Frederick Douglass' Spirit Lives on in Gentrifying DC Neighborhood

Black neighborhood in DC (Shutterstock)

In historic Anacostia, a Black neighborhood in southeast Washington, DC, there was an old, vacant home with a wide, welcoming porch and floor-to-ceiling windows. I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it. It bore the wounds of neglect and the bruises of age and sat boarded up and forgotten along a partially abandoned block on the matrix of streets that surround Frederick Douglass’ mansion. During the late nineteenth century, he and his second wife, Helen Pitts, lived in the 15-acre estate that sits regally on a mountainous, 50-foot hill and looks down on smaller homes not nearly as grand but still gorgeously vintage.

Douglass called it Cedar Hill, and it became a designated historic site and has been maintained by the National Park Service since 1962, but the others around it deteriorated from years of community disenfranchisement. When the white middle class fled the neighborhood in the 1950s for newer postwar housing, they took resources with them. A century after Douglass’ death, the suburb that had expressly prohibited residents of African descent became a working-class Black community that, although culturally vibrant, was decimated by lack of investment. Beautiful brick, Italianate, and cottage-style homes that should have been preserved were racked from neglect and disrepair. I didn’t care that the house I loved was tumbledown. I saw what it could become.

At the time, I was a single mother who’d been unceremoniously laid off from my job as an association editor. I’d always been treading well below the poverty line, just trying to exist in a city with an escalating cost of living. I couldn’t have afforded that house, even with all of its evident flaws. But daydreaming about it became an escape, and I found peace in the fantasy of making it my first home. We were kindred spirits, both of us discarded and discounted by people who had authority over our circumstances. It, like me, had untapped potential. I envisioned how I would renovate and decorate it, contemplated adding a skylight and expanding the kitchen, planned where my housewarming guests could park in the limited spaces along the narrow street.

Being poor can either crush your creativity or elevate it, and exercising mine became a survival tactic.

One Sunday after church, I was so wound up in the spirit that I risked trespassing to step onto the porch and hold hands with my mortified daughter to pray that the property would someday be ours. She was probably 11 or 12, fully invested in her stereotypical pre-teen funkiness and either unable or unwilling to catch the vision for a house that looked like history’s afterthought. I laughed off her incredulity. God, I said with my heart lifted in hope, and my eyes earnestly squeezed shut, if this home is supposed to be our blessing, remove the obstacles and challenges that will complicate our way to get here. I declare this a safe space, a happy place, a home full of love and joy for us. Let it be a way out of where we are. We said our amens and went back to the car, and I didn’t low-key stalk the house again for several months.

It was an unusually snowy winter that year, and the Ward 8 community has a series of mini-mountains that can make walking and driving a risky interface with slush and ice. As soon as the weather softened, I turned onto the familiar block and pulled up to the familiar curb. My heart dropped. The house had been razed. There was nothing to indicate that it had ever even existed — no skeleton of its frame, no foundation, no remnants of its porch. A chainlink fence had been erected around its yard, and the telltale tools of construction were stacked on the lifeless grass that once made up its yard. It didn’t take long for the shell of a condo building to go up in its place. It devoured the entire block and even early on, when it was nothing more than a frame made of wood planks, it looked awkwardly out of place. It didn’t match the neighborhood that was, but it hinted at the gentrification that was coming.

Until recently, this and other neighborhoods populated by mostly Black folks have been of little value to anyone besides the residents who live in them. They’ve been disassociated from DC’s public face, the branded power city that draws tourists and looks aspirationally wealthy. But when developers intuit money-making opportunity, out comes the heavy equipment and gone are homes and buildings that have had significant emotional, cultural, and historical value.

So many residents of low-income Black communities have experienced a similar story about the intrusion of rapidly changing dynamics: a favorite barbershop that’s been obliterated, a church and congregation that have been displaced, a mom and pop restaurant that’s only alive in the memories of people who regularly supported the mom and pop who owned it. In my neighborhood, the signs are picking up speed, and there’s palpable helplessness from people who don’t want to move or couldn’t afford to if they did but feel like they increasingly don’t have a place in a landscape that’s becoming foreign while they’re still in it.

We often talk about the logistics and politics of gentrification but not enough about what it feels like. It’s strange and otherworldly, like a vivid dream that you’re walking into your home but when you step through the door, you’re in the Grand Canyon.

It was just a house that didn’t know who I was, but it gave me something to work toward and dream on at a time when conjuring hope was a labor in optimism. It may seem silly, but its demolition felt like another loss — for my community and me — and I mourned it even though it was never mine in the first place. I wanted its living history to be admired by passersby on the sidewalk and amateur historians who would wonder about its backstory. I wanted to see how its future played out, even if I wasn’t going to be part of it. Now it, like so many landmarks and points of interest that have been gulped by development, is a sacrifice from the past for an uncertain future.

ork has appeared in many outlets including Essence and Ebony. She has a master's degree in African American Studies from Temple University and writes on various topics, including social justice, activism, and culture.