In terms of urban renewal, there are often complaints about gentrification, but as this excellent article from City Journal reports, it is the best solution around.
In the 1990s, decades after the riots that followed the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, the Washington, D.C., neighborhoods of Logan Circle and Columbia Heights still showed scars of that terrible time. Through many of those years, the mostly black residents of those areas would be in luck if they were looking for a prostitute or a drug deal; they had a harder time tracking down fresh spinach or blood-pressure medication. Logan Circle’s elegant Civil War–era mansions were crumbling or boarded up; the turreted row houses of Columbia Heights were in even worse shape.
Still, the local D.C. government was growing aware of the potential of these two neighborhoods, near as they were to federal government offices and the swarm of lobbying and law firms and media and public-relations outfits near them. In 1999, a metro stop opened in Columbia Heights, right across the street from a spiffy new Target. A Whole Foods took up residence a year later in a former auto-parts store near Logan Circle. Fortuitously, the District was at the same moment beginning to catch the eye of a growing number of career-hungry recent college grads.
Whole Foods, nineteenth-century townhouses, striving millennials—is there anyone who couldn’t predict what was coming? The brunch spots, the $14 basil-infused cocktails, the bike lanes, the condos, and the soaring rents? As crime was brought under control during the first decade of the 2000s, 14th Street became as haute yuppie as they come. The tattooed crowd then tried out a dicey area of 11th Street, three blocks east in Columbia Heights. Across the street from a Chinese takeout with cashiers sitting behind a presumably bulletproof partition lies a block-long bar/diner/coffeehouse called the Coupe. The day I visited, Maria, a pleasant nursing-student barista in jean shorts and a T-shirt, told me that since one of her coworkers got mugged a while back, a policeman (and sometime customer) often stops by at closing time to make sure that others don’t run into trouble. The incident doesn’t seem to have hurt business: postgrads cram the place, sitting on comfy sofas with their six-pound textbooks, studying for law boards and GMATs.
Some might see what’s happening in Columbia Heights and Logan Circle—gentrification, in a word—as a hopeful sign. Decaying, quasi-abandoned neighborhoods in a city once dubbed the “Murder Capital of America,” whose most famous local figure was a mayor with a penchant for crack, have turned into places where people are keen to live, eat, shop, and study. But large numbers of self-proclaimed urbanophiles—including, bizarrely, many of those same people flocking to such revived places in cities across the developed world—claim to hate the changes afoot, contending that they’re symptomatic of decadent capitalism and its racist infrastructure. Many longtime locals grumble, too. In a famous 2014 rant, filmmaker Spike Lee railed against white newcomers to the once-black neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, accusing them of being part of a “motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus syndrome.” Some wring their hands at their own complicity in the sordid phenomenon. “If you want to stop a place—anywhere—from being gentrified, don’t move there, don’t even go there—leave it the hell alone,” Alex Hudson, an editor at Metro UK, an alternative London paper, recently urged his readers.
Hudson is right about one thing: to stop gentrification, educated young people should steer clear of Brooklyn, D.C., San Francisco, London, and many other cities. Aside from that glimmer of wisdom, he’s come up with about the worst idea for cities—including their minority populations—since Robert Moses planned the Cross Bronx Expressway. Gentrification has its costs, some vexingly resistant to policy fixes, but it has brought cities in many advanced economies back from the brink. If there’s another route to urban health, we’ve yet to find it.