NPR’s take on Anacostia: Whitey Is Coming

Southeast DC Census Data by race

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.

Photo courtesy of
‘Green Mural’
courtesy of ‘Phaesia2011’

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.

Nikki Peele, who writes Congress Heights on the Rise and runs reSPIN PR in Anacostia isn’t so charitable.

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.

Photo courtesy of
‘2008 – 03 – 01 – Ready for the great Anacostia flood of 2011’
courtesy of ‘Mississippi Snopes’

“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.

Photo courtesy of
‘Sit Yourself Down’
courtesy of ‘M.V. Jantzen’

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.

I live and work in the District of Columbia. I write at We Love DC, a blog I helped start, I work at Technolutionary, a company I helped start, and I’m happy doing both. I enjoy watching baseball, cooking, and gardening. I grow a mean pepper, keep a clean scorebook, and wash the dishes when I’m done. Read Why I Love DC.

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31 thoughts on “NPR’s take on Anacostia: Whitey Is Coming

  1. Awesome. Thank you for this write-up. I agree with David that this wasn’t the worst article we have seen but it has become far too common and really takes away from the journalists who invest the time and attention to write an honest and accurate story.

    It’s going to take more than a Google search to write about the neighborhoods EotR. The “gentrification” formula no longer computes. EotR is not perfect, there are a lot of serious issues for us to address. However, we do need people to realize that much of what they have read or seen on the news about “Southeast” was most likely produced by someone who neither lives or works EotR, Until recently “Southeast” and “Anacostia” was the media catch-all for all lands East of the Anacostia.

    Things are getting better but it’s going to take time and people calling out lazy reporting like this. Not everything fits in neat little boxes. White people aren’t evil and black people aren’t powerless to stop them.

    The vast majority of the people moving into Anacostia and Congress Heights are black. I came from renting an apartment in District Heights to owning a condo in Congress Heights. Am I a gentrifier or a victim of gentrification? Neither — I am a person who bought a home I could afford in a neighborhood I liked. End of story.

  2. From what I saw during my mid-week stop at Uniontown last week, there’s definitely a market for such establishments EotR. That place was *PACKED*…on a mid-week evening! Only a few days after opening!

  3. Nikki: can’t forget the media’s tendency to want to put a sensational spin on everything…that IMO is part of the problem.

  4. I visited River East last year and enjoyed it. The highlights were the Frederick Douglass Home, the great views from there, and the historic nature of the homes.

    Heuristics play a role in prejudice, but it’s no excuse. Get to know the people.

  5. @Tom, just like you said. People who don’t live east of the river always have a take on what’s best even though they don’t live there, i.e. You and the rest of the posters here.

  6. @Zesty —

    Been living in Ward 8 for nearly four years now. Not an expert (never claimed to be) but I know a little bit about what I’m talking about. :)

  7. @TheAdvoc8te, We know you’re not an expert, neither am I But you and the other posters here need to know the history. Anacostia used to be predominately white back in the 1950s or so; after the introduction of low income housing projects in the area which were poorly executed; Whites started to leave the area and with them went their businesses. Now whites and middle income blacks are coming back, property values are increasing (that’s textbook gentrification).

    The fact is we live in a prejudice America; growing up my family was the first black family on our street(1998). Our neighbor had a dog, who would always bark at us; when I asked my neighbor’s son about the dog he replied, “the dog doesn’t like black people”. Such prejudice usually exist when you have a majority and minority population. Our goal should be to change this.

    It’s easy to be of the majority and not understand the paradigm of prejudice that exists in America because you didn’t experience it. So for some people (not all) the gentrification of areas like Columbia Heights, Anacostia, now Georgia Ave. represents the a continuum of the railroading of minority populations. Let someone go up to low income white Appalachia and built condos and price out the low-income whites; that will be on the CBS six 0’Clock news.

  8. I think the point being made is that it’s not middle class white people who are improving EotR; those efforts started with the previously-established population, and the middle-class homeowners moving in (both black and white), are simply participating in a trend started by the existing community.

    And I fundamentally don’t understand how the story of a longtime black resident choosing to buy a *more expensive* house in Maryland because it happened to fit his needs better is an example of anyone being “railroaded.” He clearly could afford to continue to living in his previous neighborhood, but chose not to because he preferred the options available elsewhere. Which is completely fine and understandabule, which also is pretty much the opposite of gentrification.

  9. @Tiffany; So, it’s okay because everyone is doing it? When I said railroaded I wasn’t talking about the case of the community organizer/advocate that felt like he couldn’t afford to buy a decent property there. I’m talking about families making a combined income of $50,000 or less (I’m talking about real poor people, not this guy who buys a house that cost about $300k)

    A family making $50,000 combined (pre-tax), will spend about $23,000 a year (post-tax money) in mortgage payments for a $300k house. That’s not affordable, point blank period! I’m not sure how you guys can’t understand that.

  10. @Tom Bridge, I agree but what happens is that as property values increase and more higher income individuals move in; these low-income housing apartments that accept housing vouchers will not renew leases and instead redevelop to higher income housing apartments. This same thing happened on 8th and P st. NW near the Giant not too far from the Convention center. They didn’t renew leases and are turning the low income housing apartment to new luxury apartments.

  11. @Tom Bridge, I’m in no way attacking your article. I actually very much appreciate you bringing up the issues of race and class in DC. It’s something that needs to be talked about. I give you big props for that!

  12. I have no idea what you’re talking about, “it’s okay because everyone’s doing it.” What’s okay? Opening businesses and trying to make a community a better place to live? Yes. That’s more than okay, and in fact it’s better if everyone is doing it.

    And if we’re going to wring our hands over gentrification, it’s long past time to talk about how to *fix* the problem of displacement of low-income residents. Because right now, the way it works is, property values fluctuate over time, and we all get to choose where we live based on what we can afford. We don’t get to cross our fingers and hope that people are just going to stop buying the most desirable houses available for the prices they can afford to pay simply because the houses happen to be in neighborhoods that are predominantly populated by minorities.

    So what’s the answer? More mixed-income developments? A freeze on property tax increases for families making less than $X? Better transit so families can reduce what they spend on their cars and put that money toward housing?

  13. I enjoyed this article. I’m about to do a review on the new bar and grill that opened up east of the river. Awesome writing Tom!

  14. Tom, would it be rude to ask if out of 25 authors on this site, if you have any black authors?

    It appears not from the pics. Not that this is a huge deal, but maybe this site could use some varied perspectives on these issues.

    Just a thought my man. Loved this article.

  15. @Tiffany, I think part of the answer is doing away with the separation model to low-income housing; essentially pooling together the low-income housing residents in a housing project. New developers should have to allot a certain portion of their new development/luxury condos to low income residents with a program to re-integrate these residents to their new environment. The solutions are there, we just need to be creative and determined.

  16. Mixed income residential development is the focus on most newer development models. Sometimes local government needs to kick in incentives to get developers to create a project with a range of housing options. In some instances, local government has a requirement that a proportion of any project must be dedicated to low income and workforce housing. HUD came to the realization by the late 80’s that low-income housing projects created poverty pockets which all too often led to a range of problems for police, schools, investment, environment and resource allocations.
    Revitalization and redevelopment with a focus on diversity of income levels will create opportunity for a broader group of citizens old and new to the community, rather than just shifting populations of poor people into the next neighborhood on the brink of decline.

  17. @rohan: To answer your question, at this time We Love DC does not have any black writers. It’s not for lack of trying- for whatever reason, the black writers we’ve had have dropped off and stopped writing fairly quickly, if they ever got started at all, and hadn’t had time to make their perspectives felt on the site.

    Increasing the diversity of perspectives on our site is something we’re always interested in. It’s kind of a challenge though: mostly we recruit based on topic area. And we all feel a little oogy and suspicious of ourselves if we say, “What we really need is a black writer!” Like, we don’t want to recruit on that basis and have someone feel like they’re a token, like there’s some kind of diversity bingo card we’re trying to fill.

    So, to summarize: Your point is well taken, and we welcome any suggestions about how to add some diversity of perspective to our volunteer-driven site without being ham-fisted about it.

  18. @Tiffany,

    I understand not wanting to recruit by saying, “we need a black writer”! I get that:-)

    But if you guys feel that you do indeed need black writers, then I think it is what it is.

    Personally I think a ham-fisted approach may be a lesser evil to having a site that could be missing out on the perspectives of a full 50% of the people in the city it covers.

    It’s almost like having a relationship blog run by 25 single women. LOL, this isn’t a completely fair analogy, but you get the idea.

    Shoot, let me know the next time you’re recruiting for topic areas. I would do it without any attached token feelings. I seriously want what’s best for the city.

    Thanks for responding Tiffany. Love your blog layout btw!

  19. Gentrification is yet another example of white privledge that still stings and contaminates our nation…Only when white folks appear or move into a venue then the area becomes revelant and important..

    This backward cultural racial movement is often offensive and reflects a contempt for the existing residents..This contempt for the old neighborhood by the new imports never helps nor cultivates consenus or good neighbors

  20. White folks, Greg, built America and Washington, DC. Its their culture that created what used to be freedom and prosperity. Are you suggesting all white people leave? Where would the rest of you get your welfare payments and identity-group entitlements? Your no-downpayment mortgages and no-child-left-behind/race-to-the-top bureaucracies that make us all equal?

  21. @propercharlie, Wow, your lack of knowledge astounds me! Actually, black people built Washington DC (know your history you troll) and black people were the labor force that ran much of the industries that allowed America to become prosperous! All the rest of your racist quips are unnecessary!

  22. @propercharlie, Trolls like you who don’t know U.S. history or understand how things work continue to spread mis-information. The fact is that these identity group entitlements actually benefits whites also (I bet you didn’t know that one troll). I went to a HBCU and many of the white students their received full tuition simply because they were white (affirmative action actually works both ways)! I hope you’ll go read a book before you try and debate with adults!

  23. @Tom Bridge

    Excuse me, but I’m not sure what you mean. I read your comments policy and can’t find exactly what I’ve done wrong other than answer Greg. Unlike you, Zesty and Greg, I haven’t called anyone any names. Greg thinks white people hold “existing neighorhoods” in contempt. (All white people?) I merely pointed out that Washington, DC, was originally planned and built by whites, including Anacostia. If anyone wants to debate my point please correct me.

    Zesty: Most buildings in DC were built after the Civil War, therefore not by slaves. I read the article and it states that “Slaves cut trees on the hill where the Capitol would stand, cleared stumps from the new streets, worked in the stone quarries where sandstone was cut and assisted the masons laying stone for the walls of the new homes of Congress and the president.” In other words, slaves supplied unskilled manual labor and did not “run industries that allowed America to become prosperous.” I think its you who might need a history lesson if not common sense. But I was merely “bringing up issues of race and class” as you seemed to appreciate this.

    Greg also stated that white culture is very bad indeed. If white culture is so bad then why do so many non-whites want to live in it? There are many places in the world, roughly 75% I’d say, where white people aren’t around much. Why not live there? I mean I don’t see a lot of whites desperately trying to move to Africa or the Middle East. Rather, its the other way round. Why is this?

    I don’t know for sure but I’ll go out on a limb and say Americans aren’t quite ready for discussions on race and class. Forty years after Richard Nixon initiated affirmative action.

  24. @propercharlie, Who worked in the cotten fields? Who worked in the Tobacco fields? What were the cash crops for America? So yes, slaves ran the industries that economically built America. History lesson indeed! Also Troll, since you like trolling on this site, the articles clearly states that “slaves were the largest labor pool when Congress in 1790 decided to create a new national capital along the Potomac surrounded by the two slave-owning states of Maryland and Virginia”. We are talking about DC as it was founded; it was founded in 1790 and the civil war wasn’t until 1861. Don’t jump in the middle of a convo unless you understand what people are referring to!

  25. @propercharlie, I didn’t agree with what Greg said but you could have inserted intellectually based discussion to counter his point instead of your neo-con ramblings.

  26. What’s a neo-con? I’m not affiliated with any political party. I dislike them all.

    Not sure what you mean about the Civil War vs. before. You seem to think blacks ran things. They didn’t run anything either before or after the Civil War. Not until the 70s when the DC government under its current system was formed. Then, they ran DC up to now. They didn’t run much else. BET, but that’s only for blacks. Sharon Pratt-Dixon (or Kelly) was made a vice president at PEPCO and thought she had managerial skills – which proved a very bad conjecture on her part. There’s Sweet Georgia Brown’s and Ben’s Chili Bowl. There are race-grievance non-profits. But not much else has materialized in the last 40 years. Government jobs. Oh, people who migrated from DC are now running PG county and shaking down contractors.

    My advice would be to let free markets rule. The best managers and innovators will rise to the top, black, white whatever. Markets will discipline the enterprises which aren’t competitive. If the people who aren’t able to manage can’t accept this then go ahead and tax the managers and innovators out of existence and we’ll all be poor together. Its your choice.