Black Enclave, Shades of Gray
Race and Class Fueling Tension in Alexandria as Gentrification Reshapes Historic Neighborhood
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Author: Ann O'Hanlon
Date: Aug 20, 2001
Document Types: Feature
Text Word Count: 1538
Copyright The Washington Post Company Aug 20, 2001
Serious crime has plummeted. Pricey town houses occupy once- vacant lots that used to be littered with
syringes, bottles and even a parked car that hookers used. Businesses are moving in. And from a distance, the
racial mix looks to be the elusive dream of blacks and whites living side by side.
But in the Alexandria neighborhood known as the Inner City, the mood is anything but contented.
Community matriarch Helen Miller wags a finger at the agents of change. "They want to change the
neighborhood to Old Town, but they're not going to," she said firmly, referring to the celebrated and wealthy area just blocks away.
Miller's complaint is rooted in this statistic: The black population in the seven square blocks that form the Inner
City has dropped by half in the last 20 years. In 1980, the area was 90 percent black. Today, blacks make up 45 percent of the population.
In some ways, it's a familiar tale of gentrification. But the setting of this story is extraordinary, and not just for the
proximity of one of the region's wealthiest neighborhoods. Settled by freed blacks before the Civil War, the Inner City is one of the area's oldest and most storied African American enclaves, home to nearly every milestone in
Alexandria's black history.
Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles played at American Legion Post 129 on the "chitlings circuit" when white venues wouldn't admit them. The black library -- created after six blacks staged a sit-in at the white library in 1939 -- still
stands, now the Black History Resource Center. And just three blocks south stood the offices of Franklin and Armfield, once one of the country's largest slave traders, now home to the Northern Virginia Urban League.
In a bow to the area's past, residents have unabashedly tried to maintain a strong black presence and head off the influx of newcomers. Over the years, they have filed a discrimination complaint and received a federal grant to help keep the neighborhood affordable. But in the face of a hot housing market and the increasing allure of a convenient urban area, the character of the community is changing.
"I'm not sure that it's the role of government to say, 'We can only have so many whites and so many blacks and
so many yellows and so many greens,' " said City Council member Joyce Woodson (D), who is African American.
The mix of residents is now divided along race and class lines. The Inner City of today is like a Rorschach test: Different people see different things.
Real estate agent Martine Irmer, who lives in the neighborhood, said most of her affluent black clients don't focus on the fancy new lofts or the nearby bakery full of pistachio bread and pumpkin muffins. Instead, they see the condemned warehouse, the remaining auto body shops and the public housing. And they don't talk about gentrification. They use the word "ghetto" and are not interested in buying there.
"That's why a lot of African Americans don't move back," she said of the neighborhood she calls home. "To
succeed in life is to get out in the suburbs."
That's what Margaret Smith, who grew up in the Inner City, did when it came time to raise her child. She chose Fairfax County because she preferred its schools. And when her mother died a few years ago, Smith, nearing
60, didn't want to leave her Mount Vernon area home for her mother's in the Inner City. A white couple -- an
Episcopal deacon and a federal government worker -- bought the place, partly because it was just blocks from
the Braddock Road Metro station.
"It's sad in a way," Smith said of the African American dilution. "But then if [whites] can afford it, let them buy."
Not far from Smith's girlhood home is that of nurse Barbara Rivers- Burns, a house she sold in 1999. Living in
Norfolk and looking at the needs of the dilapidated structure, she decided against renovating it. The buyer, a white Army major, saw a good investment, an affordable house on the outskirts of Old Town. The seller saw herself contributing to a trend that saddened her.
"I do regret selling that house," she said. The neighborhood "no longer feels like it's ours, not at all," she said.
The reasons are many and visible.
An old warehouse has made way for $600,000 lofts, identified by cluster -- "The Chelsea," "The Soho," "The
Tribeca." The American Legion on North Fayette Street sits next to Firehook Bakery & Coffee House's headquarters, where people sit under sidewalk umbrellas with coffee and scones. Nearby is Uptown Downtown Antiques and Home.
Some African Americans were driven away by rising rents in an increasingly popular part of town. But many blacks -- about one- third in 1990 -- were homeowners. As the real estate market boomed, many cashed in on
the rising value of their homes or sold when their parents died. Nearly all the buyers were white.
But some residents of the neighborhood -- also known as Parker- Gray, after the principals of two since-closed
black schools -- would have liked nothing better than to have stayed. It wasn't possible.
Taxi driver Randy Stevens grew up in the Inner City with 12 siblings, none of whom calls it home today because, "in order to be here, you either have to be very poor or fairly wealthy," he said. Stevens's parents were blue-
collar renters, and he and his mother left the neighborhood for Fairfax in the mid-1980s, unable to afford it.
Janet Poindexter, a clerical worker who still lives in the neighborhood, can recite, house by house, when and how the racial change happened.
When she bought 20 years ago, she said, "there wasn't anybody white on this block at all. . . . You try to be
friendly to them," she added, but lifestyles are different and clashes inevitable.
"They used to have revivals outside," Poindexter said, pointing down the street to Antioch Church of Christ, one of a dozen mostly black churches that dot the area. "Then the whites came in and said it was too much noise," an account that church officials confirmed.
Another source of friction has been parking. Many affluent newcomers have two cars, Poindexter noted. Once-
ample street parking is harder to find. And the place is starting to feel like Georgetown, she said. Poindexter used to walk to nearby stores on errands. Now, she must catch a bus to a discount shopping mall five miles away.
Blacks and whites alike saw the change coming long ago and tried to do something about it. About 20 years ago, a group of citizens -- including current City Manager Philip G. Sunderland -- worked with a grant from the
National Endowment for the Arts to keep neighborhood houses affordable. The idea was for a nonprofit to buy
the homes at below-market prices and keep the resale cost low to draw minority homeowners.
But the plan meant that black homeowners would have to sacrifice the appreciation on their real estate. The community rejected the idea.
Later, a group of blacks filed a discrimination complaint against the city, claiming that Alexandria was intentionally displacing blacks while making property more accessible to whites. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considered the complaint and eventually offered a conciliation agreement, which city
officials refused to sign. The matter was eventually dropped.
Clashes continue. At a recent City Council meeting, residents split over a request by an area nonprofit to expand its preschool by six children. Opponents said the nonprofit was ignoring promises it made a year ago as part of rezoning. But allies of the preschool accused opponents of not wanting more black children in the neighborhood.
At a recent City Hall meeting of a neighborhood task force, convened after dozens of neighbors demanded a
meeting with Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D) last summer, newcomer Patricia Jordan cited irritation after irritation. People chronically double park, and there is illegal street commerce, such as oil changes and car washing, said
Jordan, a public television professional. The American Legion has late-night partying every weekend, and one of
the barbershops seems to function as a nightclub. Neighbors have videotaped the activity and given the tape to police.
City officials, black and white, say they are unsure what role, if any, government has in this transformation. Besides existing programs such as tax relief for seniors and homeownership assistance, they said, they cannot stop this train.
Some newcomers such as Jordan complain, but plenty say they would like to preserve the area just as it is.
Buzz Peele and his wife left Old Town proper for their cramped row house, a former crack house they renovated. They were stunned by the warmth that met them.
The owner of the soul-food restaurant next door came over. "Is the restaurant noise too loud at night?" he asked. "You got any trouble, you let me know."
An elderly black woman across the street watched their door for them the day Peele accidentally left it ajar.
"She made it a point to know who was here," he said.
No more, Peele said. The woman's landlord raised her rent, and she moved away.