The Last Frontier | The American Word

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The Last Frontier

Ellie Klausmeyer | 12/15/16 8:39pm
| Updated 12/15/16 8:39pm

Dan Kilbridge /
American Word Magazine

The gentrification of Washington, D.C. is a story that has been told over and over again. Commercial businesses are taking the place of small mom-and-pop shops, and wealthy residents are moving into neighborhoods once occupied by low income, minority residents. In fact, the median household income in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood has increased by 138 percent. In the vicinity of the Navy Yard, the African American population has decreased by 48 percent. These numbers reveal where D.C. is heading; the expelling of minority populations contradicts the liberal, free atmosphere the city prides itself with. What is more telling, however, are the countless stories of local residents who have lived in Washington for their entire lives. I recently visited Anacostia, an area which is often ignored in our conversations about gentrification within the District.

Anacostia is unique in terms of development, as the nearby Anacostia River isolates the neighborhood from the rest of the District. As a result, it has been slower to gentrify than other parts of the city, and 97 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are African American.

The Islamic Heritage Museum, located on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, embodies the neighborhood’s rich history. The museum is run by Habeebah Muhammad and her husband Amir, who both curate the museum and provide information regarding black history. Muhammad has lived in Anacostia her entire life and has noticed the changing face of the community.

“They are building a Busboys and Poets,” Muhammed said. ”Businesses used to be exclusively for this community and were all African American owned.” Change occurred in the 70’s and 80’s as people began to move away. Recently, residents have started returning to their communities, along with a wave of new faces to the community. “Anacostia is kind of like the last frontier,” Muhammad said. “Young professionals are moving in because it’s affordable and locals are fighting to have it mixed.”

According to Muhammad, a developer recently made one apartment complex multi-use so that local residents could stay in the community while also giving way to new renters. This new series of residents does not come without its own set of challenges however, as Muhammad has noticed a change in how residents interact with each other. “A lot of the white folks who come, they don’t look, they don’t say hi. I don’t think they will say hi unless they see their own faces,” said Muhammad.

James Jackson works at Martha’s Outfitters, a local thrift store that benefits low income residents. The organization also promotes community building and engagement, as it provides free meals and other services. Jackson grew up in D.C., and after attending college, returned to Anacostia. He talked about the area’s long history, stating that the nearby Barry Farm is located on land that used to be plantations. Frederick Douglass’ house is also located in the vicinity, propped on top of hill overlooking the rest of the neighborhood.

According to Jackson, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser is attempting to sell the land to developers to the dismay of the low income residents who live there. If low income residents want to stay in Barry Farm, they must comply with a series of strict restrictions, which none can comply with. For example, residents cannot have ever been late on their rent, even if they have been living in the same apartment for 30 years. They also cannot have a criminal history, which disqualifies many people. “It’s all about the money,” Jackson stated. “Say what you want about race, but it’s all about business.”