August 10, 2012, Washington, DC: Heavy topics, yes. But Rick Skinner will tell you a thing or two about Washington if you’re not afraid to listen. He will tell you that Howard University holds the keys to the corridor, that elderly black women are the keepers of DC’s history, that he himself is a part of the wave of change sweeping through his neighborhood. He will talk about race and gentrification in a manner that is both blunt and sensitive and he will hold fast to the notion that good intentions are never enough. At record pace, he will rattle off facts about his neighborhood of Shaw-Howard and relay stories about the city’s warp-speed development. And he will be frank about his one wish: That it all slow down.
I spent a recent morning with Rick on a walking tour of Shaw-Howard, during which he introduced me to others invested in the neighborhood and showed me the sights. We didn’t walk far, but as you might suspect, we covered a lot of ground.
How have you seen the neighborhood change since you’ve lived here?
Rick: What’s happening now is once exciting and frightening because it’s happening so fast. When I moved here five years ago, the percentage of non African-Americans was probably under 10 percent. It’s heading toward 50 percent. That’s way too fast. The community’s not having time to figure this out. So whereas the ’68 riots basically put a stop to gentrification, what’s happening now is raising the gentrification issue.
I’ve gotta tell you, there are people who come through here, we always call ’em the white guys with suits on, they come through and they are talking to the neighbors and you can basically see they’re ready to write checks. And I mean big checks. There’s a property over where I am where they’re getting ready to build a 24-unit condo and that sold for $1.15 million. We had our first $1 million dollar house in Shaw sell.
Who’s most affected by the turnover?
Rick: Elderly African American women who have real estate, they’re the ones who are going to be pushed out first. Their property values are going up, taxes are going up, they have their sons and daughters out in Maryland who say it’s so much cheaper to live out there, and somebody comes along and offers you $400,000 or $500,000 dollars cash for a place you bought 40 years ago for $16,000 dollars… you’d be crazy not to take it. Now you don’t want to — you’ve got friends here, your church is here — but you’d be nuts not to sell. What it does though is it starts this momentum about changing the character of the neighborhood.
When the bad times and the drugs were here, those elderly African American women held this community together in many, many ways. If they go, I may be able to understand it, but then what’s the glue that holds the community together? It’s hard to get somebody to tell you what it was like here 40 years ago, and if we lose those people, we lose the institutional memory.
This area was started by free slaves. The first big influx of population here came from free slaves, because if you remember the Emancipation Proclamation, when Lincoln issued it, the only place that it was immediate was here in DC. Why I think that’s so important is that neighborhoods work when they don’t lose their sense of history. And I worry about that very much. So when United Negro College Fund decided to move into Progression Place, I was very happy about that. That’s bright. That’s where they should be. The key is that we’ve got probably three more years, five more years before the critical mass will hit, and we’ll start building these giant high-rises. Nobody here opposes change, but this neighborhood became a neighborhood because of people.
If I could just have one wish, it would be to slow it down so that people have a chance to get used to it. I worry that none of us will be able to comprehend it ’til it’s done.
Any ideas how we can ensure that they stay?
Rick: The city, I think, has an obligation to help its elderly. The reason I say this is because this is a city that’s getting younger. Very, very quickly, it’s getting younger. Part of that is that we always get kids who come in here, spend three years, and then go back to Nebraska or someplace like that. But part of it is that a lot of older African American women have lived here 50 years, in some cases, and the opportunity they have is that they can sell their property off for a lot of money. We have every reason in the world for them to stay here, they’ve got a vested interest in the place.
Here’s my thought: You agree to cap tax increases for people over a certain age: 65,70, whatever the age is. What that would do is that the value of the house can still go up, which it will do. If you could cap, at least for a period of five to ten years, so that you would slow the growth rate, then an elderly person can stay. By the way, your children would have an incentive for you to stay in your home because when you do pass on, your children are gonna inherit something worth a lot of money.
How can the change here be a force for good?
Rick: I live on R and 5th, and we’ve started to notice not only that white people are moving in, but young white families or couples, as well as some young African American couples. Now for them to stay here, something’s gotta happen with the schools because there isn’t much of an alternative.
The concern I have about gentrification — and I’m part of the gentrification — is, Can we mobilize it for the right reasons? To improve the schools, for example, to deal with the drug problem.’
I’ve heard people scream about how much neighborhood schools cost to renovate and I think it’s worth every penny because they are, in many cases, the anchors to these communities. When people hear how much money you spend on schools, they say, ‘You could have torn the damn thing down and built a better school.’ They maybe could have. And it would have been seen as just another symbol that we’re destroying the past. Why the District is such a great place in many ways is because it won’t let the past go — too much.
Tell me about the places here that matter most.
New Community Church
Rick: This church is very important to this neighborhood. This was once a boarding house, and because the Howard Theater is right there, Duke Ellington and others used to rehearse down in the basement. When Jim came here 28 years ago — he was from Arkansas originally — it wasn’t long after the riots, the ’68 riots, which as you know really defines the city, and the drug problem here was horrible.
Nadine Duplessy Kearns, executive director of the New Community for Children: Twenty-four years ago, the New Community Church had just started in the neighborhood. It’s a non-denominational, recovery-type church. Rev. Jim started it to really get the community together and to cater to the broken. Then Grace, his wife, noticed that the kids weren’t doing anything after school so she started an after-school program with just six kids in the basement of the church, keeping them engaged and busy. Fast forward to now that we’re serving all of these kids. Our job is not just to keep them safe, but to get them learning. We’re much more sophisticated at tracking data, looking at their report cards, test scores, teacher surveys. The real core of what we do is academic enrichment and social enrichment; we extend the hours outside of the classroom by an additional 600 hours a year.
Rick: I was trying desperately to retire but I was not successful, so I came over here to volunteer. I did a lot of fix-it work. And then, I’ve always loved gardening but I didn’t think a flower garden would go over great here, so I thought about a vegetable garden.
Reshena Johnson, development and operations coordinator at New Community for Children: One of the great things I really love about this garden here is that the kids are really involved. That helps our kids to take ownership of their community. That garden and what happens in that garden matters to those kids. You’ll never see trash in that garden because those kids care about that garden and they know that it is something that belongs to them. We want to make sure that our kids know that even in the midst of these changes, this place belongs to you and you have to take ownership of it.
Rick: The other thing we said we’d do when we started gardening is that we’d get neighbors involved. So there’s a guy, Mayor Jimmy who lives down the street, and when Jimmy and his wife come down, I’ll happen to slip them a cucumber or say, ‘You know, the kids did this.’ About a month ago, we harvested about 60 heads of lettuce and we took four of the kids to Shaw’s Tavern. The kids gave them the lettuce and said, ‘Please use this. We’re glad to have you in our neighborhood.’ Now the reason I think that was important was that I give Shaw’s Tavern credit. They appear to me to have made an effort to involve the community. Otherwise, I gotta tell you, that place sticks out — well, it doesn’t anymore — but it stuck out big-time when it opened. Everybody knew they’d spent a million bucks on this property and there were a lot of us that sat around and said, How long ’til you think the front windows go on this place? Wrong.
You can see here’s the Howard theater. At a time when there was nothing for African Americans, this was. Come over here on Sundays for the Gospel Breakfast; it’s amazing. People drive up in these huge cars and valet park ’em. This was the heart of the neighborhood for a long time.
Look at this magnificent building! Now whether you like the architecture or not, I don’t, it’s a spectaular building. Do you know what it was first? It was what they used to call in the old days a mechanical skills building. It was all-white and it was a school where if you weren’t going to college, it’s where you went. Only whites. In this neighborhood. I find that so amazing. How did they do that? You come out and you build this magnificent structure and you explicitly say it’s for whites. When they decided to move the school, they turned it into what became Shaw Junior High, and that’s where the neighborhood got its name. This building’s astonishing! I’ve had people come here from out of town, from Europe, and say, ‘Woah, what building is that?’ And I go, ‘Well now it’s an old folks home.’
The New Developments
Here’s a Suzane Reatig building. The lot itself is pie-shaped so her design is brilliant. And the view, until they build right here, is gonna be great. When that thing went up, there was a universal No. I kept saying, Let’s wait and see what it’s gonna be. It is a signature building. There’s nothing like it in Washington. So I made peace with it in thinking it’s an important statement to be able to do something like this. I have no idea how well it’s gonna sell. I forget how many units are in there, but a portion of them are reserved for households earning 60 to 80 percent of the area median income, which is low here, so people could live here for cheap.
This was a big deal. Architecturally, it was hilarious. I remember I went to one of the early hearings. People said, ‘How come you’re putting a battleship in our neighborhood? I don’t want a battleship parked in our neighborhood.’ All hell broke loose.
Marion St. Garden
I wanted you to see this also. You know City Blossoms? These are my good buddies from City Blossoms. This is a lot owned by the woman who owns this house. And this will be the garden’s third year. If you work here, you can have some. New Community for Children worked with them for awhile because we didn’t have enough space; there were so many things they wanted to grow. So they helped us a lot. This has been welcomed in the neighborhood. If City Blossoms hadn’t been here, this would just be another crummy lot. Instead, it’s booming.
A Chinese woman showed up here one day with two very young Chinese children. She spent time in the garden. They tried to talk to her as she planted her plants. She’s growing vegetables and nobody knows what they are.
My point in telling that story is that that’s what cities do, you know? They bring together accidents that can actually create something very powerful.
What’s needed beyond good intentions?
With all due respect, the best of intentions and the best of motives are great, but it doesn’t change the fact that you can’t make a rent payment. But when it comes to things like a concern about the quality of ‘blank’, or that the streets don’t get swept, or whatever, then you’re beginning to build some common ground. Not because your intentions are good or because they’re noble and pure, but because of self-interest. Where I live, for instance, we had accidents constantly and we kept pleading with the city. But it was when we all got mad as hell because they wouldn’t put up either a four-way stop or a light… it was interesting because I watched white and black voices begin to sing the same song.
What I think will happen here in Shaw — what could happen here in Shaw if we could just slow it down a little bit — is that we could find a way to ensure that families who feel very strongly about living here could stay here. Don’t ask them to forego the economic benefits, just make it affordable.
How does race play a role in this neighborhood?
This neighborhood has such deep roots in the African American experience that you have to acknowledge race, but you cannot let it become the trump card. It easily becomes the trump card. Ie., ‘You can’t talk about this because you’re white.’
I used to have a big white beard. This kid I used to read to here would love to touch it. I’d say, ‘Why do you want to touch that?’ And he said, ‘I’ve never been around white people before.’ The reason I bring that up is because race has always been and always probably will be a factor in Washington, DC. You cannot change that. The question is, how do you view race? That’s why I see Shaw, in a way, as sort of the crucible. If this rapid gentrification can somehow bring the issue of race to a point of celebration as opposed to a point of contention, this is a place that could happen.
Why do you see the O St. Market project as so important?
This is where we get to what is now probably from a commercial point of view, the tipping point. This is the roadside development project, the O St. Market. This came in around 2003, somewhere around there, and they put together a plan for the market that was incredibly ambitious.
The reason I think it’s crucial is because they got away with it. No one asked questions. They destroyed the old Giant grocery store; that was the only grocery store. You have a whole bunch of Section 8 housing here and those are the places that usually raise hell. You inconvenience them, their ability to get groceries. In this part of town, in the past, that would have brought out a lot of wrath. It didn’t. To me, that either means somebody got bought off like nobody’s business or we’ve reached a point in time where the development, if it goes slowly — and God knows this project’s taking forever to do — maybe we’ve reached a point now where the community is saying, ‘I get it.’
What is so critical about this project’s location?
7th St./Georgia Ave. was the main drag here. It, and 14th St., and U St. took the hit during the riots. The reason I bring up 7th St. is that over the long-term history, it was the way you got to Maryland. That’s the way farmers brought their produce in. 7th St. was also where the bakeries were, the Hostess Bakery, the White Cross bakery. But who else likes yeast? Beer makers. So you had beer being made and you had bread being made. The only thing that’s left is that Hostess building there; none of the others survived. But the point I’m making is that this was a major artery.
Now 7th St. is coming back. You know of the development that’s going on in Columbia Heights and Petworth. For the longest time I kept saying, ‘Why would some idiot go all the way to the 2800 block of Georgia Ave., buy a hunk of corner real estate, and and build a condo?’ But then when you start to see it’s working. Some of them have started off as condos gone to apartments, that’s just market conditions. Then you start thinking maybe 7th St. is coming back because that’s the north-south corridor. If you add in the Walter Reed project, which is now looking like another billion dollars, they’ve talked about a bus terminus in there, and now the State Department’s got a request that says, ‘Save some room for us, we might want to put an embassy compound up there,’ so we’re back to the history and we’re back to the past because suddenly that whole corridor starts looking like a mecca.
So if they can get away with the O St. Market, if they can do this without raising holy hell, then for me, that’s the corridor again. And it solves a whole series of problems. 7th Street runs a long way south to north, it takes some of the load off 16th st., Howard becomes part of Washington again. Because let’s face it, Howard University, a private black university, is an endangered species unless they can define themselves in some way as a part of the city.
What if Howard, which owns vast swaths of land up here, what if somebody nudges them and says, Look? Why don’t you become the gateway so that all of the bright young kids from Africa come to Howard? Some of them will go home, some of them will stay, but you become an international university. Man, that is something to dream about… The second thing the corridor does is this: It’s no coincidence that Walmart is going up there. There’s still undeveloped land but in good sizes. So what do we need in this town? We need a place where people with low skills can get jobs. There’s land up there where you could do it.
So those are the possibilities. Howard University comes into its own and we become a mecca for black professionals. I lived in Atlanta for 10 years. Atlanta’s the mecca for black professionals. Why not make this the mecca?
The downside is this: What they’re doing up there is what I saw in the South growing up — a little bit of zoning here, a little bit of zoning there, you end up with junk. For serious zoning to take place, you gotta piss off a lot of people. But my gut instincts tell me that if the O St. Market really was what it appears to be, people saying it makes sense, then maybe. Maybe.
What’s your hope for the future of Shaw-Howard?
I really do hope that things like the Reatig properties, United Negro College Fund, Howard Theater, I hope that all of those things work. But I also hope that if you and I were talking in ten years from now, that we could still walk down the street and there would still be people who lived here 30 years ago.