Achieving “One City” in Washington, D.C.

Cultural diversity should be a strength for any city, but when those diverse groups aren’t communicating with each other like good city-dwellers should, there are bound to be problems. Issues of city unity here in Washington, D.C. have been brought to the forefront in recent years as the city undergoes dramatic changes, namely in the gentrification of long-impoverished neighborhoods and the massive influx of affluent, mostly white new residents to the District, pushing out many blacks. Indeed, D.C. is “Chocolate City” no more.

Current mayor Vincent Gray came to power in 2010 in a surprise upset over the sitting, and generally popular, former mayor Adrian Fenty. Despite both candidates being black, their campaigns were exaggeratedly characterized as representing two separate directions for the city inflected by race: an embrace of young moneyed professionals flooding the city (Fenty) or a refocus on D.C.’s long-established, less-affluent black community (Gray). While Fenty beat Gray in the city’s wealthiest wards and wards experiencing the most recent gentrification (Wards 1, 2, 3, and 6), Gray’s victory rested on his strong support in more heavily black and/or less affluent parts of the city (namely Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8) (full election results here). The campaign’s portrayal of Fenty’s leadership style as rude, abrasive, and cutthroat certainly had a role in swaying voters, but nonetheless, Gray’s win was moreover hailed by the Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy as a “populist revolt”. And while I’m not a fan of Milloy’s usual bombast and confrontational treatment of race issues in Washington, his over-the-top language on the election does, I believe, speak to certain, more rational, perspectives among D.C.’s black community. He has a point.

The election of Mayor Gray hasn’t slowed the march of gentrification and neighborhood change in D.C., but Gray has tried to focus on uniting the city’s diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups, in part with his administration’s ever-present motto: “One City”. It’s a noble goal, as D.C.’s geographies of division become more obvious and pronounced. Even at the D.C. Council level, much of the political dialogue among council members focuses on what is good or bad for “my” ward, rather than the city at large.

It seems neighborhood civic associations aren’t playing nice either, according to an illuminating piece in the Washington Post. For nearly 100 years, D.C. has had two separate organizations serving as bodies “unifying” civic associations across the city: the Federation of Citizens Associations and the Federation of Civic Associations. The Citizens federation was formed in 1910 and soon became an all-white organization, excluding blacks through a formal vote. The Civic federation was formed in response to the exclusion eleven years later to serve Washington’s black community. Today the blatant racism of the past is all but a memory and the federations’ influence has waned considerably since successful home rule developments in the 1970s. But the racial foundations of the organizations linger today, and while each group claims to represent a voice for all District residents, in effect they still represent two distinct Washingtons: White D.C. and Black D.C.

In the respective meetings covered by reporter Mike Debonis, twelve of the 13 people at the Citizens federation meeting were white, while 24 of the 26 people at the Civic federation meeting were black. While the Citizens federation has an unorganized internet presence, leaving their leadership difficult to gather, the Civic federation’s website lists current officers as hailing from Dupont Park, Fairlawn, Northeast Boundary, Kingman Park, Congress Heights, South Manor Park, and Queens Chapel — predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Wards 4, 7, and 8. Recent efforts to merge the two organizations, or at the very least cooperate in open dialogue, have unfortunately failed, apparently due to petty squabbling and political territoriality. While these civic groups certainly don’t have the political clout they once did, the divisions between them are indicative of the rifts occurring in the city as a whole, as the geographies of race and socioeconomic status morph and, as in many American cities, become more sharply segregated.

Ensuring a city can maintain diverse neighborhoods in the face of population growth and economic boom is no small task. But a healthy public dialogue addressing city issues should be possible regardless of race and where these communities are. Understanding the need for cooperation across the divide is fundamental to achieving “One City”.

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