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?

Then and now: U Street, once the black Broadway, in the 1980s and today.  
National Journal
Matthew Cooper Elahe Izadi
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Matthew Cooper Elahe Izadi
Oct. 17, 2013, 5 p.m.

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.

In­ter­act­ive Map:
DC’s Chan­ging Neigh­bor­hoods

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.”

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. 

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4516) }}

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.”

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.

In­ter­act­ive Map:
DC’s Chan­ging Neigh­bor­hoods

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.”

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. 

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4516) }}

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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