As a high school student in Westchester County, N.Y., Derek Hyra was selected to play for a Harlem basketball team based at Riverside Church in upper Manhattan. He developed strong relationships with his mostly African-American teammates, many of whom were from Harlem or the Bronx. The commonality was basketball: They were all skilled players, they respected one another's ability, and they enjoyed each other's company as they traveled to play some of the region's toughest teams.
About a year after joining the team, Hyra noticed a major difference between himself and his inner-city teammates. "Our coach, who was concerned with academics as well as athletics, asked one day after practice how many of us had scored over 700 (out of 1600) on the SATs," says Hyra. "At the time I was the only one who had a score over 700. It was then that the realization hit me. While my teammates and I were on an equal playing field regarding our sport, this was not at all the case when it came to the conditions we lived in and the opportunities for educational achievement. In that regard, there was great disparity between their lives and my own."
This realization fostered an intense interest in the dynamics that shape the circumstances in low-income African-American neighborhoods like Harlem. This interest drives much of Hyra's academic research as he explores the complicated local, national, and global factors that influence the revitalization of iconic black communities. Now an associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech in the National Capital Region, Hyra works to inform urban revitalization and development policies to benefit the original residents of these areas. His first book, "The New Urban Renewal: The Economic Transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville" (University of Chicago Press 2008), focuses on two of the most-celebrated black neighborhoods in the United States — Harlem in New York City and Bronzeville in Chicago — and the shifting dynamics of race, class, and politics at work in these contemporary urban landscapes.
Currently, Hyra is engaged in an in-depth ethnographic investigation of the redevelopment of the Shaw/U Street neighborhood in the northwest section of Washington, D.C. Howard University, one of the best-known black universities in the nation, sits at the eastern edge of the neighborhood. In the 1920s, Alain Locke taught his philosophy of the "New Negro" at Howard. "This philosophy, which he also preached outside the classroom — in coffee shops, in jazz clubs, and in other Shaw/U Street establishments — before he ever moved to Harlem, later became the reigning mantra of the Harlem Renaissance," says Hyra. "So though some argue that Harlem and Bronzeville are the most historical African-American communities in the United States, I tend to disagree. When you look at the history of Shaw and U Street, it must be placed in the same category as Harlem and Bronzeville."
In the early 1900s, Shaw/U Street was the center of black life in the city. A number of African-American luminaries, including Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Carter G. Woodson, and Mary McLeod Bethune, lived in the community. Until a Supreme Court ruling in 1948 allowed African Americans to legally move to other areas, restricted covenants limited them to segregated black communities where economically diverse populations supported self-reliance: thriving businesses, scholarship, artistic expression, and entertainment.
Shaw/U Street's economic base began to fall in 1949 as the black middle class started to move out. Monumental decline followed in the 1960s, continuing into the 1970s and 1980s. After Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, sections of the community were devastated when riots ensued and buildings burned to the ground. As drugs, poverty, and crime took over, business leaders and the remaining middle class fled to emerging black suburbs in Maryland's Prince George's County. The once-vibrant neighborhood was labeled "Shameless Shaw."
Dedicated revitalization of Shaw/U Street began in the late 1980s but the residential change became apparent in the 1990s. Between 1990 and 2000, the percent of households earning more than $75,000 increased 55 percent for whites, 71 percent for Hispanics, and 233 percent for blacks. During the same period, the community also gained middle-income populations across different racial and ethnic groups. With its revitalization, the community lost low- and moderate-income households; however, there is still a sizable number of very low-income households due to the community's stable subsidized housing. While the community is becoming more economically diverse, it is also becoming more racially diverse.
In 2000, the black population held a slim majority at 54 percent, compared to 90 percent in 1970. Beyond racial and economic diversity, the Shaw/U Street redevelopment is also tied to sexual orientation. Many of the white newcomers are gay men who rehabilitated the Victorian-style homes and row houses in the Logan Circle section of the community. With a continuing influx of this population, gay-oriented clubs, restaurants, and stores have opened and the area now rivals the Dupont Circle neighborhood as the center of gay life in Washington, D.C.
Hyra's study — the subject of a second book scheduled for publication by the University of Chicago Press in December 2012 — is one of the first to investigate how race, class, and sexual orientation become embedded within local civic organizations that attempt to influence community conditions. The study also assesses whether and how low-income people benefit from living in a racially diverse, mixed-income neighborhood. Hyra's research is supported by Virginia Tech's School of Public and International Affairs and grants from the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment (ISCE).
"ISCE is particularly interested in supporting both relatively new investigators and more experienced investigators whose research or scholarship addresses issues of social and individual transformation," says Karen Roberto, the institute's director. "Derek's research overlaps remarkably well with three of the institute's priority areas: human development and health; social complexity and individual risk; and community arts, built environments, and urban formations. Derek is an excellent scholar whose research addresses important contemporary issues."
Hyra has interviewed more than 60 key leaders and residents across the Shaw/U Street community's different racial, ethnic, income, and sexual orientation groups. He has also collected relevant archival materials, such as community organization meeting minutes and newspaper articles. During the spring and summer of 2010, Hyra volunteered as a community organizer with Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE) DC, a group dedicated to preserving racial and economic equity in the Shaw/U Street district. "My personal involvement in the community has helped me build trust among the residents as well as given me a better understanding of concerns about affordable housing due to mounting gentrification pressures," says Hyra.
According to Hyra, low-income residents in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood actually have better access to affordable housing than many of their counterparts in other gentrifying U.S. cities. "Much of the subsidized housing here is managed and controlled by African-American churches, which to some extent have a better understanding of the needs of the community," explains Hyra. "And rather than typical high-rise subsidized housing that you see in many cities, Shaw/U Street has project-based Section 8 housing with a unique city policy — tenants' right of first refusal or right to make an offer to buy. This makes it harder for real estate developers to tear down affordable housing at will and helps avoid massive displacement."
The Vegas Lounge and Ben's Chili Bowl are two long-standing commercial establishments that have held ground at their original locations. The Vegas Lounge is a redbrick roadhouse featuring classic blues, soul, and R&B at 14th and P Streets, Logan Circle. The Kittrell family has owned the Vegas Lounge since 1971 and they have kept it running despite upscale restaurants and apartments clustering around them and construction of a Whole Foods store across the street.
Another family-owned business, Ben's Chili Bowl, has been a U Street landmark since 1958. Located in what was Washington's first silent movie house in 1911, the Minnehaha, it is also an integral part of the neighborhood's history. When Ben's opened, U Street was still known as "Black Broadway" and many jazz greats of the day, such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole, would stop by the restaurant after their U Street club performances. During the 1968 riots, both police and protesters stopped in to eat. In the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood's economic decline and drug infestation forced Ben's Chili Bowl to reduce its staff to one employee, but it retained its family presence and the locals protected it.
In the early 1990s, extensive construction of the U Street Metro station across the street from the restaurant forced more U Street businesses to close, but Ben's Chili Bowl stayed open to feed the construction workers. In more recent years, celebrities like Bill Cosby and Chris Tucker fueled the restaurant's popularity among tourists and, in January 2009, Ben's made national headlines when then-Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty showed up with President-elect Barack Obama.
Establishments like Ben's may flourish when a neighborhood gentrifies, but whether lower-income residents actually benefit from revitalization of communities is always an underlying question, says Hyra. "I have written extensively on the transformation of the inner city and teach graduate courses, including urban development theory; qualitative methods; and the history of development, politics, and planning in Washington, D.C.," says Hyra. "While lower-income people might be given better opportunities in mixed-income neighborhoods, and there seems to be positive perceptions of less crime by some low-income people who remain in these gentrifying neighborhoods, so far there has been little empirical evidence to suggest that there have been many tangible benefits for them."
The Shaw/U Street redevelopment, for example, has brought a newly designed dog park into the neighborhood and new bike lanes, typically frequented by young white professionals. Some long-term residents view these new amenities as symbols of gentrification rather than community improvements. Amenities that some perceive as being primarily for newcomers have been points of contention in the neighborhood.
But there are some less-controversial developments, such as the Reeves Center, which dates back to the very beginning of the revitalization of Shaw/U Street in the late 1980s. Spearheaded by then-Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry and his administration, the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center was built at 14th and U Streets. The Reeves Center's site had been a drug haven since the previous building was ruined in the 1968 riots. "The Reeves Center was symbolic of the local African-American-controlled government's commitment to redevelop this iconic black neighborhood. In 2008, people gathered near the Reeves Center to celebrate Barack Obama's presidential election victory," says Hyra.
Across the street from the Reeves Center, there is Busboys and Poets, the brainchild of artist and activist Andy Shallal and a model of diversity. Busboys and Poets, opened in 2005 in homage to Langston Hughes (who was both a busboy and a poet when he lived in the historical neighborhood in the 1920s), defies easy description. It's a bookstore, restaurant, community center, art gallery, and theater. Lecturers, poets, and musicians are often featured there. World-renowned poet and Virginia Tech Professor Nikki Giovanni read from her anthology, "The 100 Best African-American Poems," there in January 2011. Hyra says the crowd was so large, he couldn't even get in.
On any given day, people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and generations spend time at Busboys and Poets. "Andy has succeeded in creating an atmosphere where no one feels threatened," says Hyra. "Places like Busboys and Poets in racially diverse, gentrifying neighborhoods are important because they foster meaningful social interactions across differences and can ease tensions in transitioning communities."
When interacting with local entrepreneurs like Shallal, community civic leaders, and residents of the Shaw/U Street neighborhood, Hyra is often reminded of his teen years on the Harlem basketball team and how that experience influenced his life's course and field of research. After graduating from high school, he earned a B.A. in psychology from Colgate University, an M.A. in human development from the University of Kansas, and an M.A. in social science and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. His research spanning globalization, national housing policy, urban politics, affordable housing finance, neighborhood poverty, and race has been showcased in both academic journals and popular media outlets, including the BBC, Chicago Public Radio, C-SPAN, The New York Post, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. He is a research affiliate of the National Poverty Center and an affiliated scholar of the Urban Institute, a non-partisan, Washington, D.C., think tank. Hyra is featured in a two-part video interview discussing "The History, Decline, and Revitalization of the Shaw Neighborhood" and "Who Benefits? Gentrification and Social Integration," which the Urban Institute produced and posted on its website and on YouTube.
Prior to joining Virginia Tech in 2009, Hyra worked at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, investigating the predictors and consequences of the subprime lending crisis, and at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he examined the community-level impact of national urban legislation, such as the Community Development Block Grant, Empowerment Zones, and the HOPE VI program. A former resident fellow of Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Hyra has taught at the University of Chicago, Brown University, and George Washington University.
In addition to the time he spends on research specific to the Shaw/U Street district, Hyra also volunteers a considerable amount of time to the City of Alexandria, where he lives and teaches. He serves as vice chairman of the board of commissioners for the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, a public agency that provides affordable housing. And last year he was named one of 15 members of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) advisory council on underserved communities. Chaired by Catherine Hughes, founder of Radio One, the group of national leaders representing business owners, banking and finance, community development, nonprofits, and academia was formed to provide recommendations to the SBA on ways to increase sustainable capital and credit flows to underserved communities.
"My work with groups like this and my research on gentrification in historical African-American communities further what has been my personal objective from the start," says Hyra. "And that is to help elected officials better understand the social, economic, and political challenges that need to be addressed to create and maintain truly inclusive and integrated neighborhood environments. Quite simply, we need to work to expand the opportunity structure in redeveloping low-income neighborhoods to give people of all backgrounds a better chance to achieve the goals they set for themselves."