You are here

Mocha Town

Washingtonian Magazine
November, 1999

When developer Jim Abdo bought an office building at 14th St and Rhode Island Avenue, Northwest, crack dealers were camped in the basement. Four months later he occupied the top floor, and an importer had set up shop below. Abdo, 39, is one of a new breed of developers venturing eastr into shaw and other traditionally black neighborhoods.

At 10 in the morning the corner of14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue in the heart of the District is humming. The check-cashing joint is doing a brisk business; the Barrel House liquor store is serving early patrons; a cop husties a homeless man from an alley. It appears to be the remnants of the 14th street that burned in the 1968 riots, searing into the minds of people around the world that the nation's capital is a poor and dangerous place. But appearances can be deceiving.

Quiet but steady redevelopment has leapfrogged the riot corridor, brought wealth and white settlers east, and transformed the area.

"Fourteenth Street is the sleeping giant," says Jim Abdo, a young developer who's turn ing rundown historic structures into luxury dwellings.

"Just three years ago the line in the sand for people moving back to the city was 16th Street. Now they're as far east as 12th Street and beyond."

Halfway down the leafy block of Rhode Island, a black Rolls-Royce is parked in front ofa 19th century rowhouse as well appointed as any in Georgetown. Fresh Fields, the upscale super market, is building a store a block west on P Street. On Logan Circle to the east, once a haunt for hookers and home to urban pioneers, young telecommunications executives are paying $500,000 for penthouse condominiums in restored mansions.

The District is in the midst of a makeover- economically, socially, and politically. And racially.

For more than 30 years, because its population was predominantly black, DC has been known by some of its residents as Chocolate City. Rock Creek was the moat that separated whites on the west and blacks on the east. Anacostia in South east was poor and black. Shaw, a storied neigh borhood in the heart of the city, was crime-ridden.

Now neighborhoods across DC have become more integrated. More middle-class residents, fewer poor people, and more whites, especially gays, are settling in what were largely black neighborhoods-in some areas forcing out longtime residents.

"Some people are calling Shaw "Dupont Circle East" and Anacostia "Capitol Hill South," says Maybelle Taylor Bennett, a DC native and director of Howard Univer sity's Community Association.

"It's scaring the bejesus out of some folks."

Young urban professionals and older couples whose children have grown and left home are moving into downtown neighborhoods where they can walk to the corner store and the neighborhood theater. This move back to the urban core mirrors migrations across the country-people are moving back to Harlem, into Oakland.

"Why would you sit out on the Beltway if you could live in a beautiful house in Co lumbia Heights?" asks Mary Farrell, a mem ber of DC's Citizens Planning Coalition.

"More and more people are catching on."

Whether these demographic changes will make a dent in the city's hard-core problems of high crime and troubled public education remains to be seen, but one change seems clear: DC is becoming less segregated.

"Washington has always been a city with dividing lines," says Dorothy Brizill, a political scientist and community activist. "There are no more real dividing lines.

The dividing line now will be "Can you af ford it?" Not "Are you the right color?"

excerpt from "Mocha Town" in Washingtonian Nov. 1999