It was once known as the “Murder Capital of the World,” a city beset by a crack epidemic, no-go areas and resulting crime which triggered decades of white flight to the suburbs.
Decades on from its darkest days, however, Washington is experiencing an economic boom that has reversed its long-declining population and is shaking up the city’s ethnic mix in ways no-one predicted in the 1980s and 1990s.
However, long-term residents of the US capital, the first city in the country to have an African-American majority, are increasingly speaking of a downside.
“Washington used to be the Chocolate City, but now it’s the Vanilla Swirl, and most of a Vanilla Swirl is white,” said Michael, a black man who grew up on H Street, one of several neighborhoods undergoing a dramatic racial upheaval.
The number of African-Americans slipped below 50 percent last year, proving that the words of Michael, a 54-year-old handyman who was willing to give only his first name, are more than anecdotal.
“After five o’clock it’s all Caucasians,” he said, pointing to the many bars, restaurants and smart cafes where mostly white, college-educated workers descend to mingle and party after work.
“It’s all about the dollar,” he said, standing with friends outside the St John Ford Memorial Church of God where he works and volunteers.
“Bars are replacing libraries, and the only people in them are white,” he said. “There’s no blacks here in the evenings,” he added, saying that a strong police presence is on hand to put the area’s new patrons at ease.
More than a decade of “gentrification” initiatives have helped Washington rebound and the capital mostly rode out the housing crash with prices now back on the rise.
Homes near H Street — downtown in one of the capital’s earliest commercial districts — valued at only US$100,000 five years ago are now typically selling for around US$500,000.
And while H Street retains numerous, fast food eateries and several hair and beauty salons predominantly used by black women, menus are starting to change to accommodate the “Capitol Hill set” that is moving in.
With cuisine ranging from French to Mexican to Lebanese, one swanky new H Street establishment offers dishes such as Sous Vide Fennel and Artichoke Salad, followed by Chickpea Ravioli in curried coconut sauce with cauliflower.
The prices charged match the bigger wallets of workers drawn to the capital by the magnet of jobs in government, lobbying, law firms and commerce.
H Street, a long avenue that heads into the heart of the city, has been cast as the next Georgetown, an affluent neighborhood filled with world-renowned shops and home to many of Washington’s richest people.
Such comparisons may be premature, but traditionally African-American areas in Washington such as Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan and U Street, have fallen like dominoes in recent decades, with whites and Hispanics moving in.
Ricardo Vergara, a Colombian who came to the United States in 1984, and who opened up a Mexican-themed restaurant and bar on H Street three years ago, thinks the trend will only speed up.
With business booming he and his partners will soon add a roof deck and street patio to their “H Street Country Club,” a venue whose eclectic offering includes live music and an indoor golf course.
“I would say the majority are white,” he said of his customers. “The street changes at night. It is market forces, but I can see it leaving some longer term residents feeling a little threatened.”