Vanilla City

A couple years ago, I decided to pick up every coin I found during my daily walks around Capitol Hill and obsessively record the findings in the forums. For the last few months, though, I’ve not had much luck. A part of me blames this on the economy. As things get tighter, and as we get more fretful, maybe we’re all stopping to pick up those pennies… Maybe I can chart the downfall of America through the nearly 200 posts in that forum topic.

But, more likely, the culprit is the wave of gentrification that’s swept through the DC area. Namely, the creation of the artificial neighborhood of “NoMa,” which spreads from New York Avenue up to Union Station, weaves around and down 2nd Street, and spiritually engulfs historic Capitol Hill and the revitalized H St. Corridor. “NoMa,” which stands for “North of Massachusetts Avenue,” because we want to pretend we’re like New York, is a business/residential district in the formerly dystopian northeast of DC. In the last decade, I’ve watched it change from a decaying warehouse district populated by whores, pushers, bloodied strippers, and madmen, all watched carefully by roving gangs of vigilantes, into a glittering collection of office buildings, cafes, markets, and condos that start at $3000 a month.

The weird thing is, though, that most of these buildings are empty. Above the new Harris Teeter, the empty cells of expensive condos stare blankly back at the Metro and the street. The sun shines through office buildings where entire floors are devoid of life or even furniture. The abandoned warehouse district has become an abandoned ultra-modern city. Like that city in China that has something like a 10% occupancy, mainly consisting of workers who keep the place clean and ready for a population that’s never going to come. Though I’m the cynical sort who puts a more sinister spin on things and compares NoMa to Kijondong – the North Korean village built on the edge of the DMZ, allegedly containing 200 families and touted as the model of…whatever. Communist progress.

As surveillance improved through the 60’s and 70’s, it was soon proven that the entire village was a sham – a colossally expensive movie set with no residents, save for a few workers who swept the streets and kept the lights on at night.

NoMa isn’t entirely a Potemkin Village, though. There are some offices, and there are people staffing front desks, and a bustling horde of rent-a-cops. From 2001, where the only security was a volunteer vigilante force, to 2011, where there’s one rent-a-cop per citizen. Side by side with the bored rent-a-cops are the street cleaners. The blue-vested slave laborers who haul trashcans around and continually keep NoMa ship-shape.

That, probably, is where all of my coins are going. Inspired, apparently, by New Deal thinking, the ranks of the cleaners seem to grow every year. Where once you saw them a couple times a day, and just in certain high traffic areas, they now travel in pairs, and occasionally groups. They patrol back alleys, cubby-holes between still-abandoned warehouses, and side streets. They shuffle about continuously from dawn to dusk, eyes down, dragging their trashcans behind them. There are so many of them these days that I haven’t seen a full trashcan in a year. I’m shocked when I see a Starbucks cup in the gutter. How did that escape the roving Littler Patrols?

Where, once, America hired hordes of people to build dams and highways during economic downturns, now we hire them to be rent-a-cops and street cleaners. Talk about charting the downfall of America. Our skills have been reduced to salary serfs in the service industry and post-prison laborers picking up condoms and spritzing stop signs with off-brand Windex.

All this to insure the sanitary safety of an empty neighborhood. Well, to be fair, it’s slowly being populated by a white elite.

People laugh at me when I pull the race card and rant about gentrification but, hey, the 2010 census shows that DC is no longer a chocolate city. DC has been a chocolate city since Parliament said so in their 1975 album of the same title, an ode to DC’s culture. The liner notes attribute the term to black-oriented AM stations in the early 70’s, and George Clinton coined the “vanilla suburbs” label in the song as he shouted out against white flight and the wildly negative perception of inner city blacks. In the 70’s, the DC suburbs were strange beasts. Now they’re urbanized powerhouses.

36 years later, white flight has become black flight as the population of the chocolate city is slowly priced out of their neighborhoods. DC’s population is now majority white, and the suburbs have become increasingly black. Especially Maryland’s PG County, the last bastion of affordable rents this side of the Potomac Ocean.

My concern isn’t glittering, empty office buildings, ludicrously overpriced condos, or even the vacant, haunted stares of the street slaves and the salary serfs. Don’t think I’m sitting here defending urban decay and crackwhores dying in gutters. I just hate to see a culture die in a country that’s becoming universally cultureless, saccharine, and homogenized. We’ve long lost DC’s music and club scene. My last girlfriend would always try and drag me out, but all I ever saw was an empty, depressing pantomime. It’s not age that’s the difference. The club scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s wasn’t better because I was younger. It was better because it was a bit more honest. Or maybe the generation gap between someone born in the early 1970’s and someone born after 1980 is so wide there’s simply no way to meet in the middle. There was an edgy thrill to the city once. Now you can eat off the bricks under the watchful gaze of a team of armed rental cops that make me think of the quadrupled gate guards in The Princess Bride.

I hate to see progress at the cost of culture…and at the cost of Humanity. We’re replacing people who have lived here for generations with the type of people who rent $3000 a month condos. We’ve lost everything to the great god progress. Ask around about the DC accent. Most people probably won’t even realize that there is one, let alone be able to identify it. I can hear a native Washingtonian across a museum gallery in London, Vienna, Brasov, wherever. A dying breed. But an accent that makes me smile. That’s home. An aural memory of my youth.

My bitterness against what this town has become grows daily, made all the worse by the realization that it will always be home no matter how far I run. When I finally surrender and move away, I’ll forever be a stranger wherever I end up. An exile from the Capitol of the Empire, watching the city of my birth from afar and my nation all around me slowly die under the waves of ignorance and comfortable complacency.

When I leave, I’ll miss DC. Hell, here at the city’s heart, as I write this, I miss it now. All this around me isn’t the city I knew. These streets have become foreign. These people cold and alien. Even the weather patterns are changing. The only thing that feels familiar is the segregation. The passive version of Jim Crow that has always infected this city. The rowhouses come down, the mirrored office buildings rise, and the blacks are shuffled away. Out of sight, out of mind. Instead of 40 acres and a mule, we gave them projects. And now we take that away to make room for designer supermarkets.

It’s become a tired old cycle long played out in DC – the last city in America to truly be segregated. But segregation finally comes to an end to make room for cultural extermination. And these fucking Yankee transplant crackers never seem to drop any coins.