By Claire Cook
To longtime residents of Washington, D.C., the findings presented in Derek Hyra’s Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City—that gentrifying neighborhoods’ racial and economic diversity does not translate into integration—is likely not surprising.
As an organizer with Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE DC), a grassroots community organization working for racial and economic equity, and based in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, I’ve witnessed firsthand how a community can be “diverse” in name only.
The Black patrons inside Wanda’s Hair Salon or chatting outside Sammy’s carry-out do not generally have meaningful interactions and relationships with the young white professionals who are lined up around the same block to patronize the Game of Thrones-themed bar. We might all be moving through the same space, but integrated we are not. Hyra’s findings in Cappuccino City present a needed challenge to the neo-liberal rhetoric that has dominated housing policy for the last few decades—that demolishing public and subsidized housing and replacing it with “mixed-income” privatized housing will combat the concentration of poverty through economic and racial integration.
Based on years of ethnographic research, Hyra’s Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City provides an in-depth look at gentrification in the Shaw neighborhood. For those new to either D.C. or to gentrification scholarship, the book should be required reading. The first three chapters lay out the historical and current conditions in D.C. that have contributed to the non-stop growth we see today. He explores the rise and fall of D.C.’s Black political machine, exposing the differences between the District’s Black mayors, their relationships with the Black community, and how they’ve represented (or more often not represented) the working-class community’s interests.
Hyra also presents the complexity of the District’s relationship to the federal government and how our lack of home rule and representation has left us to the whims of interfering members of Congress. Hyra documents the transition of Shaw from a “dark ghetto,” an inner-city, poor Black community marked by disinvestment, to a “gilded ghetto,” a transformed urban space where upscale restaurants, luxury apartment buildings, and trendy bars proliferate through gentrification and decades of pro-development urban policy.
Readers might find Hyra’s concept of “living the wire” controversial. A nod to HBO’s The Wire, a series set in impoverished, high-crime Black neighborhoods in Baltimore, Hyra finds through his interviews and observations that many white newcomers to Shaw were drawn to the neighborhood because of “Black branding” and its notorious past of prostitution, open-air drug markets, and drive-by shootings.
Wait a minute. Is Hyra really saying white people came to Shaw because they wanted to live in a violent neighborhood? No, of course not. But the motivations behind wealthier, whiter people fleeing the stagnant, “soulless” suburbs in a “return to the city” movement cannot be ignored.
Despite devaluing Black lives, white supremacy has always found a way to capitalize on Black culture. It is this attraction to living in a historically Black neighborhood—to “Black cool,” that has drawn residents to Shaw. But although new residents may be consuming Black cool at places like Busboys & Poets, a hip, politically progressive restaurant-cafe on 14th St., for the most part, Hyra finds, newcomers ignore the existence and struggle of their actual poor and working-class Black neighbors.
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