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Bloomingdale Neighborhood’s Gentrification, While Seen as an Overall Positive, for Many Affordability a Serious Issue Causing Angst

Accompanying images can be viewed in the December 2013 issue PDF

By Mike Persley*

Over the last decade, the Bloomingdale neighborhood has registered a 27 percent increase of white residents –- percentage-wise, the District’s largest. And with that change have come new restaurants and bars, renovated homes, and an increase in property values with increased property taxes.

From interviews we conducted and reported last month, we concluded that despite the setbacks that come with gentrification of any neighborhood, Bloomingdale remained a place that held a significant amount of social cohesion. (See, “Bloomingdale Neighborhood’s Gentrification Seen as Having Successfully Blended in Long-Time Residents, Though Affordability an Issue,” November 2013 issue PDF page 1; http://tinyurl.com/msppqj3.)

We received several responses to the article, one of which came from Karen May, in which she wrote:

“Please write an article on the displaced residents, our residents struggling to pay mortgage, rent, taxes to remain in Bloomingdale. Lord, those residents on fixed incomes struggling. . . .”

Bloomingdale: Part Two

Cleopatra Jones moved to Bloomingdale about 45 years ago.

She was born in Panama, where her mother was stationed in the Army, but the rest of her family lived in Washington, DC. When her mother’s tour of duty was finished, they returned to Washington.

She has fond memories of growing up in Bloomingdale.

“This used to be the south,” she says. “So many people came from the south, and there was just all of these families, with roots. Everybody who moved here was never more than two hours from where they came from.”

To hear Jones recall it, Bloomingdale, when she was young, was a neighborhood where neighbors looked out for each other, oftentimes attended church together, and the parents from one family kept their eyes out on all of the children in the neighborhood.

“It was just like when they talk today about old school versus new school. It was very old school,” she says.

The neighborhood was largely African-American. Up to the 2000 census, 90 percent of Bloomingdale residents were African-American.

Today, that number has dropped to 59 percent.

A few years ago, Jones remembers walking past Howard University and seeing several white students around campus.

“Good lord, there’s a lot of Anglos,” she jokingly remembers thinking.

She was taken aback by the change at first, but, she says, she has learned to adjust to it.

“Change is good,” she says. “It’s part of life. We all have to adapt. In some kind of way it effects everybody.”

Father Mike Kelley has been preaching at St. Martin’s Catholic church on North Capital Street since 1992. When he first arrived, he says, people were selling drugs on the front porch of the church.

“The place looked absolutely atrocious,” he says, “There was just trash, and abandoned cars.”

One Sunday morning in 1996, he stepped out front of the church to pick up some trash when a car drove by and sprayed 12 to 15 rounds of bullets into the side of the church.

In response to the growing crime in the neighborhood, he, along with leaders from several other Bloomingdale churches, formed the North Capital and Rhode Island Ecumenical Council, which sought to come up with ideas on how to reduce the neighborhood’s crime.

“We were getting a lot done,” he says, “We thought we might as well make it official.”

The council planned workshops where they brought in the police officers and held open forums for neighborhood residents to voice their concerns.

They visited schools where they talked to students about how to act when they saw or knew someone who was committing a crime. A channel was created between residents and the council whereby a person could leave an anonymous tip for police officers on where a crime was being committed.

“It’s been a lot of struggle,” says Kelley, “but we always feel like we’re making progress.”

But, Kelley says, as crime in the neighborhood slowly began to diminish, and an influx of new people began to enter, many of Bloomingdales older residents began to feel a loss of ownership over the neighborhood.

“I don’t want to overstate it,” he says, “but in changing, many of the older black residents often feel pushed aside. I think it’s just a feeling of being disrespected, like oftentimes they [incoming residents] don’t ask how things used to be.”

While some of the older residents are happy to see the development of new bars and restaurants, he says, they also know it’s something they can’t afford to take advantage of.

“I think for some it’s like another world, and they’re on the side of limited resources,” he says.

Jones, who does eat at many of the new restaurants, sees other people that she knows who simply cannot afford to.

“If you go there sometimes and it’s just two people and your bill comes out to $85, how can you go there when you’re a family of four or five people?” she says. “You’re talking $200 or more.”

Kathleen Schroeder, manager of Big Bear Café, which opened in Bloomingdale in 2007, says that it is the policy of the café not to comment on the issue of gentrification, but that their prices are set on what it takes to run the business. She also says that Big Bear has been involved in neighborhood outreach since it opened.

Sebastian Zutant, co-owner of The Red Hen, says that he considers the restaurant’s prices to be affordable, and that many of his customers are long-time Bloomingdale residents.

“I live on the same street as the restaurant,” he says, “and many of our customers are people who have lived in the neighborhood for over 20 years. I mean, you can come in, and you can get an entrée for $15. I’d say that’s affordable.”

Jones has also seen several of her neighbors have to leave their homes because they could not afford  to live in them anymore.

One woman, she says, was forced to sell her home to an investor because she owed $678 in back taxes.

Another man, who’s home was passed on to him after his father died, along with becoming ill, could not afford to keep up with the higher tax rates he had to pay as the property value went up.

“They’re all still stuck in that transition. They’ve had to move out to some one-bedroom apartment. It takes awhile to say ‘Snap out of it. I don’t have this anymore.’”

Despite the troubles, Jones still views the neighborhood positively and a place where the two sides can come together.

Reflecting her walk through Howard University, she says, “I remember seeing this white kid from Ohio and thinking, ‘wow. this is like this new communication for him with this new dialect.’ To the extent that these two ideas can unify, the better off the neighborhood will be.”

*The writer, a resident of the Bloomingdale neighborhood, is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago where he majored in political science, and is now studying for his Masters degree at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism.