The Gentrification of Hill East. Perspective: Jim Myers, Hill East Activist

Jim Myers, Hill East Activist.

Jim Myers, Hill East Activist.  Also pictured is the house he grew up in outside of Ithaca, New York

Copy of one of 3,000 flyers posted by Myers and others in 1998 "all over the city" to focus authorities'  attention on Hill East drug issues

Copy of one of 3,000 flyers posted by Myers and others in 1998 “all over the city” to focus authorities’ attention on Hill East drug issues

The Gentrification of Hill East

Perspective:  Jim Myers, Hill East Activist

by Larry Janezich

Asked about the biggest change in Hill East over the past 20 years, Jim Myers replies, “gentrification.”  One of the most dramatic manifestations he says is the “strange loneliness to the street that you didn’t have before – when there were people everywhere, it gave you a tremendous sense of security.  The neighborhood looks depopulated.  How did this happen?”  He answers his own question, “There are fewer people per house.  The new people coming in take more space per person.  The city thinks density is the number of dwelling units – but density used to mean the number of residents per unit.”

According to Myers, gentrification was spontaneous, but it’s clear that Myers played a part in it.  He moved to Hill East in 1990, saying, “I was married to a black woman then and she wanted to live in a black neighborhood.  We moved into a house that had been occupied by blacks since 1905.”  Now he says, he is not sure this is the place he moved to 30 years ago – “It’s not as compelling in terms of interests or experience.  It felt more engaging when the neighborhood was having a lot of problems – and engaging the neighborhood to make things better for the people who lived here was an important part of my life.”

Myers says he is not totally at peace with gentrification, “But it’s one of the ways the city renews itself.  It brings no pleasure to me but if the market produces that result, what can I say?”

Hill East was not called that 30 years ago.  Rumsey Aquatic Center used to be the Capitol East Natatorium.  Eastern Market wasn’t on Capitol Hill,​ which was a small enclave close to the Capitol.  The creation of the Capitol Hill Historic District in the mid-1970s promoted a sense of what we think of as the “Capitol Hill brand.”  Real estate agents extended the definition of Capitol Hill to real estate well beyond the Historic District.

Myers was a journalist writing about cities for USA Today.  In March of 2000, he wrote a piece for the Atlantic Monthly entitled: “Notes on the Murder of Thirty of My Neighbors,” which chronicled the violence and everyday​ life in​ the​ neighborhood.  

Myers said that in the late 90s and early 2000, the city started getting a handle on the homicides and drug issues which had been beyond the capacity of police to deal with.  Until then, activists such as himself were not having much success improving things.  He says, “The first break through was community policing.  It changed the neighborhood and made it possible to imagine homes which someday might have families and increase in value.”  One of the things he did to focus the city’s attention on Hill East was to publicize problems and say”​we want them fixed. ​”​  In April of 1998, he and others ​printed up 3,000 flyers – purporting to be authored by crack dealers inviting customers to meet sales associates at a list of open air drug markets in Hill East (pictured above).  Myers and his friends posted them “all over the city” which got the attention of both the politicians and new MPD Chief Ramsey.

One of the key factors in changing the character of the neighborhood was closing down in 1997 of Kentucky Courts – the Hill East public housing project notorious for shootings and the sale of drugs which characterized the city’s violence of the early 1990s.

Myers said that for him, it was a moral decision to shut it down.  He asked himself whether it was better to let single mothers raise kids there or tear it down.  When it was declared a health hazard due to the accumulation of pigeon waste, among other things, the city moved to remediate it and moved residents out.  The DC Housing Authority subsequently razed and replaced it with a mixed income project.  Myers says, “I was naïve to think we could close down Kentucky Court and produce a better place to live without bringing major change to the neighborhood.”

Some longtime residents started taking advantage of an opportunity sell houses in which they had been living or renting out.  Myers: “We never thought that gentrification would be the result.  It worked out in a way I did not feel good about.  Many of the old community based institutions are gone.  Churches like the Providence Baptist Church at 15th and Kentucky, the recreational center at Payne, and the Boys and Girls Club at 17th and Massachusetts.  Change was a slow process but it turned out that that happened in a way that was out of control.  Houses changed hands.  New residents came in waves then became a tidal wave.”  

Myers points to a pivotal moment he experienced in 2000.  He was walking near a long time trouble spot and drug market, the New Dragon Carryout at 15th and C.  He passed a white couple with a baby carriage.  He asked if they were lost, and they replied, no, they were thinking of buying in the neighborhood.  Up until then, Myers says, only the fore runners of gentrification –people he dubs,​“pilot fish” –  artists, gays, and political radicals​ who were attracted to the neighborhood.

He cites the work of Andre Duany, Florida architect and city planner who describes three waves of gentrifiers: first are the “risk oblivious” – those not attuned to risk because there is something else about the neighborhood they like.  Second are the “risk aware” – those who see property which might be worth something someday, get in now and when prices increase and make some money.  Third are the “risk averse“ who buy into a neighborhood after housing prices have gone up and see danger in anything impacting the potential value of their homes.  Myers says

the latter​ fear the word of crime as much as crime itself.  Of himself, he says, “I’m risk oblivious surrounded by risk aware and risk adverse.”

A strange thing has happened as gentrification spread eastward from neighborhoods close to the Capitol Building – resistance to expanding the Historic District began as properties turned over.  Myers said he missed a meeting at Payne School when the community met with the Historic Preservation Office to discuss expanding the Historic District, but his impression was they must have done a bad job because they left people with the impression that every little thing was going to be a matter of inspection.  People who benefited from the Capitol Hill brand resisted the Historic District – a “cognitive dissonance” according to Myers.  Not recognizing the value the Historic District brought to their properties, “People want their cake and eat it too.”​

Asked about expanding the Historic District into Hill East, Myers replies, “In some ways, I don’t think the expansion of the Historic District will happen here. The horses have bolted,” referring to recent developments, including popups and the building of multi-​unit residential complexes free from Historic District constraints.  Myers allows that there were some prohibitions associated with the Historic District which might have made development in Hill East look better, saying, “I regret that we weren’t more demanding about what was put on the available land on 15th Street.”

As evidence of Historic District regulations casting those policies in a negative light, he cites the example of the controversy over preservation of the “Shotgun House” in the 1200 block of E Street, SE.  “The issue left people puzzled, especially the new generation of Hill dwellers who are pro-development.  The preservationists couldn’t have done a better job of (undercutting the expansion) of the Historic District.”




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11 responses to “The Gentrification of Hill East. Perspective: Jim Myers, Hill East Activist

  1. DavidS

    I wonder how long the Historic District will actually function. The Restoration Society seems to lack the oomph it once had. The out of control redevelopment of Hine is a prime example.

  2. Kathleen

    This is an example of the kind of story that we would never read about anywhere but here. Jim Myers is a complex person who defies easy categorization and he has a lot to say. If he can’t be labeled easily, his views won’t find a home in any of our simplistic local papers or blogs.
    Thanks for publishing this Larry, and being that kind of person yourself. And thanks to Jim Myers: his essay in _The Atlantic_ had a profound impact on me as a graduate student (at the time) and as a resident of Capitol Hill, challenging me to pose critical questions about myself and my neighborhood.

  3. Marian Connolly

    It’s good to see this perspective on Hill East. In our early days on the Hill, we had several neighbors who had lived in their homes for 20-30 years. For the most part, they were very enjoyable people and were glad to see property values rise.
    I do have to correct one thing though. Myers says “Thirty years ago….Eastern Market wasn’t on Capitol Hill.” I moved to Capitol Hill in October 1967, 47 years ago and rented an apartment at 600 G Street SE. The area from the Capitol to the west side of 8th Street was referred to as Capitol Hill, including the location of Eastern Market in the 200 block of 7th Street. Restoration was alive and well within “near Capitol Hill” in those days, but the business community was still predominantly aimed at people who were NOT living in restored property. By 1974 when we bought our first home in the 100 block of 10th Street NE, I believe the geo-political boundaries of the Hill had been drawn by the DC Government to be identical with the boundaries of the Historic District. Today there is almost no meaning to the term Capitol Hill as used to sell real estate–especially in the NE. Who knew Capitol HIll would run to K & L Streets NE?

  4. anon

    interesting perspective on the impact of historic district. Shotgun house is such an outlier, but it’s become of symbol of historic preservation gone awry. Some of the most regretable developments in Hill East and H St could have been easily avoided with an expanded historic district which few people are now sold on adopting. By focusing attention on a single home of questionable significance, or a barely noticable addition to the Heritate Foundation building on Penn, the preservationsists have ceded more dramtatic and deleterious change to those with no concern or interest in the neighborhood fabric. So many of these developers are strictly investors with no stake in the community, buying properties for cash and converting to max out space under outdated zoning regulations. It may be a market efficiency (or exploitation of a market inefficiency), but the residents are left living among the unfortunate results.

    Even the supposedly CHRS/Cap Hill friendly Stanton Eastbanc wants in on this game with the Hine site — maybe SEB can compromise and propose replacing the extra height on Hine with a relocated the shoutgun house to house the elevator shaft. Problem solved – you’re welcome.

  5. Brian

    I moved to HIll East 3 years before Jim did, and worked with him on several projects over the course of 15 years or so, including assisting (along with one other key person) with the famous “Capitol Hill Crack House and Alley Tour”, which was a real tour that literally went into the alleys and showed the dysfunction of DCRA and the got the attention of MPD in a way not possible other than by crime or publicity. There were bad alleys and houses that were used for distributing and using crack, and the Tour showed real examples of this. Jim was one of the primary moving forces behind this.

    I disagree about the effect of gentrification. The “interesting” parts of the area that changed included the departure of a lot of drug dealers, violence and bad people. The neighborhood is better for it. BUT, I agree with him that the current “new generation of Hill dwellers” are pro-development in a way that will start to destroy the integrity of the neighborhoods, mainly the “pop-tops” that are appearing all over. The people that have moved in over the last five to ten years don’t have the history of living in a place where you had to worry about getting enough police cars to patrol, and getting drug dealers off street corners, so that the pioneering bond of protecting and building the community has slipped away. Now, instead of saving our neighborhood from decay and DC Govt indifference, we have to worry about too much of a good thing. We have become victims of our own success. The good news is that both the CHRS and parts of the DC Govt are trying to address some of the development issues, particularly the pop-tops. As it was 20 years ago, it’s still a fight.

  6. Eleanor Jefferson

    I’ve lived on Kentucky Ave off and on for over 55 years. Most of the people that I grew up with are long gone. Several bought homes in the suburbs where they got more for the money, many died and their children quickly sold as is at a very good profit. My Mom still owns her home but its getting harder (as a senior) to maintain. We get letters and postcards almost daily asking us to sell. The area has improved greatly, but how come when I walk down the street going to the Safeway or Harris Teeter’s or even the subway, people look at me like I don’t belong in this neighborhood. Even when I speak to people most won’t speak or they turn their head. WHY?
    My brothers who are both government workers are also looked upon with suspicion. The exception is when I walk my dog. (Totally different vibe.) Most will speak then. I know its not a law to say hello, but it doesn’t hurt to say Hi.

    • Andrea

      Hi Eleanor, I live around the corner in the 1300 block of G Street. I moved in in 1990 thinking I was moving to a community with racial diversity. Even in 1990 there was very little diversity on that block — had to turn the corner and walk north on 14th. I am white and I am just as dumbfounded as you about the lack of courtesy when meeting on the street. It is so frustrating to say “Good Morning” and not even get a smile or eye contact back. So I think we need to keep talking about it. We’re all preoccupied sometimes, but it has more the feel of disinterested or self-indulged. And, yes, dogs do make a difference. I have two little guys.

  7. Calvin H. Gurley

    My childhood residence was 1809 Bay Street, S.E..
    .I have served on the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission for Public Housing. Mrs. Sloan, a Capitol Hill resident was the acting Executive Director for the Commission. She lives on the 500 block of South Carolina Avenue, S.E. – the original Capitol Hill, extended. During my college years, I worked part-time on the produce stand in the old Safeway Store – 666 next to the alley that divides Hine Jr. High’s Basketball and play courts.

    Ms. Madeline Petty, Stanley Jackson – served as the D.C. Housing Director during different terms.
    The initial start of Gentrification is when the City allows a neighborhood to decay and become violent from street crime and drug dealing. The City Government had allowed Kentucky Court and Potomac Gardens to become what it was years ago…by refusing to maintain a level responsibility to the residents of Public Housing and to Black homeowners who [once] lived around those housing complexes..

    No one, not even Mr. Myers, knows about the screams from residents in Public Housing to have the city clean up not only the drug trafficking but to implement a preventative maintenance systems that is required to moderately sustain decent living conditions on these public housing sites. Black Folks ( neighbors and residents of Potomac Gardens and Ky Courts) cried for help…and none arrived. But, our other neighbors’ request(s) for the city government to clean up certain areas of the city and to close down Ky Courts were immediately answered.

    Not one person have mentioned Ms. Kemi Gray (Public Housing Tenant and Activist) who made media headlines in her fight against the City leaders to improve the living conditions at the Kenilworth – Parkside Public Housing Complexes. Ms. Gray also fought the City to make improvements at Potomac Gardens, KY Courts, Arthur Capper High Rise and East Capitol Dwellings.

    Now, who remembers when Ms. Cathy Hughes (Co-Owner of WOL -A.M. Radio Station and currently the Radio One Network) held a public protest and rally directly in the center plaza of the Potomac Gardens Public Housing Complex? Ms. Hughes obtained the help of the Geraldo Rivera Show to “nationally” broadcast residents’ screams and pleads for the City’s help and to save them from shootings and drug dealing in Potomac Gardens. Guess what? Nothing happened…the City Government did nothing and no improvements were made at the public housing complex.

    In short, many good benefits are derived from the result of Gentrification – the quick receipt of city leaders’ immediate attention and cooperation. But, please don’t devalue our long time residents who had asked for help, to clean up their neighborhood, but received none from the same elected officials who answered your call to clean up the very same neighborhood.

    Some housing and neighborhood history of Ward 6, Capitol Hill and Old City, as I have lived it.. By the way, the area below [East of] Lincoln Park is called and recorded as Old City.

    Calvin H. Gurley
    2014 Candidate for City Council At-Large

  8. In the ten years we’ve lived north of Capitol Hill just off H Street (in the area affectionately known as Cap Valley) we’ve seen progress in the right direction related to crime, trash, drugs, and conveniences. I’m not in a position to say whether those trump increases in property taxes and rents.

  9. whatever

    It looks like the Hill East listserv was not a big enough forum for Jim Myers’ histrionic rants about how the new people just don’t understand. Keep fighting the good fight, dude.

  10. Craig D'Ooge

    Those readers who live in the area that would be added to the Capitol Hill Hysteric District in the proposed expansion should go on the DC Historic Preservation Office website and wade through all the “guidance” and legal decisions posted there before deciding if you want to subject your property this giant body of such complicated, detailed, subjective, and sometimes outright self-contradicting laws and regulations, overseen by your neighborhood scolds who the city encourages to report you. Check out the brochure for “Landscaping Guidelines” that after pages of restrictions contains such gems as the fact that they don’t regulate landscaping and brick side walks are made of “historically inappropriate materials”. But don’t worry, you can always hire someone with a graduate degree to navigate these cloudy waters for a fee, which the review board, composed of such people on a rotating basis, naturally encourages. Just don’t let your tree box go feral, but if you want to build a multi-story mixed use condo project that dwarfs everything else in the neighborhood on the site of an abandoned high school, you’re good to go. Who needs a high school when you can get a Rodman’s?