Georgetown, Gentrification and Us
It was a Thursday and it was late. What’s worse is that it was cold, and we were hungry.
At this point, we had spent the better half of a month meandering across the United States: stopping in one locale for three nights, and another for four. But on this cold Thursday night, we were in the northwest suburb of the northeastern capital, spending our time huddling around a small wrought-iron bistro set with our legs interlocked and our hands embracing hot chocolates for warmth.
Sitting there in that terrible cold, we eagerly awaited our greasy hot wings, onion rings and burger-slider things. But as we sat there, distracted by cold and hunger, something far more invasive, far less seasonal and fairly invisible was at play.
Surrounding our bistro huddle was a bombardment of niche stores: one for the painters, another for the gardeners, and one even for the vapers. Sure, it was cute — convenient, even — but much like big boutiques, upmarket Italian restaurants and the corner-adjacent Apple store, they didn’t quite belong there.
And no, neither did I.
Because Georgetown, Washington D.C., is just like any other 21st Century American city; and much like the rest, it is a place of immense gentrification.
As an incredibly white tourist in a historically black city, my naivety to this issue should probably come as no surprise: my identity is no more complicated than a two-piece puzzle, and stands in stark contrast to the complex urban phenomenon that is gentrification. Those in any relatively up-and-coming city, however, know the story all too well: areas are ‘refined’, affluence moves in and poverty moves out.
The infectious and violent nature of gentrification makes it especially sinister, but you’d be a fool to think it can strike anyone, anywhere. On the contrary, its effects are most explicitly felt amongst those belonging to low and working-class families. And in the case of Washington D.C., it’s suburbs like Georgetown — somewhere that was once the epicentre of African-American life — that have felt its decimating grasp the most.
The last few decades have seen the once minority-majority district become demographically whitewashed as political and economic forces exasperate the influence of wealthy investors and allow the neighbourhood to be reappropriated in accordance with more white, upper-class ‘sensibilities’.
Because I was not a local, this meant the effects of gentrification weren’t immediately noticeable. But for those who have lived there, these changes are self-evident. What happened to the Crazy Horse Bar, once beloved for its rock-and-roll tendencies? Nowadays, that’s a Coach. Likewise, the local Tramps has transformed into a Zara, and the Bayou Nightclub is yet another AMC Theatre.
Change begets change begets change.
As a result, the Georgetown of today is not like the unique and lively one of yesteryear; on the contrary, the city that was once affectionately known as Chocolate City is now known for having the highest intensity of gentrification in America.
Proponents argue that this isn’t inherently bad: perhaps businesses are not always meant to last, and don’t new stores help cater to a new market? But this thinking fails to capture the real issue at play: gentrification is not just a question of real estate – it is also, and more importantly, about a loss of culture.
Those who grew up in Georgetown articulate the feeling of a city, quite literally “changing its colours” in a way that I, given my identity and lack of proximity, never could. Perhaps this is why it’s so hard to imagine not being able to belong in your childhood parks, or to not recognise the community in your own neighbourhood. But this is a common feeling for locals in Georgetown, and for victims of structural injustice everywhere.
In this respect, being disadvantaged has left many people feeling disempowered, while more privileged tourists – such as myself – struggle to empathise.
Worse yet, we tourists frequently mistake this inability to empathise with an inability to enact our own change. Maybe this stems from the fact that our presence is often short-lived, or because as travellers we like to think of ourselves as without obligations, limits and responsibilities. But this attitude is toxic; it exasperates the negative changes that local communities are confronted with. In fact, it’s this very attitude that makes us complicit in the practices of gentrification in the first place.
Many of the places that we frequent and recommend to our fellow travellers, for example, are the product of urban redevelopment. Georgetown in Washington D.C. is just one example, but there are many, many more. When we choose to patronise certain businesses over others in these areas, we contribute towards the marginalisation of communities, families, and businesses, while also outright incentivising these urban practices. Put simply, we help the gentrifiers.
Likewise, when we complain of areas being unpleasant, rough or unseemly without the proper understanding of historical context, we’re choosing to blame incidental victims for systemic issues and disregard their own lived, ongoing experiences. These things are problematic because neighbourhoods are delicate, and our behaviour – no matter how minor – is at constant risk of upsetting these living, breathing human ecosystems.
Unfortunately, there are still many who, much like myself all those Thursdays ago, are not only unaware of the hidden danger facing their favourite cities, but are blind to the ways in which we tourists can encourage it. In the future, if we still want these places to be worth visiting and to have rich histories and not just rich neighbourhoods, we need to take more responsibility for this. As tourists coming from relative positions of privilege, we need to listen. As people with a vested interest in these cities, we need to speak up. And above all, as the ultimate audience of gentrification, we simply need to change for the better.
Because change begets change begets change.