Two Americas Separated by a Common Capital City
September 6, 2008 11:49 AM   Subscribe

Two Washingtons: Washington, DC is defined by its income inequality.

In the US capital, the top fifth are 27.1 times as wealthy as the bottom fifth. In Dupont Circle, expect to pay $1.2 million for a single family home. Across the Anacostia, expect to find crime, pollution and nothing better than dead-end opportunities. Neighborhoods on the same subway line (pdf) can be separated by nine years in health disparities. As gentrification squeezes the black population out of a historically black city, diverse businesses decline and the city loses its unique character. Now, former Bush speechwriter David Frum says its even what makes DC residents so Democratic.
posted by l33tpolicywonk (34 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
West Palm Beach Florida is the same thing..almost. The rich on one side of the tracks and the poor on the other.
posted by doctorschlock at 11:51 AM on September 6, 2008

David Simon just wrote an excellent article on very much the same topic in Bmore (of course), that's well worth the read, as it's pretty widely applicable.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 11:56 AM on September 6, 2008 [9 favorites]

And Dupont isn't even the most expensive place to live in DC; I'm sure Georgetown properties go for more than that.

I bet there are places in Georgetown where you can't get a parking space for $1.2M.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:07 PM on September 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

Fuck... that David Simon article is astounding.
posted by Lord_Pall at 12:24 PM on September 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Did anyone else find the last page of the "Two Washingtons" article a little...weird?

It is probable that the trend to inequality will grow even stronger in the years ahead, if new genetic techniques offer those with sufficient resources the possibility of enhancing the intelligence, health, beauty and strength of children in the womb. ...

I mean, what?
posted by voltairemodern at 12:27 PM on September 6, 2008

In the future, those who are rich will have superpowers bestowed by the powers of genetics.

Poor folks, zilch. They will have to convince a wheelchair bound superman to supply genetic material if they ever want to pass the screening and fly into space. Otherwise they will forever be Ernest Borgnine.

It is a bit random.
posted by Lord_Pall at 12:34 PM on September 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

David Frum is a hack, conflating homogeneity with equality. There are tons of census tracts that contradict his thesis, especially in the DC suburbs!

Dupont Circle is my old neighborhood, and I'm a native Washingtonian. My parents bought their co-op apartments at 1725 17th Street in 1984-85 when they started their software company, and sold the consolidated apt. in 2007.

While I'll admit my role as a 0-th wave gentrifier, shit has really gotten out of hand, in an exaggerated version of what Giuliani did in New York — Disneyfication.

A couple years ago when I was home I saw two white-bread dorks on segways a few blocks apart from each other at 14th & S, at dusk! 15 years ago there would have only been a few corner boys, and at least a dozen prostitutes soliciting guys in the back of Lincoln Towncars. Now it's all strollers.

14th Street still isn't as nice of a community as it was in 1968, before it was all burning, and I don't think it will ever be as nice as it was. All of the massive fake-loft condo buildings, chain stores, and boutiques pretty much ensure that it'll just be yuppies. The elementary school I went to (Ross, at 17th & R) now has dozens of uppity white women meddling in the PTA, where at one point there was just my mother.
posted by blasdelf at 12:47 PM on September 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, just got through the David Simon article, that was really great.
posted by voltairemodern at 12:47 PM on September 6, 2008

A couple years ago when I was home I saw two white-bread dorks on segways a few blocks apart from each other at 14th & S, at dusk!

No kidding! White-bread dorks should be afraid to go outside.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 12:54 PM on September 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another recommendation for the Simon article, which should be an FPP itself.
posted by languagehat at 1:02 PM on September 6, 2008

Sorry to be such an old codger, but 20 years ago every one was complaining that urban blight was rampant, schools were cesspools, and that our cites were awash in poverty, crime and filth.

Now the big complaint is that cities are getting too gentrified and cleaned up and there are too many "uppity white women" on the PTA and too many white bread dorks on segways.

Perspective is a bitch.
posted by dzot at 1:27 PM on September 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

I was expecting to hear about how wet Seattle is and how dry Spokane is. And you say there's a town with that name? And there's two of them? How lame is that?
posted by faceonmars at 1:29 PM on September 6, 2008

There has always been two Americas...perhaps the emphasis ought to be upon the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. Emerson, referring to inequality, noted that if the snow fell in the evening by morning it would no longer be evenly distributed. Liberals dislike this sort of thing but do not really want to do much other than make more money available for those in need. But does that change things that much? Conservatives are content because those without can always try the American Way and improve their lot.

Liberals, bemoaning slums often are among those first to move into slum areas when they become gentrified; send their kids to private schools; and move to the suburbs if they have children. Conservatives do nothing more than bitch about all their tax money going to worthless people and their endless breeding for more welfare recipients.

And the answer is......well, beats the crap out of me.
posted by Postroad at 1:30 PM on September 6, 2008

Income inequality will be a factor in any major metropolitan area, but in my experience, D.C. is perhaps the most dramatic about it, if only because the difference can be seen so clearly from one block to the next. If you want one particularly harsh example, go by my old apartment at 15th and East Capitol, to see the exact dividing line between one of the nicest parts of Capitol Hill and the still-crack-blighted RFK slums.

Strangely, though, or maybe not so strangely, D.C. is also one of the friendliest towns I've known, as far as actual residents goes. Everyone's just so used to dealing closely with everyone else (and the town suffers far less from the secluded ethnic enclaves of, say, New York) that I haven't seen a lot of racism here. Maybe it also has to do with how transient the town is, that people just aren't as concerned with what direction their neighborhoods are taking, because so many of them don't expect to be living in those neighborhoods permanently.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:56 PM on September 6, 2008

No kidding! White-bread dorks should be afraid to go outside.

Yes, if they're going to be so ignorant of their surroundings. If you don't want to interact with the community, much less touch the ground, live in a cul-de-sac. Don't bludgeon an urban neighborhood into one.

Perspective is a bitch.

The thing is, what little 'blight' there was to be uppity about was gone ten years ago, before the gentrification really got out of hand. Just for that one elementary school: the leaky roof was fixed, the bad old principal ousted, the PTA afterschool program finances cleaned up, the vacant townhouse next door fixed up. Pretty much everything was fine.

Then about five years ago, the mortgage extravaganza starts to get really huge, and enrollment goes down as yuppies move in. But the yuppies spawn, and generate piles of parental angst, but there's nothing left to be angsty about. So the cavalcade of uppity white women spend years bitterly fighting over literally the playground, throwing elaborate fundraisers to replace it several times in as many years.
posted by blasdelf at 2:18 PM on September 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

I was at working with a client in a seriously gnarly spot in North Philly a little while back and a friend of mine called me and asked me to meet him for dinner in Old City, which is a super trendy neighborhood in Philly filled with expensive restaurants, clubs and condos. These two neighborhoods were less than five miles apart and it took me about 10 minutes to drive from one to the other. I had been to Old City a million times in the past but that day it was like going to Mars or something, after having spent the entire day neck-deep in junkies and prosties and blight. I was walking along this row of al-fresco diners that stretched for an entire block, lots of young kids with expensive watches, fucking with their Iphones, picking at sushi plates and drinking $8 cocktails. And I thought to myself, this is the Matrix shit. This is why nothing's ever going to change. Because Philly's a rock solid democrat town, these people most likely consider themselves politically liberal, and even much of the political left has way too much skin in the corporate game at this point for any radical changes to happen for the poor.
posted by The Straightener at 2:18 PM on September 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Re: Blight vs. gentrification/Haves vs. Have-nots

The answer, I think, is it create a balanced environment that makes it possible for a blended community in the center reaping a mix of housing types and solid community values (so anyone can be outside when they want without fear) with a variety of career and transportation options to create a solid central area of compromise that bleeds out at the edges into those who don't want to be part of the overall community.

Coming from a non-gentrified, intensely urban inner-city environment and having had to share space with the comfortable middle class at magnet school and suchlike, I think it's worthwhile for both sets (and everyone in between and at the extremes) to see the variety of life experiences/perspectives possible in this world.

The issue in my experience was advantaged kids/parents trying to lord over the less advantaged, and the less advantaged resorting to either rough treatment or withdrawal into unproductive fringe groups. Millions of words have been written on how to address that part, and I haven't seen any of them have a long term effect (so far). Any ideas on how to address that part and make the rest seem feasible?

I mean, if you're one of the advantaged types but were without empathy/understanding for those who are not so fortunate, how could you be given that understanding? Is that even possible?

For the disadvantaged...I think they'd need to see that the world is interested in their success, first, but that's probably a cop-out approach on at least a few levels.
posted by batmonkey at 2:25 PM on September 6, 2008

It is an interesting theory, but Frum has done little to support it.
posted by caddis at 2:34 PM on September 6, 2008

Inrestingly, the Frum article does nothing to address why people in mixed wealth areas would tend to vote Democratic.

Stupid overeducated elitsit liberals, looking out for the little guy!

Also, cf the L-curve.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:37 PM on September 6, 2008

And, speaking of the why of things, the Simon article is awesome.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:49 PM on September 6, 2008

Another good example of block-to-clock insanity is Houston, where the people have fought against zoning like pitbulls for the last twenty years or so. Neighborhoods are forced to do it on their own, which means that in the Northwest (where I grew up) you'll get tons of Nuveau Riche incorporated subdivisions (Like Champions and Huntwick) of nothing but houses and the neighborhood pool, with strip malls lining the entrances, and then poorer neighborhoods, like Meadow Vista, where the homes are interspersed with bars (I don't know if it's there any more, but Meadow Vista's "Tiger Bar" had actual live tigers!) The income disparity was made most clear because these areas would feed the same schools, which were generally well funded, except for their ESL programs, which were left to twist in the wind.

Going downtown, you can find West Gray, a street which takes about two minutes to bring you from the richest part of town to the poorest, with nothing but a few hipster bars appropriately in between.

Anywhere you go - not just in America but in the world - where there is money to be made, you will find two Americas. The rich, and those capable of becoming rich, will flock there for the big money, and the poor will flock there, or else be born there, because of the jobs. This is nothing new, and is unlikely to change much. New York has Bed-Stuy and the Upper East Side. Fairfield County has Bridgeport and New Canaan. San Francisco has Lumbard Street and the Mission. The trick is to build an infrastructure that serves all parts of the community, and not just the rich areas, so that the cycle doesn't simply self-perpetuate.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:51 PM on September 6, 2008

We must develop a positive agenda that integrates the right kind of egalitarianism with our conservative principles of liberty. If we neglect this task and this opportunity, we won’t lose just the northern Virginia suburbs. We will lose America.

More like America will lose you AMIRITE?

Frum's late realization that OH NOES poor people may not vote for us anymore doesn't seem to have been informed by any sense that this is a matter of basic human rights, e.g. the Four Freedoms, or even of sympathy for their plight, e.g. compassionate conservatism. It seems strictly motivated by retaining political legitimacy.

Anyway, what happened to that Two Americas guy? He was on the news a lot for something, I forget.
posted by dhartung at 2:54 PM on September 6, 2008

That abomination of a Frum FPP is redeemed with quiet dignity by the David Simon link.

We were not saying everything, showing everything. We focused on the urban dynamic of drugs, crime and race. We argued the fraud of the drug war and offered an elegy for the death of union labour and the working class. We ruminated on the political infrastructure and its inability to reform. We picked a fight over the decline of public education and the lie behind our national claim to equality of opportunity. And lastly, we suggested that in the end, no one in our media culture is paying attention or asking hard questions.

Many, many master's theses will be written about The Wire. Any one worth its salt will quote this.

I still think - heresy! - that The Sopranos was a better story, but then I'm only two seasons into The Wire. In any case, that Guardian essay exponentially intensifies my admiration for Simon, who I think probably should be considered one of the best journalists of his time on the basis of The Wire alone.
posted by gompa at 3:00 PM on September 6, 2008

If there are two Americas, where is the divide? I would guess it's about $35-$80k, depending on where you live. If you make more then that, you're basically set and you don't have to worry, if you make less then that it's more of a struggle.
posted by delmoi at 3:33 PM on September 6, 2008

Liberals, bemoaning slums often are among those first to move into slum areas when they become gentrified; send their kids to private schools; and move to the suburbs if they have children. Conservatives do nothing more than bitch about all their tax money going to worthless people and their endless breeding for more welfare recipients.

And the answer is......well, beats the crap out of me.

Me, too, until I was exposed to the LVT.

This, from Frum:

"Unlike liberals, conservatives are not bothered by the accumulation of wealth as such."

caught my eye, for IME the bulk of wealth concentration goes right into investment in real estate, where the wealth is put right into use extracting more wealth from the actually productive members of our society.

Transfer payments are inefficient solutions, what is needed ensuring access to services that enable people to become and remain productive members of society are available to all, regardless of ability to pay.

Without removing the ability of the wealthy (and wanna-be wealthy) to capture the unearned increment from land values we will continue to chase our tails. This was beginning to be understood 100+ years ago, but was intentionally elided from the mainstream of economics by the permanent PTB who wish to conflate speculation in land with free-market capitalism's inarguable bona fides.
posted by troy at 4:25 PM on September 6, 2008

If there are two Americas, where is the divide?

Possession of in-demand job skills that take longer than 3 months to acquire.
posted by troy at 4:27 PM on September 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Leaving aside the District of Columbia, 7 of America’s 10 best-educated states are strongly “blue” in national politics, and the others (Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia) have been trending blue. Of the 10 least-educated, only one (Nevada) is not reliably Republican. And so we arrive at a weird situation in which the party that identifies itself with markets, with business and with technology cannot win the votes of those who have prospered most from markets, from business and from technology.
"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, 'hmm... that's funny...'" - Isaac Asimov
posted by Orb2069 at 5:33 PM on September 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

David Frum is a hack. I made it two paragraphs into the piece before proclaiming it hackery and clicking the back button, and didn't see the byline until just now.

One particularly interesting part of DC is the H street NE neighborhood where the Rock and Roll Hotel is -- if you turn one direction, neighborhoods with nice townhouses, manicured lawns and luxury cars -- go two blocks in the other direction, a complete wasteland -- neon-signed churches, liquor stores, and empty lots, and boarded up houses.

I'm not sure I understand the problem with gentrification, though. It brings money and property taxes into the city and surely everybody benefits from that.
posted by empath at 5:49 PM on September 6, 2008

empath: The problem with gentrification is that it drives housing prices through the roof, forcing low income people out of the neighborhood and generally out into poorly planned, crowded suburbs, if they can find housing at all. Doing so can really rip out the cultural heart of a city and replace it with generic $500,000 condos and shopping complexes, while the poor are left farther from their places of work and play. Unlike postroad, I don't have a problem with liberals or anyone of a different culture moving into any neighborhood they want per say, but do have issue when the impetus to move is gentrification and increased housing prices.

A few weeks ago, I moved into the Brookland neighborhood here in DC, a reasonable, middle-class neighborhood with housing prices around $500,000 (middle class by DC standards). Every time I tell someone where I've moved, the first question I get asked is about crime. Every. Single. Time. In actuality, the neighborhood is well lit, there are no bars on the windows, and the scariest person out on the streets is walking their dogs. But its the perception of a "culture class" that generally keeps whites like me from moving into black neighborhoods. In reality, Navelgazer's right: DC residents are friendly, and at the end of the day, race and income don't change wanting a good life for yourself and your family. I'm proud and happy to live in a "normal" middle class neighborhood with a lot of history in the middle of a large city: it reminds me of my home in Des Moines because, other than skin color, its really not all that different.

The problem with gentrification is the idea that all of that ought be literally and figuratively bulldozed and, more perniciously, that the people who do it should be held up as model citizens and entrepreneurs.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:29 PM on September 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Every time I tell someone where I've moved, the first question I get asked is about crime.

First question I'd have asked is "Is there anything to do there?"
posted by inigo2 at 7:01 PM on September 6, 2008

I'm not sure I understand the problem with gentrification, though. It brings money and property taxes into the city and surely everybody benefits from that.

Gentrification rewards the people in the community who saved and invested in the community. When things start looking up, they do quite well if they decide to sell their homes and "cash out". The people who didn't have the means or the economic savvy to save for a home and deal with spiraling rents, however, get severely screwed. Instead of benefiting from the improved policing, better economy, and better delivery of services, they have to move to the next ungentrified neighborhood that they can afford-- which then has the same problems of poor services and will remain that way until the gentrifiers come in, pricing the former residents out of their rents, once again.

Not that I have anything against gentrification. After all, I am an agent of gentrification myself. And many of us are just returning to the neighborhoods that our grandparents used to live in. But still-- good schools and functional commercial neighborhoods should just be the province of neighborhoods that well-off professionals decide to move to.
posted by deanc at 7:55 PM on September 6, 2008

If you can reduce inequality, you can raise empathy. If you can raise empathy, you can reduce inequality. But you have to start somewhere.

High inequality correlates with high crime, low social cohesion and lower life expectancy. Low inequality correlates with greater happiness-- not just amongst the poor, but amongst the rich. There's lots of cross cultural data supporting this.

And American inequality has been growing dramatically over the last decade or so-- I seem to recall reading that it's now as bad as the "gilded age" of the robber barons. If we can convince people that it's in their own self-interest to help others, we might have a chance at changing this... but who knows?
posted by Maias at 7:58 PM on September 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

This reminded me that I saw an article on the lead levels in Washington DC water the other day, which reminded me of the earlier MetaFilter post (?) that discussed the lowering of lead levels in New York giving Rudy 9ui11iani undeserved credit for reducing crime, since there is an apparent link between lead levels and crime.

The above would make a cool FPP, methinks, but I am not the right person to make one.
posted by Kickstart70 at 8:06 PM on September 6, 2008

Yes, David Simon's article is one of those that makes you feel as if a light-bulb just lit itself up after reading it. Thanks for sharing!
posted by the cydonian at 7:55 AM on September 7, 2008

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