Yesterday, NPR’s Morning Edition aired a piece about how Washington, D.C. is changing: “D.C., Long ‘Chocolate City,’ Becoming More Vanilla“. The segment was taped in Anacostia, and if social media is an accurate way to gauge local reactions, this highly-anticipated story dismayed and disappointed some listeners who live in Chocolate City.
While the racial makeup of D.C. is changing (everywhere– not just east of the river), some D.C. residents worried that the story showed an incomplete picture of a community which already struggles with how it is stereotyped and viewed. Did journalist Alex Kellogg go to Anacostia with a predetermined narrative in mind, which he padded with formulaic soundbites? A black resident is forced out. A young white gentrifier takes his place. People are robbed and pistol-whipped in an “edgy”, poor, black part of town.
Or is Kellogg guilty of dwelling on a community’s challenges instead of its immense potential? Is it even possible to tell a Ward 8 community’s story in under eight minutes? After speaking with David Garber, one of the people who was interviewed by Kellogg, I wonder if the answer to that last question is…”Maybe not.”
I emailed Garber as soon as I saw his tweets, which denounced the piece. Here’s what I knew about him from reading his blog, “And Now, Anacostia“, before Morning Edition taught me what he actually sounded like; Garber had lived in Anacostia, he was a booster for that community and he ceaselessly tried to counter the negative reactions it inspires. When I type “ceaseless”, I mean it– in 2009, when four men broke into his home during a holiday party and robbed his guests, Garber wrote:
As the night unfolded I was most frustrated that this happened in the presence of my guests, and that they would no doubt think differently about a neighborhood that they had grown comfortable with.
That’s right. Garber wasn’t worried about his safety or that he was a target– he was concerned that people who were already hesitant to visit him in Anacostia had just had their worst assumptions validated. And that’s the biggest complaint I saw yesterday– that Kellogg’s story conveniently confirmed the worst stereotypes about Anacostia. The fact that the story aired on Morning Edition, a respected program which thoughtful people trust for a nuanced take on the news only made it that much more powerful– and painful.
I called Garber yesterday, and spoke with him about Morning Edition, how he was portrayed and what he thinks about gentrification. He had quite a bit to say.
What did you think of the piece?
It was a very typical understanding of this neighborhood and neighborhoods like it. It’s unfortunate that a platform such as Morning Edition was used for such lazy journalism.
How was it lazy?
Well, it wasn’t a story about (Robert Adams) being priced out of the hood, it was the story of a guy who decided to buy a big house in PG county because he didn’t feel like living in Anacostia anymore. The reporter was trying to write about his impressions instead of reality.
But isn’t the reality that there is some displacement?
Yes. There are some people who have been pushed out of this neighborhood, sure. That is true, but I also think other parts of this story were left out or weren’t really told. The story ended up being about race whereas the story in Anacostia right now is about class. Most of the people moving here are black. It’s not a giant wave of whites in, blacks out. Anacostia’s racial history is choppy anyway, it was black for the past 50 years and before that it was white.
So it’s about class, not race?
Cities are adjusting themselves to people’s desire to live in them, that includes D.C. in general and Anacostia specifically. Generations X and Y want to live in the city, so we are seeing rightsizing…I don’t see how it’s a bad thing. For me, the story couched gentrification as something that is inherently negative, that negatively impacts neighborhoods and people who have been in them for a long time.
And you disagree with that definition of “gentrification”?
My experience with it is that it’s a lot more nuanced than that. In Anacostia and neighborhoods across D.C. there are people who’ve been here a long time, who are excited about infrastructure improving, cleanliness happening, neighborhood improvement. It’s problematic to argue against neighborhood improvement because you’d be advocating for the status quo.
Tell me more about your involvement with the Morning Edition story.
I agreed to be part of the story because I was trying to see if I could help broaden his understanding of what’s going on east of the river. One of the first things he talked to me about was the break-in at my house…which was something that didn’t really define my experience in this community, at all.
The piece made it sound like you left because of it. In reference to you, Kellogg mentioned that “this was not a neighborhood he stayed in for good, as well.”
In reality, I moved out months after that happened for unrelated reasons. The break in occurred in December of 2009. I left in August of 2010. And I moved out because of roommates, my lease.
An eight month gap between the robbery and your leaving would indicate that this was a neighborhood you did stay in, after being robbed…
Even after I corrected him a few times over email, and after the story came out…he treated it like he still believes that’s the reason why I left. His response was, “We were very careful about not saying that’s why you left.” For me, I hate even talking about the break-in because it was so irrelevant to my experience in Anacostia. It was one negative thing, but I had all these positive things that balanced it out. I didn’t see any reason to focus on it. Stuff like that can happen everywhere. I was not targeted. The people who broke in came in a car. They could’ve been from anywhere. It was an outlier of an experience.
And yet, if someone asked me about you or your blog, that break-in is the first thing I think of– specifically how you were concerned about how people would look at Anacostia after learning about it, after all of your attempts to present it in a different light. That was a memorable blog post.
I’m the first to admit Anacostia is not the most awesome neighborhood right now, but my goal has always been to do that. The negative press is already out there, so my goal was to add a positive perspective to the mix. I’m never going to say Anacostia is perfect right now. I know it’s not perfect. I also just know that it has potential and a lot of people are interested in seeing it improve.
No wonder you were so frustrated.
From the very beginning, I knew what story was trying to be told. My goal was to shape it away from that in some ways. There’s always the shock story, one population moving in, one being kicked out…that’s not what’s happening in Anacostia right now. It’s too bad that’s the story that was told.
If you look at who’s moving in, it’s a lot of professional blacks in their early to mid 30s. Gentrification doesn’t always mean racial displacement. I’ll be the first to stand up and say that I support more economic diversity in neighborhoods that are not economically diverse right now, and if that means gentrification, then we need to figure out what’s so horrible about it. Without gentrification, we’re left with pockets of poverty and food deserts; I don’t think that’s what we want.
Do you still live in Anacostia?
I lived there for 3 years, until last summer. Now I live across the river near the ballpark. I have my feet on both sides of the Anacostia river, in some ways.
Are you from D.C.? What drew you to Anacostia?
I grew up in Northern Virginia, so I’ve been in and around D.C. my whole life. When I started looking in D.C., to either rent in a nice neighborhood or buy in a less nice one, I came across Anacostia. I started believing in its potential. Everyone has their angle, I want Anacostia portrayed a certain way…and this reporter wasn’t trying to seek out representative stories, which just made it seem like a cheap shot.
It was an opportunity squandered…communities east of the river are places to trash. Some want to keep it that way…we kind of like having these places where we’re able to see the ruins of society and not offer any solutions or hear any true stories.