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.”