Since 2004, I’ve gotten off at the New York Avenue Metro station every morning, walking down 2nd Street to my office near Union Station.
It’s a walk that I never would have taken when I was young. A walk I wouldn’t have even imagined taking even in the 90’s. When I was a kid, that section of DC was akin to a dark fairy tale. The stuff of nightmares.
Now, the world changes. Over the last six years, I’ve watched that stretch of 2nd Street transform and revive. Where, even in 04, there was rubble, trouble, fear, there’s now a déjà vu head-trip that makes the walker and observer think of Eastern Europe in the early part of this decade. The infrastructure is shiny and new — lights and walk signs and clean streets. There are trash cans screaming about the recently created NOMA (North of Mass Ave) neighborhood. No longer is this dreaded Northeast DC, or the long-demolished Irish slum with the comical name of Swampoodle.
In place of the distinctive DC rowhouses, many dating back a century, the 2nd Street corridor is now rising up with neo-Brutalist government buildings and loft condos that no rational human being would ever want to buy.
Soon, streetcars will return to DC. The H Street car will zip by this area, spilling people out into Union Station. 2nd Street’s transformation will be complete. And, once, where there were minorities, there are now flowerbeds, well-dressed white people walking well-bred dogs, and the blue-suited clean-up crew slaves keeping NOMA beautiful.
Recently, a block of rowhouses that have stood empty for a year were fenced off and, today, demolition began. The last of 2nd Street turned into a wasteland to make room for more condos and office buildings.
I stopped and watched these quaint little homes fall under the grasping arms of machines and wrecking balls for a few minutes today and it occurred to me that they’re killing my city. House by house, brick by brick, they’re pulling it down. Remaking it in an inhuman image. An image driven by contracts, the whims of non-native developers, the self-interest of boards of directors. This 2nd Street walk of mine has shifted to a strange mimicry of a suburban street. This “suburbanization” of the cities is nothing new. Instead of embracing city life, the transplants (and they are transplants because, as late as 2003, you would never have set foot on the cracked sidewalks of old 2nd Street) bring with them the expectations and sensibilities of their caste.
It is a caste system, as well. We have trouble admitting that when we are members of the caste. The infection of political correctness doesn’t allow us to stop and face the truth of who we really are. Consumers of goods made by slaves and children, and intolerant of those around us who are different. The insidious “whitening” of DC is a glaring example of the caste system. Over the last decade, we’ve turned the neighboring Prince George’s County, MD into a ghetto. Well, more so than before. We’ve pushed the mongrels, the lesser races, out of DC, out of the surrounding wealthy suburbs. Silver Spring, Bethesda… Two suburbs now with a whiter face. Wheaton struggles to catch up.
It’s the passive-aggressive version of lebensraum. There are no troops that come in the night, no cattle cars to take the unwanted people away. It’s all simply legislation, cost of living, the thin veneer of renewal. No one even thinks about it. There’s no Nazi hydra hiding in the board rooms and government buildings. It’s just…progress.
And why complain? After all, a very short time ago, that 2nd Street walk could have easily resulted in me lying in the gutter, bleeding out. We don’t want that, do we? And there we get into deeper social problems such as education, equality, and so on. We breed the poor to be poor, we keep them in their place. No matter the lip service paid by DC’s armchair liberals, the status quo will always be maintained.
And so the corner stores vanish and Whole Foods and Harris Teeter move in. And so the neighborhood dive bars are shuttered and theme bars and chain bars open their doors. The bakeries fail and designer cupcakes that cost more than a beer become all the rage.
It’s so easy to argue in favor of these changes. The results are clear. I can walk down 2nd Street. The new Harris Teeter will be a Mecca when it opens. The streetcar will open H Street to the common person.
I’m white. I like to not be stabbed in the face. I go to theme bars and buy $5 PBR’s on tap and call it happy hour. I don’t remember how much my shoes cost. I don’t think about who made my clothes. If my computer at home blows up, I’ll buy another, better one on the credit card and not think twice about it.
A crazy black person screaming on the sidewalk? Hispanic youths watching me suspiciously? I react instinctually. I’m on guard. I’m suspicious. Just like you.
I don’t set myself above the people I condemn as neo-Yuppies or agents of gentrification. I am just like them. I am one of them. But where they defend themselves, and spout empty PC sensibilities from their overpriced aeries, I know who I am. The racist evil in my soul comes from generations of American life. The entitlement of Manifest Destiny and absolute victory on land and at sea festers in me.
I see the soul of the city dying. I see the people changing, and wonder what happens to the poor. But do I really care? Is this just a version of a rolleyes moment with my grandfather when he points at a neighborhood developed in the 50’s and says that it used to be fields? What’s the alternative? Save these condemned homes? Keep the prices down and let the Welfare Caste watch us from their collapsing porches?
Because we’ll never correct those larger social problems. America has always been this way. We will never reach a helping hand down to those who need it. That’s not what this country is about. We are a capitalist nation, and we are all here (those of us who came by choice) because our families wanted to carve out their individual lives. We were, from day one, motivated by avarice. From before there was a Bill of Rights, a Constitution, a rebellion.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But nowhere does it say that we should help our fellow Man. Those pursuits are an individual responsibility. And for those who come here expecting streets paved with gold but fail to achieve such goals, the old consumer rules always apply – buyer beware. And, of course, no money returned.
Does a city have a soul? Does it matter what happens? These old buildings are rattraps. Poisoned by lead paint and asbestos. Good riddance. These old neighborhoods need uniformity. This is the new Manifest Destiny. We will expand. We will conquer. And, rooted in this new Manifest Destiny, as in the 19th Century version, is a variation of White Man’s Burden. We must clean up this town. Bring nobility to the savages. Even if it kills them.
So, one of these days, I’ll meet you at the chain bar next to Harris Teeter. We can drink seven dollar beers and look out at the old Woodie’s warehouse, now converted to office condos. We can raise a glass to the scantily clad yuppie-girl and her small dog power-walking down the street with an iPod blaring in her ears and not a care in the world.
It’s good to be king, ain’t it?