Just days after our spring issue went to press, the U.S. Census Bureau, which has been doling out the results of last year’s census in dribs and drabs, released a new batch of information, including a more detailed portrait of D.C.’s demographics than had been available from earlier info. This city is very close to tipping the scales toward no longer being majority black—a big change from four decades ago, when seven in 10 D.C. residents were black. Former mayor Marion Barry greeted the news by vowing to fight gentrification, claiming that old-time Washingtonians were being displaced.
As I indicated in my essay on gentrification in D.C., however, the social forces at work in gentrifying areas are more complicated that a simple displacement narrative allows. The big story emerging from the Census data is that blacks are moving en masse to the South, reversing the trend of the Great Migration north starting a century ago. And they’re moving to affluent suburbs, like whites in decades past.
During the last 10 years, the populations of most city cores (as opposed to larger metropolitan areas) remained relatively stable or grew modestly. The revival in cities isn’t simply a matter of population, then, but of function. As cityscape guru Joel Kotkin and a colleague recently observed, America’s downtowns have become primarily cultural and residential, not industrial or commercial. They’re a “niche product” that lures a select few. Cities may not be “roaring back,” but neither are they the wastelands that, but a few short decades ago, they seemed destined to become.