The Parallel Struggles Between The Caribbean & The U.S. Capital

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gentrification in washington dc urban colonization and neo colonialism in the caribbean

Tourism allows visitors to experience cities, towns, and countries through rose-colored glasses. The information accessible to a tourist is carefully curated both virtually and in reality. Tourism forces sanitization of a true culture to increase the appeal to tourists. A place is distilled to a “product”. In marketing, you highlight the benefits of a product and ignore the flaws, hopeful that your customers’ attention isn’t drawn to them.

Tourism requires a commodification of local life and flavor. Tourist experiences are quite literally referred to as “packages”. A good product attracts more tourists and a “bad” product repels them. Thus, city governments and countries are motivated to put their best foot forward.

When a city’s economy relies on tourism, there’s an impetus to “sell” a good product and most of us who live in tourist destinations are indoctrinated into a cult of selling, where our experiences and livelihoods must go through a sanitization process before we present those experiences and our “culture” to outsiders.

When I first visited Washington, DC in 2010, I experienced life there as a tourist. I stayed in Virginia with wealthy extended family members who worked and attended school in Washington, DC. I rode in a Prius to the train station and spent each day wandering around the National Mall and surrounding museums in the city with my grandfather, who viewed Washington through equally clueless lenses.

My second trip to Washington in 2011 was only slightly different. I attended Model UN conferences when required to and spent the rest of the time wandering the streets nearby the Hilton where my United Nations cohort stayed. Again, I visited the National Mall. I defied my fear of heights and rode the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument where I stared down at the empty reflecting pool with disappointment. Winter had eliminated some key features of the tourist experience and hinted at a truth that I was not yet prepared to see. Off-season meant a little wear and tear on the “package”.

Years passed and I always looked back on Washington, DC fondly. I saw the city as a wealthy place. A white place. A place where black people lived in “other parts” of the city where I had never been and would probably never visit. I didn’t know the words “gentrification” and I barely understood racism — certainly not on a structural level. Ignorance makes it easy for our experiences to be manipulated. We see what we want to see. We hear what we want to hear. We experience whatever we want to experience. At that point in my life, I needed Washington, DC to be the epicenter of American History — which it is, in a sense — but I also needed it to be an escape from the isolated New England bubble where I attended high school. The city morphed to fit my needs, but viewing it through a different lens, less colored by the wishful thinking of a young teenager, a grimmer picture moves into focus.

My visit to Washington, DC in 2018 came from a desire to treat my boyfriend, Antoine to a small trip this summer, and from a desire to experience the city that I had loved so many years ago. I could barely remember the details of my first visit. I remembered eating Chipotle (my guilty pleasure) somewhere near the Hilton where we’d stayed for Model UN, and I remembered nearly losing my grandfather on the subway near Foggy Bottom during the cherry blossom festival rush hour.

I structured our 2018, five-day visit so we would spend half of our time in a modest hotel in Northwest DC (in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods) and we spent the other half of our time in Brookland, DC, visiting a high school friend of my boyfriend’s, Liam.

During our stay in Northwest DC, we met up with a college friend of mine who works in politics, Sally. I only learned about her work recently, and details are sparse as I try not to engage in the usual “what do you do” song and dance.

The contrast between our two friends’ lives mirrors almost exactly the sociopolitical and socioeconomic differences between the gentrifier and the gentrified. There are two cities within the 68.34 square miles of the city. One city is blissfully ignorant of the other. The “other” DC bears the crushing weight of awareness of the “new” version. One existence is in peril while the other is in the midst of a neo-colonial expansion. Their two lives painted a grim picture of urban colonization in action.

Prior to my visit to Washington, DC, gentrification had been an amorphous concept where no one could take direct responsibility of being the gentrifier, and the gentrified were blamed for their circumstances. Why couldn’t they leave? Why would a changing neighborhood mean that they can’t stay? Why shouldn’t someone white be permitted to move anywhere they want to? These questions do have answers that are better conveyed by sociologists and authors who have already quantified and qualified what gentrification is, how it happens and its impact. (LINK: How To Kill A City). What I can convey to you is the story of two individuals, two real people who are both human, empathetic, and hold a special place in my heart. Yet they stand at opposite ends of a struggle which has the inevitable end of white supremacy at the expense of black annihilation.

As a tourist, as a mere visitor, these differences are not easily apparent. When we travel, we can make the conscious choice to experience the “package” or to cut it open and examine the reality of the product contained within.

***

A narrow, steep staircase led to a pair of attic bedrooms. The cherry-colored wood possessed that warm woody smell that reminds me of my grandfather’s house in the summer. One bedroom lay around the left-hand corner of the attic, while Liam’s bedroom sat behind a door that fit unevenly in the frame and thus, remained slightly ajar without a good hard tug.

Liam pushed the door open, revealing a sloping exposed ceiling and the furnishings of the room he rented. His bed sat beneath the sloping ceiling pushed against the wall — an arrangement that doesn’t work unless you are single. An air conditioning unit took up most of the space in the single window. A desk with a laptop and chair sat across from the bed and to the right of the window was a dresser. Liam’s bedroom was neat and sparse. Coconut oil and Tom’s of Maine deodorant sat on top the dresser. Two books sat stacked on the bedside table — “We Were Eight Years in Power” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “Small Country” by Gaël Faye.

He invited us to sit on the bed and my mind wandered immediately to high school when our dorm rooms were individually crafted escapes from the pressure and intensity of a rigorous college preparatory program. His bedroom struck me as a similar escape, tucked away from the noise and madness of Washington.

Our night began with drinking. I’ve noticed that friends who work in bars drink far more heavily than my friends who work desk jobs. They drink like college students, even. Perhaps the habit merely carried over with no necessity for cessation instigated by early rising. After we drank, he closed the bar where he worked, and we returned to his bedroom.

Liam rolled a cigarette from loose tobacco in his bedroom. I don’t know many other people my age who smoke cigarettes, but I find smokers are often more polite about their habit than non-smokers. We went outside for him to smoke. Sharing space means your home is not always yours to do with what you please. Your vices must be performed in exile. As we sat on the porch, he was awake, alive and vibrant.

Brookland was quiet, traffic free and peaceful. My shirt stuck to my back and I missed the trade wind breeze that normally takes the edge off the summer heat. The gunshots I heard earlier burst forth like a great release of tension and now that the tension had settled, the neighborhood was pleasant and comfortable without the stiffness I’m often met with in rural suburbia.

He lit his hand-rolled cigarette, the light illuminating a wrinkle-free cinnamon colored face and brown eyes. The inhalation was meditative, a nightly ritual confined by the prohibitive cost of the habit and his awareness that a life in poverty both requires vices for survival and a certainty that one of these vices will kill you.

Liam’s was reluctant to speak about his volunteer work as a community organizer despite the fact it was the most important focus of his personal politics. I write, others “do”. I admire them for it, so I find myself interested by work that some may consider mundane.
Liam’s allegiance to paying bills and keeping a roof over his head required work as a bartender, but his clear passion was for life outside the confines of the tap. He paid visibly obsessive attention to his physique and physical health — an attention that is usually missing (and for good reason) from the lives of the stressed and poor. Liam’s dedication to the community he’d chosen in Washington was masked by humility and his desire to keep our conversation light.

(If allowed, I will get someone into the most uncomfortably deep conversations within minutes of meeting them. I’ve never been much for “light” chatter, and I’m working on it!)

Content to observe in silence, I allowed him to speak, to see what interested him, what bothered him and what motivated him. I listened and allowed my mind to draw conclusions from both my experiences earlier that week and what Liam said to Antoine and me.

Gentrification is cancerous. A diagnosis might be met with a mixture of denial and hope, the futile self-assurances we give ourselves when we want to believe it is possible for the ill to come out the other end alive.

The sickness spreads, masked beneath neo-colonial language like “development” and “improvement”. The eugenicist language isn’t so subtle to anyone with a background in genetics, or historical competency in other areas that have experienced social and ethnic cleansing.

Beneath the mask of development, cultural annihilation eats through the heart of the city, weakening the vital organs until eventually, culture is extinguished. A breath of smoke evacuates the poisoned lungs of the city and then it’s over. Like cancer, death may arrive after many years. Suffering is all that we can guarantee.

Community organizing is not a band-aid however, it’s chemotherapy. Community activism punctures the vitality of the citizens fighting to save their livelihoods by forcing them into a futile struggle against a dark force larger than themselves. This is not to say the work is unimportant. The impact can be seen in the visible monuments to struggle, the body’s last stand against the metastasizing tumor of late capitalism.

In the morning, we visit one of those monuments. The art collective is open to the public and houses four stories of residents who celebrate their blackness via their art and the decor on the doorways to their homes. A Trinidadian flag, a black power fist, an image of a naked woman with an Afro line the walls and doors.

Chemotherapy has rendered the remaining people from the old city a place to hide until cancerous development replaces community with capital.

We walk past a dance class where black women engage in what has always been more spiritual than physical for our people. We walk past Liam’s yoga studio, where he volunteers once a week in exchange for free classes. We walk past a liquor store, Pho 12, another liquor store and rows of houses. Some of them are marked by the cheap wood-like exterior that demarcates gentrified buildings from old brick or drywall siding.

The pungent smell of marijuana wafts from a nearby porch onto the street. Black people are alive here. This is their home. And while I’m thousands of miles away from the Caribbean, I am comfortable in a way I’m usually not in the United States. Signs on the lawns say “All Are Welcome Here”, and unlike more homogenous, whiter towns, they mean it.

This is what the settlers want to destroy.

***

Liam shouldn’t be behind the wheel. He’s legally blind. He drinks excessively. Sitting in the car is all too reminiscent of driving with a Saint Lucian bus driver. The breakneck speed and weaving end in his old neighborhood. My life is intact but my racing heart draws minutia to my awareness.

When my boyfriend visited him in the past, he shared an apartment in Trinidad, an area that according to him, is substantially different from the neighborhood my boyfriend, Antoine visited years ago.

The neighborhood now has the aura of falsehood that occupies gentrified neighborhoods. The smiles and comfort of the current inhabitants do nothing to assuage the underlying sense that they don’t belong here. No matter how comfortable they seem, something is out of place.

Antoine confirmed what Liam told said to us, by pointing out that he barely recognized any buildings that he’d seen on his previous visit. The marks of black Washington were erased, and the process happened quickly. In contrast, visiting the dilapidated and abandoned campus of Antoine’s former high school, there were few changes to the buildings despite a decade of abandonment. Gentrification works quickly, leukemia to the city’s life force.

As we slowed through the dead neighborhoods, where spirit and vibrancy are replaced by carbon copies of the same townhouse exteriors, restaurants where entrees are $30 USD a piece, and renting an apartment is near impossible without roommates, I sensed the grief. Residents of the city like Liam have no hope of home ownership and even their status as tenants remains nebulous. They are about to be purged. Extinguished.

“This is where I used to work,” Liam announced as we slowed down on a block lined with cars, “Should we go in?”

Out of curiosity, we entered. We learned that the chef whom he’d worked with during his time there had died. As we entered the restaurant it struck me that none of the people who worked there could afford to eat there — certainly not with any degree of regularity. The sort of diner who would eat there was not unfamiliar to me. The stiff, non-black clientele reminded me of a restaurant I’d visited earlier during our visit: Comet Ping Pong.

***

Peak hours at Comet Ping Pong during the height of a sticky, hot, DC summer day presented a confusing challenge to myself and Antoine who were uncertain if we were at the right destination. Saint Lucia is decidedly rural and I admit to feeling uncertain about a pizza place that did not have “PIZZA” in the title.

“Do we go in?”

“Where do we sit?”

“Where’s the waiter?”

“Can we just go?”

“We should go in.”

Half-way towards a table, shaped like a ping-pong table, a man, dripping head to toe in sweat and dressed like a friend of mine before a night of drinking in an untucked plaid shirt and jeans slurred his words as he greeted us and asked how many we would be expected.

“Three.”

We’d arrived earlier than Sally, my friend from university and co-manager of the cafe where I worked throughout college.

The waiter wrinkled his nose and then sat us down in the Northwest DC restaurant. We were two of three black patrons in the entire restaurant, which was packed door to door. Our waiter left the table without handing us menus or water.

“That guy’s a waiter, right?”

“I have no idea.”

“We’re here.”

“Think this is the right place.”

“I guess.”

We faced the door — a habit both of us picked up from years of paranoia and high anxiety. Above the entrance, a projector played a short film. The details of the film are hazy now and images of a small girl dressed as a boy play-fighting with another villager are all I can call to mind.

“Do you know this movie?” I whispered.

“No.”

Menus arrived before Sally whom we presumed was running late. A waiter at another table released a wet sneeze into his t-shirt. His eyes were sallow and sockets blackened. We opened the menu and instead of the usual pizza names, we were met with “The Cornhole”, “The Zucc-Suit” and “The Veganista”. They served as cultural markers if nothing else. We weren’t in Kansas anymore, that’s for sure.

I ordered a grapefruit juice and eventually, we received glasses of water with melted ice. Before we could ask our waiter any questions about appetizers, he disappeared into the throng of waiters and customers, rendering him indistinguishable.

“So… Is this Gen-Z?” Antoine asked.

“No. I think they’re hipsters.”

“Hipsters are still around?”

Sally entered late, all smiles. Her smile has always been one of her best features and was always a pleasant addition to managers meetings or shifts at the cafe. She’s short, around my height or shorter, with pale skin, brown hair and greenish-brown eyes. She’s Jewish, friendly and at least compared to me, an absolute genius at Mathematics.

Since graduation, I’ve been in touch with my college friends the way people were in the 80s, which is to say, not at all. I’ve made the conscious choice to live my life free of prying, social media ogling and questioning people about their careers, rent costs and relationships. I never decline the offers of such information, however. I’m no saint.

I’ve learned throughout the years of going to predominantly white institutions that how black people (of all ethnicities) and white people characterize financial struggle differently. Like most people I know who have lived and worked in DC, Sally described struggle. The city is expensive, she remarked directly on one occasion and indirectly on many.

A waiter took our order. We settled on food selections and continued talking.

Sally works in politics. That much I had gathered because everyone I know seemed to work in politics. She hinted at such prior to the arrival of our pizza and couched in multiple apologies for talking too much about her field of work.

“DC is a liberal city,” she informed us.

“I like being around a diverse group of people.”

Her job enables her to live with a roommate in the Northwest part of Washington.

“It’s expensive,” she told us, and I agreed.

Expensive is relative, as I said. Where I live in Saint Lucia is considered downright luxurious to most people in Saint Lucia. In the United States, friends are envious of the “cheap” rent as well as all the space. Rather than argue over the minutia or attempt to guess what expensive meant to her, I continued to listen to what interested her, what she enjoyed about the city and what she didn’t.

I think Sally would be happy if she were trapped in a 4×4 foot room without doors or windows that was slowly filling up with water. She’d be the type of person to exclaim, “I love swimming!” and make the best of it.

Sally informed us that she’d chosen this particular restaurant not only because the food was good but because it was the site of the famous “pizzagate” incident were a civilian fattened with conspiracy theories entered with an AR-15 and fired fifteen gunshots into the ceiling to “free” the children that were allegedly being sex-trafficked in the basement of this pizza place.

I hadn’t heard of pizzagate, but upon further research, I found it interesting that a place where someone had shown up with an assault rifle experienced far less policing than blacker parts of the city. Police must have viewed the violent outburst of pizzagate as an aberration rather than the norm — a luxury other parts of Washington, DC do not enjoy.

My friend, Sally, loved her line of work. She loved Washington and while what she did might have been stressful, she showed no affinity for alcohol or smoking. The raw hunger for liquor or tobacco that I find amongst friends who live near the poverty line was noticeably absent. Her vice rather seemed to be introspection and a preoccupation with whether or not she was doing what she was supposed to be doing. Her concerns transcended the material. The unconscious opulence that the white upper-middle class experience only stood out in contrast to my experiences with Liam and his housemates days later.

Sally worried that her open relationship — which involved a relationship with both a woman and a married man — was somehow unhealthy. Rather than work, bills or “balance”, these relationships were her greatest concern.

“I judge myself a little,” she admitted.

I encouraged her not to judge herself, but I don’t think it had much effect.

Her romantic life was tainted by the usual unhappiness I find when speaking to friends in this 25-35 age group.

Excess stimulated misery, not lack.

***

There are two cities superimposed on one another. They interact, but they are almost like alternate universes that you’d find in a Murakami novel. You may be able to bleed through the barriers of one world into another, but the alien world of the gentrifier is to the gentrified, identifiably different and ultimately alien. The gentrifier bears no awareness of the gentrified, in contrast. This invisibility may even lead gentrifiers to believe they are “helping” the gentrified. The unjust power dynamic may be rebranded as justice, activism or even charity.

Recently, Antoine messaged another friend of his who had lived in Miami for a time before returning to Saint Lucia. He shared his thoughts about the gentrification he’d witnessed in the United States. The friend responded that gentrification had been “good” for Miami. He didn’t see the problem.

I imagine one’s perspective is different when you’re the one being displaced rather than the one benefitting from the displacement.

Yet, our society has been conditioned from the onset of the eugenics movement in the early 1900s to value the purging of undesirables from our ranks. We buy into this mindset in large ways and small as individuals and as collective communities. Just think of the extrajudicial killings scandal that wreaked havoc in Saint Lucia a few years ago. Public opinion largely supported the killings of undesirables despite the Christian mandate “Thou shalt not kill”. (I use the Christian mandate because this allegedly guides the ethics of our culture.)

Communities, cities, and governments decide who is worthy of life, equity, and fair treatment. When governments and investors decide that certain neighborhoods are “good” because their populations are white, upper class and therefore not criminals, this creates the conditions that lead to what is ultimately an ethnic cleansing. Of course, it’s much tidier than anything you would find in a Hollywood dramatization of an authoritarian regime bent on eliminating undesirables. Reality often lacks the bombast of fiction.

Despite the generations of divergence amongst the Black global diaspora, our separate paths in the aftermath of the transAtlantic slave trade often possess an odd convergence. The struggles of Black Americans to fight gentrification in their hometowns mirrors our struggle in Saint Lucia to protect our land from the massive ecological destruction of irresponsible and unsustainable development.

Globally, Black people in my age group are forced to balance surviving on low wages that don’t match the increased living cost with the perpetual struggle of social activism. Contrary to popular beliefs, I’ve found many of my peers dedicate some aspect of their lives to activism, whether online, offline or both. To those who struggle with excess rather than lack, the struggle is optional, and there’s the omnipresent sense that they will retire from the “struggle” when it no longer suits them — a belief backed up by the statistical fact that white voters grow more conservative as they age.

Individual anecdotes hardly paint a story we can rely on for accuracy, or for making generalizations. Yet when I visited Washington, I couldn’t help but notice the strong contrast between the lives of a black man in his early thirties with a Master’s Degree in the general field of politics in comparison to the life of a young white woman with a Bachelor’s degree in an entirely different field. Statistics, after all, are the sum of large numbers of anecdotes. Even random stories and random people with seemingly no connection are in fact connected by the tapestry of social factors that influence all of our lives: race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, and gender.

Anecdotes or “oral history” so often have a basis in the truth. I wondered if this was the case or merely confirmation bias. Yet, my visits to Boston have yielded similar contrasts. The lives of young people of color are markedly different from the lives of white people of a similar age. White people are all around better off, regardless of their race, class, sexuality, and gender. My experiences and anecdotes match the “statistics” to a horrifying degree.

The difference between statistics and anecdotes are the human element. To those who buy into the philosophy of the European Enlightenment, statistics have a much stronger pull due to their allegiance to logic and reason. Yet, I’ve always found difficult concepts like gentrification and its impact easier to understand when injected with a human element. When I see Liam or Sally, I understand the complexity of the issue better. I see them both as people and when I humanize them both, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that our society is hierarchized in a way that prioritizes one over the other.

It grows more difficult to see how gentrification “does some good” when you can humanize the people suffering the anguish of displacement.

Leaving my observations with a positive takeaway message forms a fundamental part of my spiritual beliefs and commitment to promoting a mentally healthy view. I often feel a grand conspiracy to keep black, poor and third world folks miserable and I loathe to be a pawn in such a miserable game. So what do I make of this? What can I take away from my observations about our convergent plight, and the difficulties that young Black Americans, as well as Black West Indians, face in this decade?

The plight of Black Americans isn’t one that I am divorced from, yet I don’t feel equipped to act within a leadership capacity within African American communities. My reassurance about “what can be done” has come in the form of education.

There’s a myth of Black passivity in the face of gentrification promulgated by academics who exist within white-dominated liberal elite spaces. “The hood” is a place they harken back to either to pull on the heartstrings of their wealthy patrons or as an emotional reference point to their “past”.

Many writers and cultural critics seem unaware of activism that doesn’t serve their desire for public and online adoration. Some might argue that they aren’t unaware but engage in active erasure. I’m willing to believe both situations are true.

Communities that exist beyond online clout work daily for equitable treatment, a restructuring to our legal systems, and resistance to police violence in their communities. I won’t insult your intelligence by naming each group that does this work individually. Research. Find out who works for neighborhood equity in your city, county, and state. Assess what you have to offer, and give. No greater personal power can be attained than what you get from living in service of your community.

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