Thursday, October 20, 2016

Gentrified Rest

When I moved to Washington in 2004, a hot topic in the city was the escalating price of real estate. A huge issue in parts of the city involved condo conversion.  Slumlords of rundown buildings full of all sorts of code violations of health and safety regulations were offering tenants what seemed to them like enormous sums (~$12-15,000, for example) to entice them to vacate apartments.  The owner would then remodel the empty building, converting it into expensive condos, and make millions and millions of dollars in a market growing increasingly affordable only to the well-off. 

Almost immediately I became involved with Washington Interfaith Network.  Within a month or two of my arrival, I was sitting in the office of the Chair of the City Council pressing for action to put brakes on condo conversions.  We had some successes, but within a few years it seems to me that gentrification just rolled on in, an ever-rising tide too strong to resist.  I hear virtually nothing about it any more.  Washington Interfaith Network has gradually shifted its emphasis to other issues, such as short-term family housing, access to mental health, and economic justice in poor neighborhoods.  

It’s not all bad, as all but the most radical people will tell you.  A city that as recently as 20 years ago was on the brink of bankruptcy is now full of life and vitality, if you measure it in the number of millennials downing beers in scores of restaurants and bars every night.  14th Street, NW, which runs through the center of my neighborhood, looked 15 years ago like a war zone in parts, still blighted from the fires lit by angry throngs in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination in 1968.  Now between Thomas Circle on the northern edge of downtown, and Florida Avenue, which once was the boundary road on Washington’s northern border, it is impossible to keep track of all the new stores and restaurants where only a dozen years ago there were pawn shops, prostitutes, and drug dealers. 

Not everyone shares in this new prosperity.  Although hundreds of people are now working in stores and restaurants along 14th St., H St., and other revitalized neighborhoods, large numbers of folks have been uprooted from their homes, some by choice and some because they can no longer afford to live where they’ve called home for generations.  So the city has been exporting some of its poorer citizens to surrounding suburbs, where the pressures have swelled to address resulting needs and issues.  And some are left, homeless, jobless, caught between the seismic shifts in economy and demography. 

a Studebaker dealership, a shelter, now upscale apartments
An interesting landmark, a kind of monument to this profound change, stands on the corner of 14th and R.  This four-story building until a year or two ago housed the Central Union Mission, a homeless shelter.  I drove by it this week and read once more the tall red letters still on its front façade, “Come Unto Me.”  I am queasily uneasy with the fact that a homeless shelter moved out to make room for upscale apartments.  What’s more, the anchor tenant on the lower floor is Shinola, a relatively new company based in Detroit that specializes in luxury watches and expensive bicycles, as well as fine leather accessories.  Does it all seem slightly obscene?

Well, not necessarily.  In the first place, the Central Union Mission is happy with its new quarters near Union Station.  They like being downtown in an area closer to where many homeless and poor people congregate.  Moreover, the building that they bought for $1 million in the early 1980’s they sold for $7 million in 2013.   They struck a deal with the city by agreeing to renovate an old school building in exchange for a $1 per year lease on the land.  The new facility gives guests amenities and support services that reportedly make it very welcoming. [1]

overlooking gentrifying 14th Street, NW

It’s easy to spurn “gentrification,” particularly if you actually care about the poor whom new “gentry” push out.  But life is more complex than reductionist approaches ever take into account. 

where the homeless once slept
One of those complexities is in “Come Unto Me,” now ironically the emblem of a luxury building.  But maybe it is quite appropriate.  “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” said Jesus once upon a time.  You don’t have to feel sorry for the affluent to realize that in myriads of ways they are as heavy laden as the poor.  There is a kind of poverty that hides behind the drapes and folds of wealth.  It is poverty of spirit, and not the “poorness of spirit” that equates with humility.  Pushing to attain status, accumulating things, pride of place and race:  in general, all the things capitalist societies prize fuel the one big engine that sucks the life out of the soul and leaves the winners of the rat race bone weary, craving rest. 

The nubbin of Christian baptism I sum up in the phrase, “down under and back up again.”  The way up is the way down.  Perhaps there is some spirit lingering in the halls of the old Central Union Mission building left by the down-and-out who slept there many a night, a spirit that might work some grace on those who have the means to spend $70-80,000 a year on rent.  Maybe that spirit will drift through the halls and crannies of the old building bestowing rest and peace upon those who might not yet know the way down or where up actually is.   Some resident or two might look at the old sign and even wonder who the “me” is bidding them come.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016


[1] See the article by Clinton Yates, “Luxury brand to occupy former shelter on 14th Street, but somehow, it works,” The Washington Post, October 23, 2014, online at , accessed October 19, 2016. 

No comments: