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4 Uncomfortable Truths About Living in Washington, DC

Washington, D. C. Activism
by Matt Hershberger Mar 5, 2015

1. Gentrification is for real here.

Dave Chappelle’s 2000 stand-up album Killin’ Them Softly was recorded in DC, and he opened his set by remarking, “DC has changed! It’s different now. There’s a lot of white people walking around. …It was not like this in the 80’s.”

DC was 70% black in the 70s, but the number has since dropped down to 50%. Only Portland has gentrified faster. The gentrification is largely because of people like myself: transitory middle class white people who moved into the city because a) we wanted to live in a city and b) we wanted political jobs. While those reasons are harmless enough on their face, their side effects are a pretty mixed bag for poorer often black families: H Street, where I lived, has rapidly gentrified, and the newcomers often price out the poor, usually black families that had lived in the neighborhood for a much longer period of time.

Gentrification is a mixed bag: it does some level of good, but it can also damage the communities that existed there prior to the gentrification. So it’s worth educating yourself about.

2. The race divide is pretty deep, and you’ll hear a lot of coded racism.

DC is an American city, so it should come as no surprise that it has its race issues: police tend to disproportionately target black people, the city is one of the most segregated in America, and resentment lingers over gentrification to the point where it has morphed into an elaborate (and possibly partially true) conspiracy theory.

Among white residents, the racism tends to not be explicit, and is rather coded. I can’t count how many times a predominantly black neighborhood in DC was called, “sketchy,” or “rough” even though the only basis they (and, to be totally honest, occasionally I) had for terming the neighborhood that way wasn’t a particularly bad reputation so much as an awareness of its demographics. There are even arguments that the pushback against catcalling has racial dimensions.

Race in DC — as with everywhere else — is tricky, and lines are very easily crossed.

3. It is insanely expensive to live here.

DC is one of the most expensive cities in the country. It’s even more expensive than New York. A recent report found that you need to make $108,092 a year to live comfortably in DC, and that’s if you’re just supporting yourself.

For younger people and people who are not working in the upper echelons of government, this is especially pricey, as they tend to be working in entry level professional jobs or, god forbid, as unpaid interns, usually with thousands of dollars in student debt. On top of this, it’s a city that runs on “networking,” so you can’t necessarily get by staying in your house and catching up on TV shows like Scandal and House of Cards that portray your city in a much-sexier-than-real-life light: you need to get out the house and meet people. Learn to love obscene credit card debt.

4. You probably won’t stay in DC all that long.

There are plenty of families who have spent generations in DC, and there is no shortage of community and shared history in the city: but the fact remains that DC is one of the most transient cities in the US. From 2008 to 2010, 14.2% of people moved in a one year period.

This largely has to do with the city’s economy — it’s a great city for young people because it has a ton of very good jobs, but as they get older, they either move to Northern Virginia or Maryland, or they move back to the place they came from. So if you’re a young person who is moving to DC for professional reasons, you may not be there all that long.

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