The Answer Guy Online

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Thursday, July 22, 2004

My Opening Farewell

When I moved to moved to Adams-Morgan in 1997, Marion Barry was Mayor. Though Adams-Morgan by this time had some cachet as a happening, hip neighborhood, it was still not an especially safe place to be, especially at night.  The neighborhood was dirty and rat-infested, the block was loud, and I had some of the worst neighbors imaginable in terms of cleanliness, noise, and hangers-on congregating everywhere blocking sidewalks. Some of said hangers-on were running a drive-thru drug market at which you could get bad marijuana. In between transactions, there was much drinking from liquor bottles concealed by paperbags during dice games. In addition, from Thursday night through Sunday afternoon, suburbanites, students, and the occasional tourist would invade my block, take all the parking spaces, and generally use it as a landfill.

On the three occasions I had to look for a roommate - twice in 1998 and again in early 2000 - I more or less ruled out women because I thought that the neighborhood wasn't safe enough for them.  Until my final year in my building, all the tenants living there were male.

And, like even many of the best neighborhoods in the District, it was...well...in the District. Which meant a basket case of a school system, unreliable city services, an often indifferent and/or incompetent police department, city leaders who played the race card like it was going out of style as an excuse for inept management, and of course the lack of effective representation in our national legislature.

These various and sundry inconveniences did have the beneficial side effect of making my rent affordable on a student's budget, since people unwilling or unable to put up with this sort of stuff could always opt for Maryland or Virginia - or, if they wanted to stay in the Adams-Morgan orbit, could spend a little more money and live west of 18th Street, north of Columbia Road, or in Dupont Circle to the south.

When I left Adams-Morgan for Arlington in 2004, Marion Barry was no longer Mayor. Anthony Williams had come in five-plus years ago with a mandate to make the city suitable for yuppies (and, more importantly, their tax dollars) again. Crime rates have dropped somewhat, but only to the same degree they've dropped across the board nationwide. As for my corner of Adams-Morgan, it felt a little safer in 2004 than it did back in 1997, at least as far as run-of-the-mill robberies, break-ins, and muggings; however, it seemed like gang activity was as robust as ever, and there was more than one shooting a bit too close to home in my final months in the neighborhood.  All four of the people left living in my former building are female.

As much has things changed around there, a lot of things didn't change much at all. The day I left for the last time, the neighborhood was still dirty and rat-infested, the block was still loud, and I still had some of the worst neighbors imaginable in terms of cleanliness, noise, and hangers-on congregating everywhere blocking sidewalks. It was business as usual at the drive-thru drug market.  I was still subjected to thousand-yard stares from men drinking and playing dice games on the sidewalk. And the outsiders still flocked to the block on the weekends and threw rubbish wherever they pleased.

One thing I have up until now failed to mention: my rent was a bargain of the sort you don't see in Washington anymore when I moved there. It increased about 50% in seven years, though it only increased to a point that it nearly matched going market rates in the neighborhood. I made the decision that the incredibly cheap rent I was getting in combination with the location and the proximity to many amenities was worth the risks and hassles of living on that block.  But as the gap between what I was paying to live there and what I would pay to live on my own somewhere it was easier to sleep at night grew smaller and smaller, I kept revisiting the trade-offs.  The last straw came when my roommate of four-plus years decided he was leaving, to move into a smaller place with his girfriend, and that staying would mean finding another roommate (after the luck I had with four guys in seven years, I was more than due for a Roommate From Hell) and swallowing another rent increase.

Adams-Morgan was already well on its way to being Ground Zero for the gentrification of D.C. when I showed up there, but it really took off during the last couple of years.

Not only were old houses being refurbished, but whole new buildings were going up all over the place. The parking lots that once lined both sides of Champlain Street - empty during the week, only to fill up with cars on Friday and Saturday nights - became construction sites, which then became high-end condominium complexes.  These complexes usually - but not always - had enough parking for the new residents, but not generally for anyone else, the net result being a more severe parking crunch on residents and visitors alike.

National chains that once tended to avoid Adams-Morgan as unprofitable began to creep in. There's a Starbucks at 18th & Columbia, and now a Caribou Coffee further down 18th, which is across the street from a Maggie Moos.  The McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Popeye's franchises on Columbia Road predate my living in the area, but the KFC and Burger King do not. The other eateries in the neighborhood gradually became more upscale, as did at least some of the many bars on 18th Street.  

For most of the time it seemed that most Adams-Morgan dwellers fit into a few distinct categories:
A. Longtime residents of a generation or more, mostly African-American.
B. Established residents of a few years, a large number of whom were Latino (predominantly Salvadoran or Guatemalan.)
C. Younger residents from the student or nonprofit communities, mostly white, who rented in the area.
D. Residents from the government or private sectors, again predominantly white.
E. Older residents, again mostly white, who had bought a house, whether to live in or as an investment property.

The biggest difference between Groups C and D was that, in general, Group D (and Group E) were interested in remaking Adams-Morgan while Group C was usually more interested in carving out a little niche for themselves while leaving the surrounding area untouched.  Groups A and B had never gotten along especially well, and many whites, especially in Groups D and E, saw both groups more as obstacles to overcome than as true neighbors.
The favor was generally returned as longtime residents resented being pushed around by newcomers. 

The most obvious fault lines in the neighborhood were racial, but they were not the only ones, nor was race the only thing separating comepting interests, in Adams-Morgan and citywide.  Many of the black and Hispanic households in the neighborhood had children; essentially none of the white residents were children.  Some residents mounted an effort to drive the residents of two houses in particular (if you recall, it was the subject of The Answer Guy Online's first ever true blog entry) out of the neighborhood; the issue did have strong racial overtones, but neither camp had a monopoly on one race or another.

It was hard to pinpoint a time, but I definitely got the sense that the "best" days of Adams-Morgan's were behind it. The neighborhood had gentrified for sure, but the crime and filth were still there. Rents and prices were going up, but the quality of life really wasn't. The feeling that I was paying more and more to get the same product increased over time.

Once upon a time it was easy to ignore the real "movers and shakers" in Washington up in Adams-Morgan. Sure, they would sometimes descend on 18th Street on the weekends when they got bored with Georgetown or Bethesda and temporarily wanted something more "authentic," but they didn't matter much the other five days of the week. But as speculative fever grew across the city during the 1990s economic climate, the profile of who was looking at what neighborhoods to buy or rent in changed. Adams-Morgan became a place of interest for the "mover and shaker" crowd like never before. People making a decent living but still trying to make their way, looking to make the neighborhood work for them in a give-and-take way, were gradually replaced by people with money to burn who were looking to get in on the ground floor of the next Dupont Circle.  The tensions seemed to increase as the gap between the preferences of longtime residents and newcomers in terms of what the neighborhood should look like grew.

(Fact I just found out randomly that really underscores my point: No other major city in America has a larger gap between haves and have-nots than the District.

But, hey, that's City Living, DC Style.

The above slogan was famously trotted out by Mayor Williams and his administration to try to sell the Distict as a hip place to live for singles and childless couples.

It's not as if I'm of the sort that reflexively goes to the barricades whenever the word "gentrification" is used. Any city, if it's going to be a vital city, needs some gentrification to survive.  Especially in the case of Washington, a city that, due in large part to factors beyond its control, operates at a structural deficit such that it could never hope to provide its residents with all the services they require.

For instance, the schools are likely to always be a basket case, since the bulk of their students are from poor households in neighborhoods with major crime problems.  So the District, quite rationally, aims its marketing at people for whom the schools aren't an issue - young singles, gays and lesbians, empty nesters, and the super-wealthy who can afford to send their children to a good private school, of which there are many in the area.

Public health programs in the District tend to be inadequate. So the District expends effort trying to recruit the sort of person who isn't likely to need to use the public health infrastructure much - again, people with money and no children.

 It's in a sense only fair that the District wants to cherry-pick the most "desirable" residents from across the region; Virginia and Maryland have been doing it for decades. The District has shouldered the burden of having most of the region's poor, while getting little help from the federal government and no help from Maryland, Virginia, or any subdivision thereof.  The way the rules of the game are set, it's always in the interest of any state or local government to ship its poor, its disabled, its homeless population somewhere else. It's something we as a nation ought not encourage our state local governments to do as a matter of course, but until that changes, we can't be too surprised when it happens.

From the standpoint of the District, I was a decent placeholder until they got the "mover and shaker" they're marginally likelier to get now that I'm not around. I paid a decent amount in income and sales taxes, at least for the last five years when I worked for a living. I have no children and therefore didn't take how bad the neighborhood's schools are into account when choosing where to live. I had no car and therefore didn't contribute to the parking, pollution, or car theft problems in the city. I hardly ever used the public health infrastucture. I sometimes complained when the trash wasn't taken, but less than many would have.  I put up with far more in terms of people I didn't want gathering on my stoop and making a racket than many people in my situation would have done. The only public assistance I ever received was a few relatively brief stints getting unemployment compensation, and the bulk of the money for that came from my employers, not the taxpayers.     

Now I'm in Virginia, the subject of some consternation on my part - and the feeling that I've made something of a devil's bargain. That subject is best left to a different blog entry. 

Is Adams-Morgan a "better" neighborhood now? Perhaps from the standpoint of the District government it is. From the standpoint of the people who bought land there hoping for the next speculative land boom it is. For the people who've lived there for years being pushed out, it isn't. It's hard to say, but there was an equilibrium and over seven years it's shifted. And it shifted from being a neighborhood that was right for someone like I was seven years ago to one that felt wrong for me by the time I moved out.  As wistful as I felt walking up 18th street at night those last month or so when I knew my days of having that walk as part of my commute were numbered, I was doing the right thing by leaving.  

Adams-Morgan was never a utopian place where everyone got along. It wasn't "ruined" when the "yuppies" "discovered" it. But there was a unique convergence of factors there - cultural diversity, nightlife, rents made affordable by some folks' fears (rational and otherwise) of the area, a location close enough to Metrorail to be convenient but far enough away from Metrorail not to attract the kind of high-rollers who otherwise would have held sway. But like all things in this life, it came to a close. It's a different neighborhood now. I'll still have my fond memories and my not-so-fond memories, but all in all, I'm glad I got the chance to live in a great neighborhood for seven years.


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