Jul 18, 2011

WASHINGTON — This city, the country’s first to have an African-American majority and one of its earliest experiments in black self-government, is passing a milestone.

Washington’s black population slipped below 50 percent this year, possibly in February, about 51 years after it gained a majority, according to an estimate by William Frey, the senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

The shift is passing without much debate, but it is leaving ripples of resentment in neighborhoods across the city, pitting some of the city’s long-term residents, often African-American, against affluent newcomers, most of whom are white, over issues as mundane as church parking and chicken wings.

“You can’t help but look around and see the face of the community changing before your eyes,” said Tom Sherwood, co-author of “Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.”

He added, “That can be an uncomfortable feeling, and you’re going to have some people acting out, expressing their concern in racial code words.”

On H Street, Pamela Johnson, an African-American who owns a small storefront building, said her property tax bill had more than tripled in the three and a half years since the city began building a streetcar system that she said she never wanted. She said that she could not afford to pay and that she was one of several dozen owners in danger of losing their properties in a tax sale.

“This process was imposed on us, and now it’s driving us out of here,” said Ms. Johnson, sitting in a Jamaican restaurant on H Street, which now has new sidewalks, stylized street lamps and shiny streetcar tracks. “We see this as the city’s way of gentrifying these corridors.”

Charles Allen, a spokesman for Tommy Wells, the District of Columbia Council member who represents the area, said the district had gone out of its way to help Ms. Johnson and other property owners, including by lowering their property tax rates and persuading the city’s Office of Tax and Revenue to take them off the tax sale list. In addition, the Council just signed off on $723,000 in relief for small businesses hurt by the changes in the city.

“Blocks have turned from empty lots to active businesses,” Mr. Allen said, noting that 55 new businesses had opened in the area over the last few years. (Ms. Johnson says many stores have also had to close.) “Property values have increased. Most property owners on H Street are happy about that.”

Washington ranked third in median income growth among large cities in the past decade, and resentments like Ms. Johnson’s often are, perhaps inevitably, responses to a rising tide of market forces.

But race and class issues often overlap, and as the city’s demographics shift — the white population jumped by 31 percent in the past decade, while the black population declined by 11 percent — many less affluent blacks say they are feeling left out of the city’s improving fortunes. In April, the Census Bureau reported that Ward 8, in the city’s mostly poor and black southeast, had the highest jobless rate in the country.

Read more at the NY Times


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