best way to grow? How do you limit displacement without thwarting growth?

There are ways, and Jack Evans—whose integrated Ward 2 encompasses both stately Georgetown, where he lives, and developing Shaw—thinks he knows them. Evans came to D.C. as a young attorney at the Securities and Exchange Commission and became active in Dupont Circle politics. With large eyes, a wiry frame, and a slightly manic drive that makes one think of a WASPy Ed Koch, Evans can be seen working it all over his district. The "me wall" in his office displays framed photos of him with Bill Clinton, Ivanka Trump, and the city's entire African-American political establishment. There's also a large campaign poster of Bobby Kennedy, whose biracial support Evans would like to emulate. "I recognize that there is considerable angst in the African-American community about what it means to have a white mayor. If there's ever going to be a white mayor, people will tell ya, 'It might as well be Jack.' "

Readers of the business papers have seen Evans at any number of ground-breakings. Sitting in his office, he discusses development, punctuated by boasts like "I did that." He notes that much of the city's displacement came from profit-taking or choice: Grandma dies in her home that's now worth 20 times what she paid for it, so the kids sell and move on. "The city is refilling itself," he says. 

Jack Evans, DC Mayor Candidate

But Evans knows the problem that's on everyone's mind: "How do you help the people who were here during the tough times stay when times are good?" One of his smart answers is to limit property-tax increases to just 5 percent a year, no matter how high your assessment spikes. This is helpful for those who want to stay in their homes but can't pay the taxes that come with rising property values, and it would surely be welcome in his ward, where population shifts have been dizzying.

Just up the street from Le Diplomate, where Evans launched his campaign, Scottish-born council member Jim Graham, who came to prominence as an HIV activist, extols another approach. Even as upscale trattorias have flooded 14th Street, public housing on the street north of U hasn't been demolished to make way for condos. In fact, it's had a significant face-lift. 

"We've been able to maintain low-income affordable housing," says Graham, who is not running for mayor. The units are tidy, two-floor spaces that could pass for a suburban development. The hard part is keeping the middle-class families who are not in public housing. But the city has limited sway over homeowners. "I don't know how you tell someone that they can't sell their home for a great price," Graham says.

Still, the trend can leave a community bitter. Not everyone in Shaw or Columbia Heights was delighted to make room for development, especially if they left with a buyout. And a white mayor would highlight those tensions more than a black one. Yet race is not always determinative: Rudy Giuliani's tenure wasn't a balm for racial divisions in New York, but neither was that of his black predecessor, David Dinkins. In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, elected after a slew of African-American chief executives, is popular throughout the city. If he is elected, New York City hopeful Bill de Blasio may set a standard for post-gentrification chief executives, putting less emphasis on the wealthy and more on inequality by reining in tax breaks for developers, slapping a surtax on the rich, and bolstering child care.

The swirl of race, economics, and growth puts Bowser, the African-American mayoral candidate, in the spotlight. She chairs the Economic Development Committee, so she has a special say. At City Hall, in the ornate hearing room one afternoon last month, Bowser held a three-hour hearing on the development of what used to be the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Most of the 100-plus-acre campus is being turned over to the city, and the rest is going to the State Department. On this day, developers had come to pitch Bowser on their ideas for the 66 acres the District has allocated for development. Each consortium promised billions in financing for retail and residential space. Roadside LLC had an animated video pitch (complete with a U2esque sound track) that swooped in and out of its proposed project, past happy pedestrians, "mixed-income" housing, and a Wegman's supermarket. Another company proposed a huge Georgetown University extension.

When we spoke at her campaign headquarters, a Georgia Avenue storefront in the Petworth neighborhood, Bowser was noncommittal about Walter Reed but talked broadly about what she wanted. She grew up in D.C.; her mother was a nurse and her father a facilities manager for public schools. Her mixed-income neighborhood has been spared the kind of super-development seen downtown. Georgia Avenue is less dangerous than it was a few years ago, and new retail and apartments have created parking problems. But there's none of the buzz of other gentrified neighborhoods. Her goal, too, is growth without displacement, and some of it is in evidence: A new apartment building also has a women's health care center on the ground floor.

A new Safeway is finally coming. "Everybody wants to grow, and nothing stays the same," she says, a pashmina-style afghan draped over her. "We're very proud of the way Petworth has changed. Making sure that we have a plan that we want. We don't want a 50-year-old Safeway." The white population grew in Bowser's ward from 18.7 percent in 2000 to 24.5 percent in 2010, a slower rise than elsewhere that left this area very much the heart of the city's black middle class. 

To underscore that fact, Bowser points to Chez Billy, a new bistro in the neighborhood. Its name is a nod to Billy Simpson's House of Seafood and Steaks—a rich part of African-American culture on Georgia Avenue for two generations before it went out of business and was replaced by a succession of failed and drab eateries. The new place is priced more affordably than Le Diplomate. "It was important to us that the history was recognized," she says of the reference to Billy Simpson's. Reminded that Evans launched his race at the other bistro, Bowser replies: "I wouldn't equate the two."

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