Wednesday, June 18, 2014

DC Gentrification: A Decidedly Mixed Blessing

Ten years ago, I enrolled in grad school and began to get to know my classmates. I befriended two transplants from elsewhere who were several years older than me. I confided to them that I hoped to leave the Deep South behind someday. With a knowing chuckle, they told me that blue states were very expensive. While I heard them, I admit that I didn’t fully understand until years later.

In accordance with my wishes, the chance to leave behind my native region eventually arrived and I took it. Since then, I know something of what it is like to have an immigrant experience. Though I’m happy being a Washingtonian, I find that I still identify with the Old Country and likely always will. I am far from alone, since fully 70% of the residents of the District of Columbia are from elsewhere. In the past six years, I’ve viewed a cross-section of the District's character and observed the particulars up close for myself.

A recent article in The Washington Post discusses the unanticipated downside of living in a boomtown. Entitled “Millennials consider leaving Washington as the city becomes more costly,” I find that the column needlessly overgeneralizes, beginning with its headline. While it is true that the cost of living has increased and some businesses are relocating elsewhere, not everyone is flying the coop en masse. Washington is a transient city by its very nature. Many land here for what seems like a fraction of a second, knowing from the outset that their time is limited.

Transient residents often don’t build relationships with their neighbors, they note, and the churn could serve to perpetuate tensions between native Washingtonians and newcomers. Short-term residents also are less likely to pressure city government for services, like repairing roads and fixing streetlamps. And in local elections, newcomers often don’t vote.

Many people see their stay in DC as a means to an end. They enroll in an elite, highly competitive college, knowing at the outset that once graduation is achieved, they’ll head elsewhere. They work an internship or residence for a year, then consider the experience just another rung in their working career. DC, for many, is a resume-padder.  It’s always been this way and indeed, the system is set up for the short-term resident, rather than those in it for the long haul. Those who want to settle down and stay face additional challenges, like struggling with the financial ability to own a home or a condo.

It cuts both ways. The trend is felt by everyone, regardless of age or income. Longer-term DC residents often avoid building relationships with newcomers, assuming they will only leave eventually. In my own life, I found I had to demonstrate that I was in it for the long haul before anyone willingly incorporated me and took me seriously. Having seen half of my social network relocate for parts elsewhere has led me to adopt similar strategies, especially since saying goodbye has never been easy for me.  

The aforementioned Washington Post column highlights the lives of a young couple in their early 30’s, John Van Zandt and Florencia Fuensalida.

Like many millennials in their 30s, Van Zandt and Fuensalida have begun using a different sort of mental math to calculate whether they should stay:
 How much of their identity is tethered to the District? Is being able to walk to work and bars worth a lack of living space, especially when they seem to be overrun by the just-out-of-college set? Could they move to an up-and-coming neighborhood where crime is higher just to stay in the District?

Among liberals, it is trendy to be eco-friendly, but environmental causes are difficult to adopt when one has no choice but to buy a car. Everyone wants to do his or her part, even when many people are already heavily inconvenienced by the limitations of the world around them. The result is almost like a torturous exercise in aestheticism. I have no particular need to stake my claim as an urban pioneer, but I know many who do to get more space at lowered cost. Each of us pinches pennies somehow, as our priorities differ. 

Much of the blame in this article is placed upon the youngest set, who are in a very different place in their lives. From direct personal experience, I can attest that, while there may be a housing shortage, there is no shortage of recent college graduates flooding the job market. It has benefited me to remain anchored to a small apartment that is six decades old, but in good shape. Rent is nearly $1500 a month for a one-bedroom. Now I know what my classmates meant when they told me that blue states and blue cities were expensive.

The article concedes that the greater impact of this influx of young adult remains unknown. Indeed, in the heat of the action, it’s difficult to understand the current trends in totality. Washington may be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. Does it wish to be the training capital of the world, content to be merely a stop along the way? Even with the new growth, DC has never really changed its modus operandi.

To visitors, DC is a tourist mecca. In contrast, its residents increasingly shape the city’s ingrained, East Coast, Type A character. Though they are different from the norm, in many ways these new immigrants are in the same mold as those who have always been drawn here. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

1 comment:

Satsu Imo said...

I had to leave. The high rents and high everything just ate up too much of my paycheck.