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D.C., Long 'Chocolate City,' Becoming More Vanilla

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D.C., Long 'Chocolate City,' Becoming More Vanilla

D.C., Long 'Chocolate City,' Becoming More Vanilla

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We're about to look this week at cities in transition. The city nearest you can seem permanent. The houses and buildings last, but the people in them change. The demographics change as people move. We begin in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, once known as Chocolate City because it was overwhelmingly African-American. But Chocolate City is not so chocolate anymore, and that is symbolic of larger changes across the country. We're going to talk about this with NPR's Alex Kellogg.

And Alex, what kind of changes are we talking about here?

ALEX KELLOGG: Well, there's major changes going on in Washington, D.C. This is a city that, in 1970, was about 71 percent black. And now it's about 53 percent black, as of 2009.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

KELLOGG: That's a city that will soon no longer be majority African-American, and a lot of the gains are in the white population that's moving in.

INSKEEP: So white people are moving into the city.


INSKEEP: Are African-Americans also moving out?

KELLOGG: African-Americans appear to be moving out in large numbers, particularly people who can no longer afford to be here. And one place that they're moving is Prince George's County, a well-known county in the suburbs.

INSKEEP: So you've got African-Americans going to the suburbs now.

KELLOGG: That's right. And we followed a guy, Robert Adams, a delivery truck driver who moved out to the suburbs because he was priced out of the city.

INSKEEP: Now, you say priced out of the city. There certainly are poor neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. and what you would think of as low-cost neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Why wouldn't he have been in one of those?

KELLOGG: And frankly, he was in a low-cost neighborhood, one of the poorest, least-educated parts of town, east of the Anacostia River, which splits to the east side of the city. And even that part of town is becoming quite expensive.

INSKEEP: Well, now a lot of visitors to Washington, D.C. will come and go without visiting or even hearing of this neighborhood you're talking about called Anacostia.

KELLOGG: That's right, and a lot of residents don't even know it well. It was sort of a no-go zone for whites and a lot of blacks, as well, for years. And now, even though it's one of the poorest, least-educated and least-safe parts of the city, it's a place where people feel like they can get a deal. But Robert Adams felt like he was priced out. That was difficult for him, because he was an elected official there who fought for changes that are now coming.

Mr. ROBERT ADAMS: So that's - I guess that's where a little bit of my bitterness comes from, you know, because I was - you know, I was on the front lines working to try to make the neighborhood better, but when it became time for me to have a home or buy a home, I couldn't afford it - not to say I couldn't afford it, but I couldn't get what I could get in Maryland for the money.

INSKEEP: You can hear the unhappiness there.

KELLOGG: That's right. In his old neighborhood, he lived in a two-bedroom house for $285,000. It had no refrigerator and no washing machine. He moved to the suburbs, got a five-bedroom place for slightly more, and now he's in the part of Maryland again called Prince George's County where a lot of African-Americans have been moving for decades. And, in fact, now the black population there has grown by 11 percent in the past decade. So you've got a majority black county that's become even blacker.

INSKEEP: And, in theory, that could be nice. People are moving to nicer suburbs. But he doesn't seem happy about it.

KELLOGG: Well, his wife was happy about it, because she's from the suburbs. But he wasn't. It bothered him that even with their two incomes, you know, he had to move out and he felt like he could no longer afford a decent home in a neighborhood that he had fought for for so long.

Unidentified Child: Bye, Mom.

KELLOGG: So Robert took us back to his old neighborhood in Anacostia. He took his two daughters with us, and we went to see his mother Hattie and his grandmother. They both still live on his old block. He doesn't go back much, unfortunately.

Mr. ADAMS: Now, see that building right there? It's totally new. I didn't even know that was there. What is that building? I didn't even know that building was there.

KELLOGG: He was totally amazed, because he's driving through his old neighborhood, and there's all this new development popping up that he hasn't seen - in this case, a big building. It's all brick and glass, and it's a new Salvation Army.

INSKEEP: OK. So you get to Robert's mother's block, this block that he was very familiar with. What's it look like now?

KELLOGG: Well, her block is relative nice, but the neighborhood as a whole, there's very obvious signs of blight. There's boarded up homes, boarded up apartments, a lot of government-subsidized housing. This is an area that is very obviously - very obviously has signs of decay dating back decades. And basically, some of it dates back to the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

INSKEEP: And this is an area that's gentrifying, though?

KELLOGG: This is an area that's gentrifying. Even after sort of decades of decline, it's starting to be on the up and up.

INSKEEP: But home prices are going up. Somebody's moving in. Is it white people primarily are moving into this neighborhood?

KELLOGG: Yeah. White people have started to trickle into this neighborhood, which is one of the blackest parts of the city. It's virtually all black, until recently. And Robert says, you know, all these positive changes, as far as the neighborhood improving, along with the people coming in, also comes with a price.

Mr. ADAMS: Well, before I moved out, I can tell you when the first family the first white family moved back into the neighborhood. It was like a buzz, you know, like, I told you they was coming back. I like diversity. You know, you want to see diversity. But at what expense?

INSKEEP: What is appealing for white people about this neighborhood, Alex Kellogg?

KELLOGG: Well, it's appealing for folks of a variety of backgrounds because they see potential, and they also often see themselves as trailblazers. They see themselves as getting a deal, by D.C. standards. To buy a home in another part of town may cost you three or four times as much. So in Anacostia, you're really getting one of the best prices in town, even though the typical home east of the river sells from anywhere from 250 to $290,000.

Stan Voudrie bought six square blocks of historic Anacostia. He's a developer. He's white. And he made it clear that he doesn't even like the term gentrification.

Mr. STAN VOUDRIE (Developer): I see gentrification kills spray-painted on the sides of buildings. And so when you see that, you can't have I mean, that's not something - you know, malaria kills and diseases kill. And so gentrification kills gives it I mean, it means that it has a negative connotation. At least it does to me.

KELLOGG: What was great about getting Stan there, that he was standing right in front of an upscale bar, it's the first one that this area has ever seen, and he owns the building. And many folks are excited about what this means for the neighborhood.

The bar has flat-screen TVs. It's got fancy food. It just opened this month, and we were there on the first night. We hung out with Charles Wilson. He's a resident who's a lawyer. He's an elected official. He's a well-to-do younger African-American, and he represents sort of a new wave of middle-class blacks who are moving into this area. But even he's worried about what will be affordable in this city in the years to come.

Mr. CHARLES WILSON (Lawyer): Yeah, I'm concerned. Long-term, I'm wondering where will my place be within this city? I'm wondering what the D.C. of tomorrow would look like and whether I'll still have a seat at the table. So, yeah, I am concerned.

KELLOGG: And what Charles is talking about is how the city is not just changing racially, but socioeconomically, where even well-to-do folks have trouble affording homes in the best parts of town. Now, we talked to another neighborhood booster who knows Charles, David Garber, and he just simply doesn't believe that people have to leave the city for places like Prince George's County. He owns one home in Anacostia, and is about to buy two more that are currently boarded up. He's 27. He's white, and he's from the Virginia suburbs.

Mr. DAVID GARBER: I don't typically give a lot of credence to the idea that people are moving to PG County because they're forced out of Anacostia to get those prices, because right now, prices are really low in Anacostia and a lot of most neighborhoods east of the river.

INSKEEP: He says prices are low, but I suppose that depends on who you're talking to.

KELLOGG: That's right. Garber said that folks were really happy when he moved to his block, and happy because he was rehabbing a house that had been a haven of drug activity. But at the same time, this is not a neighborhood that he's stayed in for good for himself. He had a Christmas party in 2009, 15 people were robbed. Someone was pistol-whipped. That's a clear indication that this is not a part of town that has totally turned.

INSKEEP: Still some edginess there, white people moving in, sometimes going away again, African-Americans moving out. Now, what about the African-American we met at the beginning who moved out, Robert Adams, the delivery truck guy? What's he feeling?

KELLOGG: Well, he's not too involved in his old neighborhood anymore, and he doesn't come back too often. And he says he's still tinged with a bit of sadness each time he drives through.

INSKEEP: NPR's Alex Kellogg, thanks very much.

KELLOGG: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)


Tomorrow, we'll hear about another city in transition: Portland, Oregon, one of the whitest cities in the U.S. You can check out demographic changes in your home state. Visit our website at You'll find census data from 1910 to 2009.

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