A City in Flux
The Gentrification of H Street
Published: Friday, September 28, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 28, 2012 00:09
Walking down Northeast’s H Street Corridor on a Friday night, it’s easy to see how this burgeoning neighborhood has quickly earned itself the title of D.C.’s hippest. Just ask Forbes (the go-to source for all things hip), which last week ranked the area No. 6 in “America’s Best Hipster Neighborhoods.”
Two weeks ago, the H Street Festival showcased the area’s trendy and youthful vibe. In addition to the standard food, drinks and entertainment, the festival featured performers who created live murals, a tattoo contest and three floors of music, ranging from electro-funk to vintage hip-hop, at the Rock N Roll Hotel, sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon. That festival was indicative of the area’s changing identity.
Looking beyond the newly opened yoga studios and ironically-themed bars, H Street has historically been known more for its crime than its creativity. But a recent gentrifying trend has drastically altered the character of this D.C. neighborhood.
“I’ve been on this block for the past 10 years, [and] it’s definitely a big change,” Tameca Herbert, a local shop owner, said. “It used to be ghost town here. …. You’d never see this many people walking on H Street.”
The corridor, which runs from Union Station to 17th Street NE in the heart of D.C., was a bustling commercial district until the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., left shops damaged in their wake. The neighborhood hadn’t been able to shake that dark history — until recently.
Just last Friday Herbert opened a consignment boutique on H and 12th Streets called Diva’s World, which sells reasonably priced vintage clothing for women. A native of the District, Herbert had previously owned a shop on 4th and H, but after the rent doubled from $2,500 per month to $5,000, she relocated in favor of a location closer to the buzz of the 1200 block.
Diva’s World stylist Mark Williams added that the boutique has seen a bubbling of activity since opening last week.
“A lot of people are excited about it being in this area,” Williams said. “People come in and they say that this is the best thing to happen here, because they had to go so far for consignment and vintage [before].”
Its location next to a vibrant night scene makes for good business, according to Herbert and Williams. They open Diva’s World from noon to midnight, allowing bar hoppers to stumble into the hot pink boutique as they’re making the rounds.
“We had one girl come in here and she picked out a cute little skirt and a top, and she said, ‘I’m just [going to] keep this on and go bar hopping,’” Williams said.
Williams and Herbert both hope the neighborhood will become D.C.’s new shopping destination — Herbert even called the area “the new Georgetown.”
“You can eat, barhop, [got to a] happy hour, hop in a cab or take public transportation, and it’s all here,” Williams said. “Unfortunately it’s taking business from other areas, but you know there’s enough room for everybody, right?”
Despite Williams’ optimism, the “G” word — gentrification — brings up uncomfortable questions about race and class. This process, in which longtime residents of the neighborhood are forced out because of a rise in housing prices and cost of living, complicates the sunny story of H Street’s meteoric rise. It’s becoming clear that there are winners and losers in this quickly growing neighborhood.
Herbert recalled a wig shop that recently closed after rent shot up from $2,000 per month to $10,000.
“The woman [who] used to own a wig shop was there for years. She was there since I was a little girl,” Herbert said. “She had to move out this year. Now it’s a hookah bar, but that wig shop had been there forever. She cried. She had been there a really, really long time.”
“I wouldn’t say that I don’t sympathize with them, but at the same time, things are changing,” Williams said. “It’s the 21st century, so people can’t expect everything to stay the same. … But I don’t look at it as a bad thing.”
Lon Porter, who is black and a native of Northeast D.C., also sees the neighborhood’s change as an improvement.
“Before this happened, this was like the wild, wild West down here. I see a lot of good in it,” he said. Porter remembers a time when H Street was synonymous with drugs, boarded-up houses and empty streets.
But last year, Porter opened up a locksmith shop, Georgetowne Lock, in the neighborhood; the rent at his former location in Glover Park was “too damn high,” he said jokingly. However, Porter admits the rent on H is higher than what it used to be, and he worries about the fate of the neighborhood’s older residents.
“A lot of black people who have lived here for years, they’ve gotten old now,” he said. “I don’t know whether they sell their place or give it to their kids or what they do, but it leaves their hands.”
Still, Porter’s business is his main focus.
“There may be some gentrification in the master plan of things, but I’m not at that level,” he said. “I’m trying to make my business grow, and I’m more concerned with that.”
But others are concerned about the consequences of these demographic shifts.
Nicknamed “Chocolate City” in a 1975 song by the funk group Parliament, the District has historically been a black cultural center. Beginning in 1957, Washington was the first American city to have a majority-black population, peaking in 1970 at 71 percent. But last year’s census data show that in the past 10 years the District has witnessed a dramatic change in demographics: The white population rose 31 percent, as the black fell eight percent, slipping below 50 percent of the population for the first time since the initial majority was established.