Most mornings, my radio is tuned to WAMU for Morning Edition, and of course it’s the one morning I need XM that I miss an interesting story centered on DC. Alex Kellogg from NPR reported a piece titled “D.C., Long ‘Chocolate City,’ Becoming More Vanilla” all about the recent census numbers, gentrification in Anacostia, and the change of the neighborhoods east of the river.
I’d like to say that NPR did a thorough job that represented DC in a good light.
I’d like to say that. But I can’t.
Kellogg’s quick and dirty race narrative is the sort of story that drives me crazy because it sounds right. It sounds like its grounded in good statistics and lengthy discussions with people in the neighborhood. But it’s not, and NPR wound up providing legitimacy to economic disaster porn in DC when the story should’ve been the recovery of a community.
Kellogg’s story begins with the tale of District Heights, MD resident Robert Adams, who recently made the decision to leave his Anacostia home in search of a five bedroom house with a washer and a dryer. He decided to spend a bit more than he could in Anacostia, and get a bit more, too. As someone who moved into the District to find more space (and not less) I think that Adams’ calculus was a bit off.
Peele said in an interview this afternoon, “Hard to believe [Adams] turned his back on his community over a washer and dryer.” The young, African-American professional has her office in Historic Anacostia and lives in Congress Heights, and is skeptical of the narrative that Kellogg has chosen for his view into her part of the District.
“What I see is people coming together, doing things that others didn’t think possible…from all walks of life, a large majority of which are African American,” says Peele of her community and the way it’s changed over recent years. “There’s been no voice for East of the River in the past 5-10 years. There’s a voice now, and we won’t stand for it,” she continues, her tone betraying her frustration over media coverage East of the River. Peele’s interested in seeing the reporters who do “drive-by” economic reporting in her community come to spend time there, go to community meetings, and understand what the area East of the River is really all about.
“Media outlets are just constantly trying to portray it as a sob story of a neighborhood,” says David Garber of his interview with Kellogg that was part of the NPR piece, “I think it’s time we’re a little more honest about what’s happening east of the river.” Garber said that when Kellogg contacted him for the piece, the very first thing he wanted to talk about was the holiday party where Garber and his friends were robbed late 2009, and fixated on his departure from the neighborhood eight months later.
“I spend most of my time correcting bad information,” says Peele, talking about her work with reSPIN’s clients and the impression of DC’s neighborhoods East of the River. On her blog, she’s singled out misconceptions reported as fact in a feature titled, “Southeast Misconceptions.” “What I read out of [pieces like Kellogg's] is that people of color can’t fix their communities, and that’s just not true.” Peele speaks at length and with passion about all of the people that are working hard on Anacostia, Congress Heights and other neighborhoods East of the River to help create jobs, lure businesses and strengthen their communities.
It’s working. Sunday’s front page profile of Uniontown Bar & Grill, which just opened last week on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, speaks volumes about the changes in the community. Where once was a shuttered drug store, now stands a community’s newest sitdown restaurant, something of a rarity for the area east of the river.
The stories East of the River are harder to tell, they require a lot more nuance than can be inferred into a three minute segment on a radio show. They’re building by building, block by block, and they’re about people that the media usually only has interest in if they’re pictured in a mugshot with an identification board attached. But Peele and Garber are making sure that they’re being told. They’re hard at work in their neighborhoods making them better places to live, and that’s what we should be focusing on, not on some bullshit race narrative that makes it feel like pandering to the stereotypes of an era that was long gone when I was in high school.
Kellogg’s lazy dialogue on race relations and economy are the sort of reporting that neighborhoods in a struggling state of economy don’t need. “We all kinda want to have [economically-depressed places] still around, so we have places to shove all our ideas about the urban poor,” says Garber. “I don’t think the story was the worst thing in the world, it’s just too bad that using a platform like Morning Edition, it seemed like lazy journalism.”
I agree. Anacostia, and East of the River, deserve better.
It’s pledge week for WAMU here in DC, and they’re looking for help raising the funds necessary to buy programming like Morning Edition from NPR. Perhaps it’s time to use your bully pulpit, DC, and let WAMU know you expect better from their network parent. I know that I certainly expect better from NPR than the kind of lazy reporting we got here.