Towards a New Gentrification Mythology

By Jennifer Bryant,

Originally Presented at A.C.T.O.R. Deconstructing Gentrification Panel 1/4/2015

I studied English in college and I’ve always been fascinated by stories. In order to deconstruct gentrification, we first have to start by looking closely at the narratives we've built up around it.

One of my favorite quotes, and the epigraph to the novel I’m writing, is a quote from the Egyptian artist and writer Hassan Khan. He says: “Maybe we’re all guilty of building our own mythologies.” I love that quote because we’re constantly creating myths to make sense of, and in many cases to justify, what’s going on in the world around us.

I want to begin today by deconstructing the mythology of gentrification. There are many pieces to this puzzle but I want to zoom in on one recurring myth - and that is that gentrification is not a race issue but purely an economic issue. I want to explore this myth by lifting up a true story about a house on a tree lined street in Bloomingdale in Northwest, Washington, DC; and then I’ll end by exploring alternatives to our current model of development.

I live in Congress Heights in Ward 8. Every time I’m walking up Alabama Avenue I pass the Jewish cemetery that sits on the side of the road not too far from the metro station. It’s a visible reminder that this wasn’t always a predominantly Black neighborhood. Congress Heights was established around 1890 when Arthur Randle purchased land in the area and laid out the streets. Restrictive covenants were attached to deeds, as they were in many parts of the city, to prohibit the sale of land or buildings to African-Americans. This is why, for many years, Congress Heights was predominantly white.

Restrictive covenants were around for generations until May of 1948 with the landmark Supreme Court case Hurd v. Hodge. This case, one of the most crucial housing policy cases in the nation’s history, involved the issue of restrictive covenants in Bloomingdale right here in Washington, DC. The Hurd case is critical to understanding how race and class operate in DC, and ultimately to understanding how gentrification is a continuation of race-based housing policy.

In May of 1944 a Black couple named James and Mary Hurd bought a house at 116 Bryant Street NW. The home had a restrictive covenant on the deed that, quote, prohibited “the sale of the house to anyone of the Negro race.” A few doors down from the Hurd’s new home, at 136 Bryant Street NW, there was a white couple named Frederic and Lena Hodge. When they found out Black people were moving into their neighborhood they filed a District Court lawsuit to prevent the Hurd’s from living on their block. They argued that Black residents would bring down their property value. Because institutionalized racism is so deeply embedded in the fabric of the American legal system, the Hodges won their lawsuit, and the Hurd’s were forced to move.

Thankfully that’s not where the story ends. Our brilliant radical scholar ancestor Charles Hamilton Houston – a native Washingtonian, graduate of Dunbar High School, and former Dean of the Howard University School of Law - took up the Hurd’s case, took it all the way to the Supreme Court and won. One of his arguments was that restrictive covenants created overcrowding in Black communities which exacerbated the issues of poverty and crime and relegated millions across the country to permanent second class citizenship. That last point is significant, because race-based housing and economic policies continue to exacerbate issues of poverty and crime around the country and in the District.

As many of you know, there is a movement growing right now across the country where people have taken to the streets under the banner “Black Lives Matter”. The Ferguson Action Coalition and organizers all over the country have declared 2015 “The Year of Resistance to state violence against Black lives”. We know that there are gross inequalities in policing, that’s what kicked this whole thing off. But there are also gross inequalities in housing, education and labor. What this movement is doing, that is very important, is drawing the connections between all of these things. So when we say Black Lives Matter, we’re not just talking about state violence at the hands of police. But we understand that poverty and gentrification are forms of state violence too.

In April of last year Salon published a piece by Daniel Jose Older called “Gentrification’s Insidious Violence: The Truth about American Cities”. In it he explains that the violence of gentrification takes four main forms – cultural, political, economic and racial — and that these four pillars lead cities to go to war with themselves. He says:

“It is a slow, dirty war, steeped in American traditions of racism and capitalism. The participants are often wary, confused, doubtful...
To forge ahead, we require an outrageousness that sees beyond the tired tropes and easy outs that mass media provides. This path demands we organize with clarity about privilege and the shifting power dynamics of community. It requires foresight, discomfort and risk-taking. It will be on the Web and in the streets, in conversations, rants and marches. We need a new mythology.”

Many have posed the question, if not gentrification – what? When we step outside of gentrification mythology we see that there are, in fact, many alternatives. The central alternative is this: equitable development rooted in a solidarity economy. ONE DC, the organization I work with, has joined forces with our members who are long-time DC residents, and progressive organizations across the city to create the People’s Platform - our plan for equitable development in the city. The main push is for community control and equitable development without displacement.

This alternative is not only possible, but it already exists. Before I close, I want to lift up two ways equitable development is happening right now in the District.

Washington, DC has the second highest number of limited equity housing cooperatives (coops) in the country after New York City. Limited equity coops are a shared ownership housing model that helps to preserve affordability for existing and future residents. Unlike renting, coops provide direct control over one’s housing. They allow for long-time residents, including those on fixed incomes, to not be priced out of their neighborhoods.

Worker owned cooperatives have similar benefits, providing worker-owners with direct control over their labor. There are many different worker coop models but they are generally all democratically run businesses owned and/or operated by workers. When the business makes a profit the worker owners collectively decide how the surplus should be distributed. This is different than traditional business models that are common in the District which pay low wages and exploit workers. Currently, there are only a handful of DC-based worker owned coops; however, ONE DC has joined forces with Impact HUB DC, COOP DC and others to begin to develop and incubate new worker-owned cooperatives.

The District’s current model of development is not the only way forward. We can creatively and collectively chart a new course for this city – one that makes room for all of us, especially long-time residents. Together we can create a new mythology – one that is rooted in our collective values and honors each of our right to coexist in this city without the threat of displacement.

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