I grew up in a small Cajun enclave in South Louisiana. As a result of coming from such a small and isolated community, I wasn’t exposed to a great deal of racism. In fact, most people — including me — proudly referred to themselves as coon-asses. Until I was in my mid-twenties and visiting various parts of the East Coast, I had no idea that the word “coon” is offensive to African-Americans. With isolation often comes ignorance. When moving to D.C., I had to confront all sorts of realities that I wasn’t prepared for — parking tickets, astronomical traffic, obnoxious yelling outside my bedroom window on a school night — but one of the most difficult things for me to adjust to was the amount of racism I’ve witnessed in the seven years it took for us to finally settle into Eckington.
One day recently, I was at a faculty meeting and got an anxious text from Isaac, my husband, who was home with the kids. Shortly after I’d left the house, the plumber — who was working on our master bath renovation and remodel — had walked off the job and left my house a war zone. My dining room ceiling was partially removed and there were holes in the floor large enough for Dexter, my three-year-old son, to fall through. The plumber accused us of taking advantage of him as the scope of the job started to far exceed what any of us were prepared for. Isaac offered to pay him for his time, but he refused payment, had his crew pack up and slammed out of our house. We were, and still are, shocked at his extreme reaction since we’d developed a personal as well as business relationship with our plumber over the years. Having such an old home with such dreadful plumbing, we’d hired him exclusively many times over the last four years.
The incident didn’t end when he left my house, though. It merely escalated. When the plumber was getting into his work van, one of my neighbors, Mr. P, kindly asked him if he and his crew were going to leave the drywall they’d removed from my home in an empty lot behind our homes. We all try to police this little plot of land, because we all run the risk of getting a ticket if trash is left there.
Unfortunately, our plumber was a crazy racist who proceeded to call Mr. P — an older African-American gentleman — a porch monkey and threaten him with bodily harm. The plumber then slammed back into my home — no knock, no doorbell — and continued to rail at my husband in front of Dexter. He insisted that our neighbor was “taking down his plates” and was “calling the cops.” He then went back outside and continued the verbal altercation with Mr. P. This situation continued to escalate as my husband stood between my racist plumber and my dear neighbor, trying to avoid physical blows being exchanged. The ordeal ended with the plumber speeding off, yelling more racial epithets at Mr. P and Isaac as he left. Once his work truck cleared the alley, Mr. P ended up comforting Isaac as he lay his head on Mr. P’s shoulder.
Mr. P is one of the most amazing people one could ever meet. He helped me with the trash cans when Isaac was recovering from back surgery and showed me how to shovel out my car during my first snow storm in the neighborhood. Mr. P, however, has also seen and experienced more racism than Isaac or I could ever conceive. Yet, he continues to treat all people kindly and with respect; hell, the incident ended with him even comforting Isaac.
I didn’t ask Isaac why he was so overwrought; I didn’t have to. Later that evening, while trying to unwind with some wine on our back porch, he just kept saying how horrible it was that Mr. P had to experience this in his own backyard. Once we became homeowners, we started to feel a sense of ownership, obviously, but also a sense of safety and security that nothing bad could happen to us in our immediate area. That day, we felt like our safety had been threatened and, even more startling, that our neighbor’s had as well. We felt responsible because we’d hired the plumber and brought him into the neighborhood.
As gentrifiers, we’ve learned a little bit about misplaced responsibility and how it relates to race relations in the city. The reality is that Washington’s race relations are complex. Gentrification has been sweeping the nation’s capital since the late ’90s, making race relations even more tenuous while at times loosening old tensions that began to escalate with the riots of 1968 that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Consequently, gentrification in D.C. contributes to many black people abandoning the city altogether — often to Maryland suburbs like Prince George’s County — as rent and home prices continue to rise. Even though my only impressions of the ’burbs comes from a cheesy Tom Hanks movie, I don’t understand the move. As a swamp rat with webbed feet and culture vulture with wanderlust, I’ve craved big city life on the East Coast since I was 10 years old.
My wanderlust motivated our housing search as renters in 2006 and again as future homeowners in 2009. When moving to the area, I insisted that if I was moving to the big city, I was going to live in the big city and am still adamant on that point. The result is that my husband and I have lived all over the District as we’ve tried to settle in and establish a life. The realities of gentrification began to seep in as we made these many and varied moves.
The first neighborhood we rented in was Trinidad, located in northeast D.C., near Union Station and Capitol Hill. We moved to the area in 2006 and were there for about three months. Living in Trinidad was interesting. Gentrification had already been alive and well in D.C. for nearly a decade when we arrived. Trinidad was one of the last neighborhoods to experience the growth and continues to have a fairly high crime rate even though it borders the trendy H-Street Corridor and Capitol Hill. When we lived there, it was disconcerting for me to encounter graffiti in our neighborhood that proclaimed how unwelcome my family’s presence was — tags like “Yuppies get out,” “Go back to the suburbs” and so forth. A little graffiti is no big deal, but what resonated with me most during our time in Trinidad was how Isaac was continually harassed by other residents because of his race. Two of our white neighbors also experienced a stop-and-frisk type incident where the cops stopped them and searched their car, saying two white women would only be in that neighborhood to buy drugs.
As a result of the hostility we encountered in Trinidad, we scoped out Eckington frequently when deciding whether to live there. We drove by the home we planned to buy and paid attention to the residents milling around. I wondered if our presence would be welcome, as memories of living in Trinidad stuck in my craw like dry chicken. After living in Eckington for four years, these are no longer viable concerns. I have some of the most amazing neighbors I’ve had anywhere, reminding me of my Cajun enclave. We all help each other: shoveling driveways in snowstorms, sharing from gardens, looking after each other’s children and grandchildren or just chatting at the fence. Since moving to Eckington, Isaac and I have been mostly isolated from the racial tensions in the rest of the city. As a result, we’ve been able to focus on building relationships with our neighbors and fixing this old house.
When you own a home that is almost 110 years old, the scope of repairs and maintenance needed just to live moderately comfortable is overwhelming. Each year, Isaac and I choose a project. During our first summer, we tackled the furnace and duct work. The next year, we changed the roof. Last year we did over the kitchen ourselves, learning how to lay tile and refinish cabinets. These projects have become a source of pride, frustration and financial stress. Isaac and I are quite determined (insert stubborn) to make this old house our own and give our children a nice home to live in. This summer, we chose to renovate the bathrooms. We entered this project with confidence, thinking that the only things we’d need to learn were some basic plumbing and hanging dry wall. We were mistaken. Once the demo and remediation were complete, we found ourselves confronting a plumbing nightmare which has yet to be resolved — my home still lacking important infrastructure. Home renovation is a reality of gentrification that cannot be escaped as easily as others.
Gentrification is divisive to say the least and I’m of course conflicted. I know that whether we purchased this home or not, the change in Eckington would still be as swift as it has been, and I understand that there are positive and negative effects. As a party to gentrification, I try to focus on the positives: urban growth and development, a rejuvenated economy, maintenance of blighted homes and the appearance of a Starbucks someday. The negatives are hard to ignore though: rising property taxes, displacement of poorer residents, changes in the lifestyle of the neighborhood and the appearance of a Starbucks someday. While I can’t help but feel guilty that families who’ve been in Eckington and other neighborhoods for generations are leaving because they can no longer afford them — or their apartment buildings were torn down to make luxury condos — I played no part in the process. I’ve said many times that we bought the house we could afford in the neighborhood we could afford. We didn’t buy our home in anticipation of a 50% increase in value. Ironically, if we were trying to buy our home today as opposed to four years ago, we couldn’t afford it. We were just lucky in the timing and had been priced out of other more desirable neighborhoods due to gentrification elsewhere.
Now, weeks after the plumber walked off, my home is still in shambles. My children have accepted construction dust and a lack of walls here or there as the norm. Two new plumbers have since come in and told us that the work he did that day is wrong and a recipe for future clogs. I try not to focus on the fact that not only was he poorly trained but that he also probably scammed us. Nevertheless, what’s harder for Isaac and I to ignore is his lack of decency. What’s most saddening is that time and again, we unwittingly hired a racist plumber.