March 13, 2013, Washington, DC: I leave the Atlas Theater on H St. Sunday night thinking about cupcakes and sweet potato pie. The night is mild and a taxicab pulls up immediately to the theater’s well-lit doorstep to drive us from the north side of Capitol Hill to the south. On the way home, we talk about cupcakes and sweet potato pie and other heavier topics sparked by the evening’s Our City Film Festival.
Around us, the city is undergoing blink-and-it’s-different change. In 2013, it’s still bouncing back from the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., according to those interviewed in Kyle Pienaar’s film, “Locating U.” The first of four films we watched Sunday night at the Atlas, “Locating U” tells the story of the U Street corridor’s transformation from a hub of African American culture and music to a neighborhood decimated by riots, then a landing strip for Ethiopian immigrants who built it back up again before its most recent wave of gentrification. Though neighborhood-specific, the storyline rings a bell all over Washington — the history and the heyday, the fires and the fall, the rebuilding and renewal, the momentum and the money. It’s one about high real estate prices prompting an exodus of all sorts of people, include those who brought valued ethnic and racial diversity to the city we love. It’s one about new people moving in, sometimes with total disregard for the past, like the young man in “Locating U” who makes his own rules and declares “today is a new day.” The storyline includes communities working hard to illustrate that their culture is integral to the flavor to the city, like the Latino community featured in Alberto Roblest’s film, “Muralismo DC”. And characters like the seniors in Yi Chen’s Chinatown who organize field trips to the suburbs because their dwindling Chinatown no longer has a Chinese grocery store.
“It feels quite inevitable. It feels like something really difficult to stop,” remarked director Pienaar during the panel discussion following the film screenings. “I am a typical first wave gentrifier and I don’t know how to stop myself from being that… But I think it’s important that we don’t get ahead of ourselves with coffee shops and cupcakes.”
I live a few blocks from the nearest cupcake shop myself, and I have nothing against dessert. The cupcake shops that were nowhere to be found when I moved here eight years ago have since cropped up everywhere, like the cranes downtown and taxicabs on H St. Perhaps all of the above are the latest markers among many that have come and gone over the decades, signaling that a neighborhood and its city have changed. Perhaps, as Pienaar noted, it’s important to realize as we embrace them that it’s also about “recognizing a loss.”
And yet maybe we should also view change an unavoidable aspect of living in a city that is truly alive.
“I’m from St. Louis, a city that died,” said panelist Nina Seavey. “Gentrification allows the city to continue to breathe and there’s nothing more depressing that a city that has suffocated.”
Which brings me, finally, to sweet potato pie. Seavey is the director of the film we saw Sunday night that was most unlike the others, a film called “A Short History of Sweet Potato Pie and How It Became a Flying Saucer.” It’s a heartwarming comedy about the seniors living in DC’s St. Mary’s home who’ve been transformed by the sweet potato pie made by their 82 year old cook, Pearl Mallory. Like the others, however, it is a film about community and the quirky hodgepodge of characters that give a place its personality.
And for all the grief we give cupcakes, it’s proof that dessert has the power to bring us together.