The Corner Forum
Sunday, Sept. 21, 2003
Issue #48

City's Decline Is Tied To Preference for Suburbs

By Richard Layman

800 block of 6th Street NE

Someone just showed me [the Aug. 10 issue of the Corner Forum] in response to something we were talking about.

While I think the interview with Leo Gordon is actually quite interesting (and the Corner Forum did a great job with it, in my opinion), I think it has a limited perspective, just like people might say I do. I do think that Mr. Gordon excuses some terribly chaotic behavior, and a number of streets are under siege as a result of such behavior, i.e., Wylie Street, 7th Street north of G Street, 1000 block of 4th Street, etc. I don't think that can be denied or shrugged off.

The discussion about streets and sidewalks in Jane Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities is amazing and well worth reading (again and again). Those principles broke down in the city, and we are still paying the price. (I would also recommend The Future Once Happened Here, but it is a harsh depiction of the decline of the city that many people feel is politically incorrect.)

To me, there are two different things going on here. One is that I think that there is a lag in behavior and attitudes between African Americans and whites with regard to a preference of where to live. Where there has been a marginal increase in interest in urban living on the part of the latter, the former still appear to be interested in the American Dream as it is represented by migration to the suburbs. Hence, plenty of middle-class and upper-middle-class African Americans live in Prince George's County, and in fact the overall D.C. population continues to decline somewhat, even as the percentage and number of whites increases while the percentage and number of African Americans decreases (although the latter is also partly as a result of the elimination of traditional public housing projects). But I think this is a matter of attitudes, not "the plan."

A related problem that comes from a belief that the suburbs are better is the desire to aggressively suburbanize the city. Examples like the Autozone, the Community Development Corporation row houses on the 800 block of 10th Street NE, the Hechinger Mall, etc. are anti-pedestrian, fundamentally anti-urban building forms. (Not the row houses exactly — they are just lousy design.)

Related to the first point, then, is economic forces, and in that Mr. Gordon is correct. People with more money — with a greater interest in urban living — find the greater neighborhood more affordable than say Dupont Circle or Georgetown, and incredibly convenient besides. So they buy and move here. This does drive up prices. Part of the reason the neighborhood is more affordable is because there are fewer conveniences comparable to Georgetown or Dupont Circle.

In my neighborhood, more west than where you are, the fact that a new metro station is coming has led to a tripling of housing prices in some instances. This is not a good thing, and there is no easy solution. I would not be able to buy my house today, on my now single-person income. I am capable of being able to pay increased property taxes, though. The impact on multigenerational and/or long-time residents is no less pronounced.

Getting back to disorder, I can't speak for the area by Excello, but I know for a fact that "the people hanging on the street corners" do in fact mask criminal behavior. They drink and carry on. They litter; they urinate publicly. At least by where I live, one of the people who does this clearly plays both sides and helps set up houses for burglaries, etc. On 7th Street, drug sales occur. As you probably know, that is a center for heroin dealing. People may serve as lookouts, if only for the price of a small bottle of vodka. And, according to residents on Wylie Street, children "playing" were being used to mask drug sales — just as is described in books such as The Corner (about Baltimore), movies like New Jack City and in innumerable newspaper articles.

I read stuff by Jane Jacobs, and I lament my desire to make it impossible to sit on the low brick wall "fence" in my yard, but I am tired of the people who urinate on my house, etc. The fact is that maybe 10-20% of the people create all the problems, and others suffer as a result. But we can't deny that there are people who are stumbling drunk on H Street at 9:30 a.m. during the week. §