Gentrification And The Silencing Of Black Culture In DC

Why one store being silenced for loud music is indicative of a city-wide silencing of people of color, and why you may be part of the problem…

Metro PCS in the Shaw Neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (Ted Eytan/Flickr)

Metro PCS in the Shaw Neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (Ted Eytan/Flickr)

Dear DC transplant,

A few weeks ago, Donald Campbell, a Black owner of a Metro PCS store in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood was ordered by T-Mobile, the store’s parent company to shut down the music it had been playing outside the store. The company did so, Cambell asserts, after a threat from a resident of a nearby luxury “mixed-use development”, The Shay, threatened to file a lawsuit with T-Mobile over the noise.

[More details on the story here, link to the petition to help Mr. Campbell here, and info on the latest town hall, taking place this Thursday, Aprill 11th at 1920 Martin Lither King Jr. Ave. SE from 6-8 PM, here]

While this seems at first a neighborhood issue more fitting for D.C’s City Paper, it is actually indicative of what many residents of color face in many gentrifying U.S. cities, D.C. forefront among them.

It is indicative of a widespread issue that is happening in the neighborhood you have moved into recently, and you are likely abetting it.

Mr. Campbell and his supporters, like many people of color in D.C., are not just fighting to keep go-go bumping on the corner of 7th Street and Florida Ave. NW. They are fighting to reclaim the voice, an iota at least, that Black and Brown people in the nation’s capital have been losing for about a generation.

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Why Go-Go should matter to you…

Go-go is the music and soul of DC. It is a living embodiment of this city’s history and culture, a blend of funk, R&B, and hip-hop reflective of the Black musical tradition of what was once known as Chocolate City.

If you don’t like go-go music, fine, your loss.

If this is the first time you’ve heard about go-go music, there’s actually a reason for that:

First, you most likely live in a DC transplant bubble (not attacking anyone, just a fact. Before you ask to speak to our editor, just ask yourself, “How many people do I know who have grown up in the area?” None? Yea, kind of the point.)

Second, and more importantly, it’s getting hard to listen to go-go. The genre is literally disappearing from the city’s landscape because both Black residents and their establishments are being pushed out by new developments created to accommodate an influx of affluent, mostly white, people in an economic phenomenon we know as gentrification.

DC ranks at the top of the gentrification charts, with as many as 20,000 Black residents displaced by means both technically legal and less so. The effects of this trend go far beyond Go-Go. They signify a loss of economic opportunity, affordable housing, adequate health and education, and cultural heritage for tens of thousands of people of color.

In short, what brought you your Trader Joe’s, your favorite poke bowl spot, and that new ax-throwing bar amounts to a de facto human rights violation for Black and Brown people. And if you think that’s dramatic, take it up with the UN.

Overnight scenario down on Shaw

Shaw, the site of Mr. Campbell’s Metro PCS store, is a case study for gentrification. Together with the neighboring U Street area, it was once a symbol of Black culture that created the likes of Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, and Chuck Brown, Go-Go’s immutable Godfather. Riots following MLK’s assassination and a spike in crime in the eighties and early nineties caused a massive flight of affluent residents and businesses in the neighborhood.

An influx of investment came in the early aughts, but it did not bring the benefits promised for many locals. To make up the price of rising land prices that come when the local Whole Foods moves in, for example, developers create luxury apartments to lure affluent residents, instead of affordable units for middle and lower class families. This exacerbates the city’s already dire housing crisis, and causes people of color to move farther away from the city.

The city’s Black history was revitalized, but in a mostly cosmetic way, in an effort to lure in wealthy white young professionals looking for the “urban” experience.

The more such aspiring “urbanites” came in, the more people of color were either priced out or pushed out due to the demands of the city’s new residents.

Which brings us back to Mr. Campbell. His store, which has been playing and selling Go-Go music for almost a quarter century, is one of the last remaining relics of the real Shaw.

And he’s been told to shut down the music because a resident of a luxury apartment building nearby not only complained but threatened to sue T-Mobile, a multinational company.

Over music.

Music which, mind you, said resident was very well aware of before they moved in because of, well, noise.

Now, notice, they didn’t go through proper channels (e.g. contacting their local ANC representative.) There’s a reason for that: that store was playing the music legally, under DC statutes. So instead, they decided to harm the store financially (which they are; Mr. Campbell reports less foot traffic after the music was brought inside.)

There are, it should be pointed out, more than a half a dozen new bars and establishments within a 1 block radius of, and closer to, “The Shay” that blast Taylor Swift and export vomiting 20-somethings until 3 AM every weekend. This includes a beer garden, arguably the noisiest of establishments, moving into an empty lot just down the same block as Mr. Cambell’s store.

But no, no, said resident had problems with just the spot playing go-go.

(Side note on said establishments: chances are, just about every bar, restaurant, or gluten-free burger place in the U St./Shaw area was at one point a Black-owned bar, restaurant, dance spot- including notably go-go and jazz- in what was once known as Black Broadway. But I digress…)

If this surprises you, it really should not.

As white people have moved into spaces occupied by people of color, they have brought the racism that made them flee inner cities in the first place along with them. Under the guise of concerned citizenship, police forces and local representatives have been weaponized to castigate Black people for such acts as barbecuing, napping, being in a corner store, being in a coffee shop, babysitting, and many other things that have made white people “uncomfortable” in the diverse neighborhoods they were eager to pay top dollar for.

Such examples are admittedly more extreme than that of Mr. Campbell. He, fortunately, did not have to face the very real danger people of color do when police are called on them by white people for simply existing.

However, it takes quite a bit of gall and effort to threaten a lawsuit on a major international phone carrier because of loud noise in your backyard. And such efforts are hardly ever aimed at establishments owned and frequented by white people.

What You, White Person Who Has Moved to DC, Can Do

It’s beyond time that we (and your correspondent included) take responsibility for the damage done to people of color within the communities we have displaced them from.

I’m not asking you to feel guilty. Quite frankly, your guilt, thoughts, prayers, namastes, etc. don’t really help out anyone.

I am asking for at least a modicum of responsibility, however.

The very least we can do is sign the petition. The very least we can do is support at least one business from getting pummeled by the whims of the white privilege inherent in gentrification, and the large corporations that make obscene profits catering to it.

The next step would be to follow up and support Mr. Campbell and the community in any way they think would help this cause. Todays’s rally at 14th and U would be a good start, and a good way to see what Go-Go means to locals:

The upcoming town hall this Thursday, Aprill 11th, at 1920 Martin Lither King Jr. Ave. SE from 6-8 PM would is another opportunity. Attending these events would break a longstanding tradition of seemingly progressive white transplants failing to show up for causes that affect DC’s locals, especially people of color.

Lastly, let’s think about how our lives impact the residents who have been here first. I am not asking you to hate your local hipster coffee shop, your overpriced “dive” bar, that luxury studio apartment you can barely afford, or the numerous amenities in it you barely use because you work all week to pay for them.

I am asking you to think about what the presence of these things means for the community you have moved into. What “buying local”, “supporting your local establishment”, and “being a good neighbor” really means in the context of your community. Educate yourself on the history of structural racism and oppression that is pushing people of color out of their homes to make way for yours.

Gentrification doesn’t happen without your economic and social demand for it. Act accordingly.

Thank you to Hayatt Mohamed and Chris Aguirre for their advice and information related to this piece.

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Opinion // Culture / Gentrification / Race / Washington DC