Amid Washington’s graduation season, we look at the craft of writing and delivering commencement speeches. What advice sticks — and what doesn’t?
D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood has become the locus of two controversies that have sparked conversation and action around gentrification.
In early April, a MetroPCS store known for blasting go-go music was forced turn off the music after a resident in a neighboring luxury condo complex threatened a lawsuit, sparking protests from the community. The #DontMuteDC movement was born out of these protests.
While the music is back at the corner of 7th St. NW and Florida Ave, #DontMuteDC rallies have continued: Moechella shut down 14th and U Street last Tuesday, and the sixth annual Funk Parade featured panels addressing gentrification, displacement and the preservation of the city’s culture.
Just a few blocks away from the Metro PCS, Howard University students have raised concerns about residents, often Caucasian, walking their dogs on The Yard — the university’s quad — saying it’s disrespectful and offensive to their institution. The influx of white residents in Shaw, LeDroit Park and Pleasant Plains are viewed by some as a gentrifying force around the historically black college.
What does gentrification look like in the District, and how are #DontMuteDC activists and those affiliated with Howard University addressing it?
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. How do you stop -- or at least mitigate -- the effects of exploding development and change hitting some neighborhoods and residents especially hard? For the past few weeks, we've seen a go-go dance party, gatherings take place over 14th and U Street to protest unchecked gentrification and to demand action. Joining me to talk about the forces at play in Shaw and what gentrification looks like in the region is Kymone Freeman. He is the co-founder of WeActRadio, contributor to Anacosita Unmapped, award-winning playwright and involved in the Don't Mute DC movement. Kymone, good to see you again.
KYMONE FREEMANDecent blessings, and a happy belated Kojo Day.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Happy belated birthday to you, which we shared the same day.
NNAMDISasha-Ann Simons is a Race and Identity Reporter for WAMU 88.5. Sasha-Ann, always a pleasure.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSThanks for having me again, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe've been talking about gentrification in the District for the last ten years, at least, but what's happening now feels different. What's new here?
SIMONSYeah. As you said, you know, gentrification isn't new. It's here to stay, in fact. What we've just learned is, you know, low-income residents are being pushed out of neighborhoods at some of the highest rates in DC. And that's according to a recent study. So, unfortunately, no good news there. The District is officially one of the topmost gentrified cities in the country. But it is interesting to see how it's actually played out in areas such as Shaw, you know, the areas surrounding Howard University and, you know, a neighborhood that was predominantly black. And now that low-income African American community that was around the school has dropped by as much as 57 percent.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. How do you think gentrification is affecting DC? Give us a call. You can also send us a Tweet @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. The number again, 800-433-8850. Kymone, you're a longtime activist, now involved with the Don't Mute DC movement. First, what is Don't Mute DC?
FREEMANDon't Mute DC is a musical protest. It started officially with the Metro PC store, that we are aware of. But it actually has roots from last year, with legislation for the Amplified Noise Amendment Act. That's when we first started using music as a protest, because gentrification is not natural. Just because settlers have been displacing natives for 500 years doesn't mean that this is how it's supposed to be. It is not rain in the storm clouds.
FREEMANAnd so Don't Mute DC is a community lobbying effort empowering people to understand that the greatest power was convincing people that don't have any. And there's four books I'd like to add to the listeners' readership, Capital Dilemma, "Chocolate City," "Chaos or Community," "Streets of Hope," "Rise And Fall of Urban Neighborhoods." These books will give you a foundation of real choices out here. We have Douglas Community land trust, we have, you know, the beginnings of a retention plan that we are launching. Don't Mute DC is extending its reach from defense to offense.
FREEMANThe defense was the Metro PC store, which we were able to successfully...
NNAMDITo keep open, keep playing music.
FREEMAN...keep the music going. For 25 years, that music's been there. And now we're going to offense to educate the community on a retention plan that's non-existent in this city. Most of the development that we've seen in the city, the displacement in the city was a deliberate act of former Mayor Anthony Williams, who's also now the head of the Federal City Council, whose hand is unseen in a lot of these development deals. And we haven't really talked about that.
FREEMANBut we want to make sure that we understand that this city, as Fran Lebowitz would say, a city filled with wealthy people is not interesting.
NNAMDISasha-Ann, we throw the word gentrification around a lot, and we know that it generally means when lower-income people in neighborhoods -- regardless of where they are in the world -- are displaced by higher-income people. You throw race into that already combustible mix, and it becomes really explosive. Let's talk about the Shaw neighborhood. It's at the center of the Don't Mute DC protest and the Howard University issues. Tell us a little bit about that neighborhood, and how it's changed over the years...
SIMONSYeah, so let me take you...
NNAMDI...especially since I moved.
SIMONSSince you moved, yes.
FREEMANWere you displaced, Kojo?
NNAMDINo, I was not displaced, but I lived in that neighborhood for years. Yes.
SIMONSSo, taking you back, I was mentioning before, a predominantly -- we're talking about a predominantly black area, uh, predominantly black neighborhood. Then you have this HBCU, historically black college, situated right in the heart of it. But at the time, the two worlds hardly met. People say back then the neighborhood felt a little bit rougher. And, you know, the working class black residents in the neighborhood wouldn't necessarily mingle with the middle class Howard students. You know, they weren't hanging out on campus, per se.
SIMONSFast forward to now, you know, back to that 57 percent drop of African American residents I mentioned earlier, we've introduced a lot more white residents to the neighborhood, starting in the early 2000s. And so, generally, you know, what folks say is when you move into a neighborhood, you respect the culture. You respect the norms that already existed in that neighborhood. And that's not what folks are seeing happen now. There's very much a consensus that the people in -- we live in a world where people just don't really care what's going on in the neighborhood.
SIMONSDC's very transient. We know that it's a transient town, so people aren't staying there. They aren't invested, and so they aren't necessarily taking the time to find out where they've landed and what history surrounds it. And so, right now, things are tense in the neighborhood, because prices have skyrocketed, of course. You know, a lot of black-owned businesses in the area are struggling to survive, or you see they're shifting, and they're sort of treating the white folks occupying those spaces a little bit differently and sort of catering to them, some students said to me. And so there's tension there.
SIMONSAnd, of course, I know you'll probably get to the dog-walking -- the infamous dog-walking issue that just came up recently, as well, where sort of, you know, you had the two sides at each other's necks.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Going to get to the dog-walking issue in a second, but while we're discussing the meaning of gentrification, that's what Keith in Arlington, Virginia wants to talk about. Keith, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KEITHHey, Kojo. What an honor, and I just want to applaud Kojo Day. My question has to do with gentrification. You kind of touched on it earlier. Because I guess I -- you know, in the context, it's always spoken of in a very negative way, but it seems to me, to some extent, it's about change, and change is a constant. And, you know, it just seems when we talk about, especially this area, it's always changing. And I guess my question has to do with, is gentrification always negative? How can it be positive? And I think the bigger issue is how do we deal with change? Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much. I think in this case with the District of Columbia, as everywhere else, as I said earlier, gentrification generally means higher income people moving into neighborhoods. And it often means the displacement of lower income people in those...
SIMONSIt's renovating and improving an area to suit middle class taste.
NNAMDIExactly right. And that's exactly what's happening here, but, as I said, you add race to that mix, and it becomes very explosive and sometimes combustible. And an example of that is what happened at Howard University. You wrote that piece for WAMU about the tensions between Howard University and local residents walking their dogs on campus. What is the tension here?
SIMONSSo, on the yard at Howard -- that's the campus space -- you know, there was this feeling among students that residents were increasingly -- and mostly white residents -- were increasingly treating the area, treating the space as if it was just a playground. And, you know, this is a private institution, we have to remember. And so folks were walking their dogs, and sometimes not picking up after their dogs after walking their dogs on Howard property. Residents and students say it's straight-up disrespectful.
SIMONSYou know, there's a feeling among Howard supporters that, you know, despite the university's long history and despite all the contributions of the institution, that there's still a lot of people who really don't value the work being done at Howard University. And it feels like another level of disrespect that black people continue to get in this country, and, you know, that they're not valued, and that their accomplishments aren't valued, as well. And so this was sort of the ultimate, like, now you're going to walk your dog on our property, too?
NNAMDIBefore I ask Kymone his thoughts on that, I'll read a couple of comments. Steve Tweets: the residents are residents. The students are not. Sue wrote on our page: many years ago, I was kicked off the Sidwell Friends campus in Northwest DC when I walked onto the campus with my dog.
FREEMANCan you imagine a bunch of brothers playing football and walking their Rottweilers and pit bulls on an Ivy League campus? I mean, are you serious? And this is the audacity and the colonizing attitude that people have. Last time I was here, I pointed out the business called The Colony on Georgia Avenue. And they was offended that I was offended by the term. But this is colonizing behavior. You know what I'm saying? And there's no other way around it. And we need to address it, call a spade a spade.
FREEMANAnd, again, this is what power does. This is what money does. This is what wealth and influence does. It makes you feel that you are better than and you have the right. And the comment that you just read, you know, that we are residents and the students are not. That's ridiculous. It's 150-year institution, and you've been here how long, and you can't respect that? So, it's just...
NNAMDI(overlapping) For those who don't know, Howard University was founded in 1867.
FREEMANYeah, so there you have it. But, you know, again, we are pushing back. That's why this is coming to a head, because with increasing density in the city -- I think they're trying to get up to a million people -- these tensions are not going anywhere. And Don't Mute DC is getting ahead of it, switching from defense to offense. And these young people out here want to make sure their voices are heard.
FREEMANHowever, I want to point out, this is not a white-versus-black issue, per se. It is the haves versus the have-nots. And just because you're a have-not doesn't mean you cannot. And then the haves, have-nots are going to let the haves have it, because we need to have a right to the city. There's a wonderful exhibit in the Anacostia Museum called "Right to the City. " And we need to make sure that everyone sees that exhibit and gets an understanding of these struggles and how we can move forward for a retention plan for long-time residents and small businesses.
FREEMANAnd I also think there's a housing crisis in the city, and everyone has been affected, of all income levels, because no one should be forced to pay more than 30 percent of their income in housing, and we need to address that. And I want to give a shout out to Brianne Nadeau, who's gotten ahead of this issue, and she is spearheading the campaign. A bill for Sankofa Book Store that's been threatened with displacement because of the exploding property taxes, which is the modern version of red-lining. Property taxes is the number one instrument of displacing businesses and residents in the city, and I'm going to appreciate her for addressing that head-on. And hopefully, Sankofa Book's bill will be successful, and that will be applied around the city.
NNAMDIBrianne Nadeau is the councilmember representing Ward 1 in the District where Sankofa Books happens -- the book store happens to be located. But, Sasha-Ann, you covered the Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting in Shaw that Howard students and community residents attended to talk about these issues. Was there any kind of reconciliation there?
SIMONSNot really. And residents said to me this was a complete waste of time. You know, they were really upset that Howard was only given the first 30 minutes of a three-hour meeting, when at the time, it was really a hot-button issue. And so the only thing that happened, really, was they asked for -- ANC wanted to pass an emergency resolution, very similar to one that was passed recently by ANC 5E in support of Howard University. And so they sort of took some time to read through the resolution and give sort of a history of Howard. And, basically, it asked that the commission supports and respects the Howard campus.
SIMONSAnd so, ANC 1B folks were asking for the same. And so they're going to sort of rejig that and make it a little bit more specific and talk more about solutions. But as far as signage or anything else around the campus, or any, like, real tangible resolution, no, nothing.
NNAMDIKymone, the music has returned to Metro PCS, but Don't Mute DC is still active. Last week, a Don't Mute DC rally called Moechella shut down the intersection of 14th and U Street. And this past Saturday, Don't Mute DC held a conference in affiliation with the Funk Parade. Can you explain what happened at those events?
FREEMANShout out to Yaddiya and his whole team, DJ Domo. These are fabulous young people, because traditionally, we've had a hesitation from leadership to empower young people. And Don't Mute DC is definitely in the hands of young people. And old hands like myself and Ron Morten and others has given them the platform for them to do this. And I want to shout out the organizers for the Funk Parade that allowed us to have a Don't Mute DC conference, to get an opportunity to talk when the music wasn't playing. And I want to thank everybody who came out for that.
FREEMANBut Moechella -- again, because we switching from defense to offense -- is no longer a protest. It's a rallying cry. It is community lobbying. It is saying that we are here. We intend to stay here. And to your caller's question about change, the great Gil Scott-Heron said that change is inevitable. But rather than simply continue to go through the change, we are here to direct the change. And that's what Don't Mute DC is about.
FREEMANIt's about directing the change, because we've been fed a false narrative. We've been told it's paper or plastic. Those are bags. And, in actuality, we have a recycle bag. It's our own bag, and we're going to bring it over and over again. And we are here to create a retention plan to put into that bag and bring it to the table.
NNAMDIActivists have been demanding more affordable housing and protection of vulnerable residents here for years. What do you think it'll take to get DC's leaders and developers onboard for the proposals that you have, which are pretty expensive?
FREEMANYou know, whenever we start talking about something that benefits people, that's when they bring up cost. They never ask how much a war costs. They never ask how much this new development deal with a property tax abatement for developers is going to cost. They never ask how much that baseball stadium with public funds is going to cost. But whenever it's something that's benefitting the people, here we go.
FREEMANAnd the reality is this: in America, where free speech is money, they're basically saying that poor people don't have a voice. And we're here to raise ours. That's what Don't Mute DC is. And it would actually be to the city's benefit. If you saw the Funk Parade this weekend, there were tours, people coming from all over the country to see U Street. They're taking pictures. They're doing the murals. The largest Paul Robeson mural in the world is on U Street, for example.
FREEMANInstead of trying to mute our voices, they should be celebrating this. This would be our own French Quarter on U Street. So, I'm just saying, is that there is a retention plan, and I urge everyone to go back and watch the live stream that we did for the conference, so I can lay it out. And there's also a Douglas Community land trust that the city was fully funding, that we could take over and revive a lot of the destroyed public housing that has not been replaced. And community land trust is a development deal that benefits the community. So, again, the city has a nonexistent retention plan, and we're here to make sure that we elevate our own plan.
NNAMDIBefore we go, Sasha-Ann, there's also a debate going on about the site of the old Shaw Junior High School. The mayor's office and the DC Council are debating over if it should be used as the new site for Banneker High School. Tell us about that, and what it has to do with gentrification.
SIMONSYeah. So, I won't go too deep in that, in the interest of time, but, you know, I will say it's definitely showing itself as the latest in the battle to hang onto the culture and sort of the soul and the fabric of the Shaw community. You know, it stems back to what, you know, Kymone mentioned earlier, you know, when the city was known as "Chocolate City." And so, on one side here, you have Banneker families who want the site so that they can expand the predominantly black and Latino school that they have. And parents on the other side want the vacant site of the old high school to be used to rebuilt a middle school so that their kids can now have a neighborhood school.
SIMONSSo, where this one will land, we'll find out after a vote today, or we'll at least have a better heads-up after a vote today. But, on Monday, Council Chair Phil Mendelson announced that he would actually support a plan to just modernize Banneker at its current location, and, in fact, build a middle school at the Shaw Junior High site.
NNAMDIHere -- and we only have about a minute-and-a-half left. Here's Jim in Clifton, Virginia. Jim, your turn.
JIMHi. Could someone explain exactly where the people are walking the dogs? Is it on DC public property, or is it on property that's owned by Howard University?
SIMONSIt's on property that's owned by Howard University.
JIMSo, wouldn’t one thing, just don't let people bring their dogs in there. Can't that be done, or is that...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, the president of Howard University is discouraging people from bringing their dogs onto what is -- as Sasha-Ann pointed out -- private property. I think the students are also concerned that there's a history and culture of that school that the new residents of that neighborhood don't seem to either understand or respect. And so they feel that the new residents should have some knowledge of the history of that university before they think that the yard is a place where they can arbitrarily walk their dogs.
JIMOh, no, I get that, but, you know, that may or may not happen. But enforcing private property would be a very good step to help people begin to understand this is...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, the president of Howard University does not want to be at odds with the residents of the surrounding community. So, he's trying what he thinks is, at this point, the best possible solution. But that's all the time we have. Kymone Freeman, co-founder of WeActRadio, contributor to Anacostia Unmapped, award-winning playwright involved in the Don't Mute DC movement.
FREEMANGot to squeeze in a shout out. DC Black Theater Festival June 25th, the night Michael Jackson died, at the Art Theater and Kenya McDuffie Racial Equity DC.
NNAMDII've never seen Kymone when he didn't have a shout-out. (laugh) Sasha-Ann Simons, the Race and Identity Reporter for WAMU 88.5. Sasha-Ann...
SIMONSThanks, Kojo, and I'll be covering that DC Black Theater Festival.
NNAMDIThat's it for the show today, but there's always more happening on social and the web, including highlights from yesterday's Kojo Nnamdi Day events. And don't forget to meet us back here at noon tomorrow. We'll be talking about the political standoff at the Venezuelan Embassy, where activists have been living since April, and find out about the role of local officials when it comes to embassies, which are, in fact, legally foreign soil. Plus, we'll be tackling your gardening issues, whether you're trying to find native plants or want tips on coaxing some green out of your urban backyard. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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