The art of development: who is Petworth’s coveted ‘creative’ class?

| By Paul Abowd |

Sometimes a fresh coat of paint is all it takes. That’s the city’s idea in Petworth, where D.C.’s Office of Planning merged art and urban redevelopment in April, teaming with a local foundation and an out-of-town design firm to host an street art project at the intersection of Colorado and 14th Avenues Northwest.

At the event, organizers handed out copies of the city’s renovation plan (PDF), called the Central 14th Street Vision Plan and Revitalization Strategy, for this historically black, middle-class neighborhood. In the plan, Petworth is described as a gritty and hip, relatively low-rent “arts-based niche” neighborhood. With this brand in mind, city planners are banking on the arrival of industrious, young creative types — to help pound down a few nails.

“We’re using art very deliberately,” said Harriet Tregoning the city’s planning director, while Petworth’s young and old, black, Caribbean, Latino and white residents painted on the pavement nearby.

People talk about gentrification in code: “changing” neighborhoods combine an influx of “artists,” (young, white, and educated) and “young professionals” (more tucked-in, well-heeled versions of the former), with “longtime residents,” (black residents, many in an older age bracket—who comprised 88 percent of Petworth’s community in 1990 but 57 percent by 2010, according to D.C.’s Urban Institute).

The city’s plan aims to “attract skilled artists and artisans who are being ‘priced-out’ of other neighborhoods.”

Mike Wilson came to Petworth three years ago for just that reason, moving into a friend’s group house to escape the rent in Columbia Heights. But the 28-year-old also likes the feel of the neighborhood. There’s no D.C. USA shopping center, for one thing. And no Starbucks, but locally owned Qualia Coffee instead.

At the same time, Petworth has all the signs of a neighborhood on the verge: the coffee shop, the hardware store, the charcuterie, the dog park and bike lanes, to boot. Petworth has grown—and grown whiter, more affluent and more expensive in a decade. The number of white residents has tripled in that time, while home prices and average family income have both risen roughly 10 percent.

Wilson wonders how long this diverse, affordable, locally owned community will last, and whether he’ll be around to have a role in preserving it. “We want to shape the community together alongside existing residents so that we can all live there in ten years,” he said.

Indeed, Petworth will “benefit from Columbia Heights’ momentum” as the city’s planning document hopes, and the neighborhood is primed for a decade of displacement. “The downside of becoming a more popular place to live is that, unless we have enough housing stock,” said Tregoning, “that’s going to make it more expensive.”

WATCH: ‘Creative class’ ponders Petworth’s future

Not enough hours in a week

Wilson didn’t come to the neighborhood to “revitalize” it. In fact, he says, there’s not a whole lot he would change about his block on Crittenden Street. His neighbors don’t mind when his group house of mostly young, white friends hosts an occasional punk show, so long as the music wraps up at a reasonable hour.

Still, Wilson knows his very presence has been part of the change in a neighborhood attracting a steady flow of younger, more affluent, white residents to the redevelopment frontier. Lawyers and lobbyists — the young professionals — tend to follow the artists, and have begun to filter into Petworth’s high-end apartments.

Following the Columbia Heights model, a seven-story apartment building now sits atop the Petworth metro stop. A one-bedroom unit can be rented for $2000 a month.

“These young white folks can say, look, we’re in danger of being priced out, too, so we’re allying ourselves with the longtime African American residents,” said Dominic Moulden, an organizer with Shaw-based ONE D.C.

ONE D.C. claims a resident working at D.C.’s $8.25 minimum-wage would have to work 201 hours a week to afford $1,655 rent—the citywide average for a one-bedroom apartment. “The problem is,” said Moulden, “there are only 168 hours in a week.”

Who is the creative class?

Because such a small percentage of the city can live in the high-end developments cropping up in Petworth, there is potential for multiracial alliances to form around the goal of equitable development.

“The creative class should be be multi-class and multi-ethnic from the beginning,” said Moulden.

Tenants associations facing displacement have flooded ONE D.C. with requests for help. Residents at Petworth’s Duncan Apartments fought a redevelopment plan by forming a coop and obtaining a low-interest loan from the city to buy their 24-unit apartment in 2006. All the original residents live there today.

Despite city power brokers’ widely shared ethos that takes pride in D.C.’s “chocolate city” identity, development continues to play to the white and wealthy, said Virginia Tech Professor Derek Hyra, the author of a forthcoming book on development in Shaw.

“Today you almost have to go to the suburbs to find a Go-Go club. A form of musical expression has basically been displaced from the city.” When the black churches and the black clubs are getting replaced by dog parks and Starbucks, said Hyra, “you’re going to feel the resentment.”

Still, Wilson is an organizer with a citywide alliance of young and old, white, black and hispanic, labor and faith, fighting a common foe: Wal-Mart. The Respect D.C. coalition and another group called Ward Four Thrives have been trying to keep the large retailer out, for fear that local businesses along the Georgia Avenue corridor will suffer.

The big-box giant leveled a historic car barn at Georgia and Missouri Avenues this year, but Wilson celebrated when Wal-Mart announced in April it would delay construction plans. Now the site is just an empty lot, spurring different visions for the land.

Cycles of change

Tregoning, an avid biker, has touted the city’s low transportation costs as a way to offset rising housing prices in Petworth. D.C.’s growing bike program boasts 56 miles of bike lanes, twice as many as there were in 2007. One of these lanes runs from the Columbia Heights Metro station north on 14th, right past the city’s Colorado Plaza arts site.

In 2009, a group of younger, mostly white mechanics pooled their tools to form an all-volunteer cooperative called The Bike House. The shop offers free teacher trainings and beginner bike repair behind the newly opened Annies Ace Hardware on Upshur Street.

“Biking is popular in every part of D.C. It is for everyone; we don’t see a divide,” said Caroline Behringer, a mechanic at Bike House. “But we do see a divide in the infrastructure and where it is being provided.”

The bike shop’s volunteers take its bike trailer of tools to help the mostly white residents of Bloomingdale and the mostly black residents of Ward 8 with repairs.

“Some people in Petworth bring in these gorgeous carbon bikes,” she said. “In Anacostia, kids were rolling up dragging their feet because they didn’t have brake pads.”

Behringer said Bike House faces the same challenge that all of Petworth’s local enterprises face in a segregated and unequal city: How to create community without it being insular — or in this case exclusive to the fixed-gear hipster. The shop’s classes are open to everyone, and some are spaces devoted to women and people of color.

Behringer says biking has a wide appeal that could begin to bridge the city’s deep divides.

“We want to reach people who bike regardless of what kind of bike they ride,” she said. “We are trying to build a community.”

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