When a recent study found that 20001, right here in DC, was the second-most gentrified zip code in the entire nation, my first thought was, “they must have miscalculated, because no other zip code could be more gentrified.” I should know – I was there for more or less the entire process.
I moved into 20001 in 2003. My girlfriend and I rented a bedroom in a two bedroom apartment on 6th Street from a recently divorced 29-year-old New England society type who’d spent the previous decade living on a school bus with her ex-husband. (The owner of the house, a retired World Bank employee, lived in Ethiopia.) After work – she was an office temp – she’d come home and write poetry at her desk, eating antidepressants out of assorted sample packs she got from her doctor. She told us the neighborhood was bad – she had two large dogs “for protection” – but really it just seemed deserted. There were nice cars parked on the street, Jettas and Volvos, but I never saw the owners. They stayed barricaded in their houses, day and night, waiting for their property values to increase.
When our 29-year-old roommate became pregnant by a Swiss man, she re-homed her protection dogs and set out for Switzerland. For the next decade we received letters for her from collection agencies. Houses were just beginning to sell there; a woman next door who’d lived there for 35 years, had bought the house on a maid’s salary, sold and moved to Maryland. She seemed sad to be leaving, but let me pick through the furniture she put on the curb. After another neighbor put her house on the market, she began coming over and demanding, and then begging, us to cut our front lawn. I said I would, but then forgot. One night I came home to find her angrily landscaping our lawn herself. I didn’t say so, but I thought it was only fair.
Everyone said the neighborhood was still bad – only two blocks away was 6th and O, supposedly the most dangerous intersection in the city – but nothing much ever happened to me. Once when I was buying beer at the corner store, the man in line in front of me took out a gun and robbed the place, but he didn’t even glance back at me. Another time, a man rang my doorbell at 4 AM, saying he’d seen the lights on, and proceeded to tell me a long story about how he was starting a new job the next morning and only needed $20 to get his tools out of hock. When I said I didn’t have any money, he became angry and tried to break the door down. But it was steel, and it held.
When my girlfriend and I broke up, she moved out and I inherited the apartment. I had a plan to rent one of the bedrooms out to a rich kid whose parents would pay the entire apartment’s rent, and live for free in the other room. I told my friends about my plan and one of them said they’d gladly take the room, even at the rich kid price. (The entire two-bedroom apartment was only $800.) For the next five years I had more or less free rent, which I took as a license to not work. I coasted on unemployment for several years, and the years I did work, I often made less than $10,000 a year. The house fell into disrepair, but I didn’t even know how to contact the landlord in Ethiopia, so I made do. When the shower wall caved inwards, I duct-taped a trash bag over the hole, and I kept buckets under the leaks in the roof.
After the financial crash, companies started buying houses in the neighborhood. One of the renovation crews had to come into my basement to examine the foundation, and we chatted. The foreman didn’t really even know who he worked for, just some distant corporation who had him gutting rowhouses all over town. The neighborhood started to change soon after this. I could tell it was changing because the neighbors started complaining about my house. I put the trash out too early. The backyard, which was surrounded by a six-foot-high fence, was overgrown. The facade needed painting, the gutters were so clogged that vines grew from them. Blah, blah, blah. Silver BMWs and even the occasional Mercedes had appeared on the street, though the owners were still nowhere in evidence.
By 2014, the neighborhood had transformed; every house on the block had been renovated and repainted except mine, and bars and restaurants had started to open in the neighborhood. But the magnitude of the changes didn’t strike me until one spring night when I was sitting in the bay window. One of my new neighbors was below the window, arguing with the driver of a party bus she’d rented to take her and her friends on her bachelorette party bar crawl. The party bus couldn’t play her own music through her phone, and she was in tears. “I’m not going to spend my bachelorette party listening to the radio!” She screamed. She looked to be about 23. When she had deck parties next door, the music she played was basically all Top 40 hits. The gentry had arrived.
Later that year, my landlord visited from Ethiopia and said he was selling his DC properties. The Ethiopian government said he had to develop the land he owned there, or forfeit it, so he needed money fast. He said he’d lived lavishly the past decade, on my rent – two young wives, a live-in chef, a chauffeur, and a large gated house, all of which cost him less than a thousand USD a month. Gentrification isn’t a cycle, it’s a wheel. He offered me ten grand to move out, which I gladly accepted, and then he asked me if I would go to the doctor and get Viagra for him. (He had two young wives, you see, and he was 82 years old …) I said no.