An Open Letter: Let us pause before we bury

Dear neighbors,

I’ve had a pain in my chest for a couple of days. It’s a tight knot. I can feel it when I stretch or bend over.

Yesterday, suddenly, that spot started radiating out chills. My whole body shook and tears started pouring down my cheeks. I lost all control — my body needed to express something and my mind was unable to have a say. I sat in a crowded place, sobbing. Eventually I ran to the exit to get fresh air — away from the crowd of people, away from my friends. With my back against the side of a brick wall, I burst into hysterical tears. The kind of crying when you feel like you can’t breathe and you have to kneel down because the weight of the night sky is a lead blanket descending. Between coughing up tears and trying to catch up my breath, I realized this was a physical sensation I had never experienced. It was somewhere between heartbreak, grief, and deep disorientation.

When asked what was wrong, the best I could explain was: “I’m afraid it’s all going to be gone. That we’re going to lose it all… I’m afraid the Metro PCS store will stop playing go-go.”

This past week I found out that I have to move out of the home I’ve lived in for 5 years. That’s the longest I have ever gotten to live in one house in my entire life. So, believe me when I say it’s been more than just a house: it’s been a home. Within the same 24 hours I learned that the beloved corner store on my block is closing. By this time next year I predict another “hip” coffee shop or boutique bakery will be nestled on the street. My house will likely be sold. The 1800s brick walls maintained, but the rest about to be gutted, and an electronic gate installed to “protect” the back yard.

Third wave gentrification in Washington D.C. has hit me like a bag of bricks. It’s not like I didn’t know it was happening. I mean there’s a beer garden on North Capitol now for fuck’s sake. But I guess a childish part of me was in denial. Like if I refused to see it, it couldn’t see me. That I could live in the DC I used to live in, just in a parallel universe, and only enter the ‘new world’ if I ever for some reason desired to buy a $100 cashmere scarf on a walk home.

7th St NW (by Shaw/Howard metro) around when I moved into my current home in 2011; the same view today

It feels intensely personal. See, I love DC more than I’ve ever loved any other place. I get viscerally offended when people write it off as just governmental office buildings and a politician’s playground. I feel in love when the city turns itself hot, and humid and alive on a July night. I’m pissed when it betrays me with too long winters or selling away its open space for development. I have outfits that I wear just for DC. Just for our dates. We have our own language, just like the best of lovers. The trees in Cooper Circle most certainly know me by name and the hitching posts near U street nod me hello. Howard Theater knows I watched her deserted and was in ecstasy at her revival. Logan Circle has felt my foot pacings and told me which directions to go many a time. To me, the city is animate. And the aggregate of all those tiny bustling conversations and intuitions is a lover who has held me through my darkest and brightest days, teaching me that both highs and lows are the same in their power and mystery.

(beloved) Cooper Circle

DC, I didn’t understand that when they’d knock down your street-line, gut your sanctuaries, price out your children, and paint over it all with gilded gold, that we’d also stop being able to talk. I naively thought you could always be heard, even if muffled. That maybe I’d just have to listen harder. But the paths you taught me are all different now, the rituals disparate, the ways of being and doing all interrupted. I realize now that the only one that’s kept me grounded through this most recent wave is that the Metro PCS store still plays go-go… that when I’m walking up 7th street I can still hear Chuck Brown and the beat still shifts the street. But it feels like an outpost. Out of place in its own place.

I know change is inevitable. And it’s understandable to want to ‘get yours’ finally from increasing property values. I even get the appeal of a late night tapas bar. I benefit from and participate in all of this. It’s complicated, of course.

And yet what felt so simple to me last night as I shook with tears is that we’ve lost a lot, and we won’t get it back. The city used to talk to me. And it’s starting to only whisper. I wonder if anyone else is experiencing the same. We pretend in the West that we don’t live in an animate world. That we aren’t in daily conversation with our surroundings. We imagine a day to day in which we are separate from them. But in reality, if you change a city, you change yourself. If you cover up, destroy, or deny well-worn pathways of communication, you lose essential information.

When we see progress as a linear line, we lose all the possibilities of the other paths. And we lose the chance for concurrent paths. We trade the “and” for the “or”.

14th St when I would walk home from work around 2009; 14th street today

Forests change all the time. Their skyline evolves. It grows and progresses in an ebb and flow, in a way that I bet if you could listen to it would feel like the coming in and out of humming waves. To progress itself nature doesn’t flatten all the trees just to plant a whole new crop of a different species. Why would it level the Redwoods to get juniper?

A city can do the same. We don’t have to kill what’s here to experience change. We can have Compass Coffee and affordable housing all in the same city. We can have the “both” and the “and”.

What I learned last night is that when a city breaks apart, is forced open, and reconfigures, we FEEL it. It’s breaking my heart. And, of course. Any elder born and raised in DC could have told me that years ago. In fact, they probably did. I was just young and too busy listening to the simmering summer sky and bathing in the skin-kissing humidity that hovers around the Angel Trumpet flowers on R street. This kind of grief and disorientation I did not see coming. I’ve had a hard time making it through the week. I keep wondering: how will I live in DC if I can no longer find DC?

And as the age old saying goes: better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. DC, I don’t regret any minute of it — even though the pain of missing parts of your figure that I’ll never get to see again will most certainly be a permanent wound.

As I prepare to move farther North East within this city of a State, awaiting the seemingly inevitable tide that’s rushing toward those sands as well, I just ask one thing: let us pause before we bury. I didn’t understand until this week all the conversations we’ve interrupted forever, all the intuitions we’ve shrouded, all the knowings we’ve made opaque. I want to interrupt fancy french dinners along U street and say “do you know that the light here in Shaw is better than in Paris? Have you ever touched the side of the houses in LeDroit and listened to what they say about the riots? Do you even know what used to be in this building? Can you guess how old that tree is, or that brick wall? Do you think about the chalk outlines long erased on this pavement as your heels click upon it?”

I used to be in a quandary about whether it mattered that to them it’s just a new Mexican restaurant but to me it’s the magical building alongside which I had a passionate kiss in my early 20s; or that to them its a designer whiskey bar but to me its the place that sold plantains and rice in take-out containers after late night dance classes. Isn’t that just life? Just the present being made history? After all, when I moved to First street I didn’t know that my home was once a schoolhouse. Isn’t it just history repeating itself but with me on the other side of the equation this time around?

2nd street and Florida Ave NW in 1988 (photo by Michael Horsley); 2nd and Florida Ave NW today

I’m not in quandary any more after last night. I experienced why it does matter. It matters when the shimmering threads of an ecosystem are cut off. If permission is not sought to the soil that is already there, the building that has already been, the people who currently live here, then it doesn’t matter how shiny the new building in its place is; the threads that once radiated a pulsing energy of past to present connection will now shimmer a little less. And those of us who used to guide our lives based on their humming light, will suffer. Our conversations cut short, without permission granted.

You see I wasn’t done talking with Shaw. We were in mid sentence. And you came in and put valet parking in the space between us.

The aggregate of all that’s here and been here is an alive pulse, don’t cut it apart or deny what it’s trying to say. Instead, listen and heed its kind recommendations. As it’s the only touchstone that will help us find DC’s equilibrium, that of our country, and that in one another.

In close, it’s crucial to state that I’m a white woman whose only lived here for 12 years. Ironically, I blend in now, appearing like one of thousands: likely a recent transplant sipping a mixology drink on 14th street. If it’s breaking my heart, bringing me to my knees, I can only imagine what it’s doing to everyone who calls DC their birth place. Those that remember 14th street in the 80s and First street in the 90s. Those that were my age when Marion Barry was mayor.

I don’t know the letter they’d write. And I don’t presume to put words in others’ mouths. I can only speak for myself. And, I’m grieving. I’m disoriented. And I’m heart broken.

What gives me solace is that — for right now at least — DC still speaks to me. She whispered to me to write this letter.

I promise to always listen.

P.S. To learn more about first, second and third wave gentrification this is a good explanatory essay.

Love,

Jess