Visualizing “Gentrification”: Reversing White Flight in the District

Z Geography is mixing up the posting a bit, in addition to commenting on the news of the day from a geographic perspective, I need an outlet to chase after my geographic flights of fancy (Euclidean of course!). Hence my silence the past few days, which was spent data gathering and processing for today’s post which presents some analysis on the shifting demographic of the District of Columbia’s resident population.

Tobler’s (first and only) Law of Geography states that near things are more related to each other than they are to things farther away. A corollary, of course, is that near things are more often to become similar to each other, over time, then are things farther away – barring unique circumstances. In analyzing the shifting demographic balance between White and Black Americans in Washington, D.C. this corollary is particularly evident, as we shall see below.

But first! The data. All of data used in this post comes from two of the decennial (that’s every 10 years) censuses released by the U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 and 2010. You can “find” this data on the American FactFinder portion of the Census Bureau’s webspace. Ironic quotes because “finding” this data requires a good amount of time, particularly if you’ve never used it before. A note on the data, in this post I analyzed aggregate population head counts at the Census block group level, which is at larger scale (i.e. geographically “smaller”) than the census tract level, but smaller (i.e. geographically “larger”) than the block. Why not just go for the block? Partially because the Census Bureau is required, by law (in most cases), to protect individual’s information from public disclosure. So say you’re the only person living in a Census block, the results would not be reported to the general public because someone could look at the Census and see that you make $50,000 a year, have three children, rent your home, and are American-Indian (or Alaskan Native). While the risk of running into this problem in the city is small, I went with the Census block group. For this post, I analyzed the aggregate numbers of people claiming to be Non-Hispanic/Latino and, either “White alone” or “Black alone”. The Census has a two-tiered system (you may have noticed in some employment forms especially from the government) that distinguishes between Hispanics/Latino(a)s and Non-Hispanics/Latino(a)s. Choosing one of these and you can also choose whether you are “White only” or “Black only” or some other ethnicity/race. What this practically means is that the U.S. Census divides those who are “White Hispanics” from “Black Hispanics” and “White Non-Hispanics” (Caucasian Americans) and “Black Non-Hispanics” (African-Americans). Typically practice, though, is to report the numbers of “Black alone”, “White alone”, and Hispanic/Latino, with the understanding that the first two are from the non-Hispanic category. The “alone” population distinguishes this group from persons of two or more races.

The District of Columbia was home to 572,059 residents according to the 2000 Census. Of that population, 340,088 claimed to be “Black or African American alone” (Black), 59% of the total population, while 159,178 claimed to be “White alone” (White), 27% of the population. Like most cities, these population groups tended to concentrate in certain areas. In the District, one can perceive an East/West divide with the city’s Blacks concentrated in the eastern and southern quadrants (Northeast, Southeast) and Whites concentrated in the Northwest. D.C. is broken into four quadrants centered on the U.S. Capitol building. The President’s address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, so next time you want to blame the President for domestic policy, don’t, blame Congress – they’re literally the center of the D.C. political universe (which would be another post in itself). By 2010, the population grew to 621,321 people an increase of almost 50,000 people in ten years (5,000 people a year on average). But what’s more interesting is for what group’s this population increase occurred. Among Whites, the population increased to 218,422, comprising 35% of the population. Notice that the increase in the White population group is actually larger than the increase in the city’s population as a whole (59,244 additional Whites on 49,262 additional D.C. residents). While the population claiming to be White increased substantially, the population claiming to be Black decreased. In 2010, 308,617 claimed to be Black, 49% of the total population, a decrease of 31,471 people. Where did this small town’s worth of people go? That will be the subject of a future post (I’m guessing the Maryland suburbs). While other population groups also experienced population increases, the real story here is the seeming reversal of the “white flight” phenomena during the 1960s and 1970s. Then, Whites “fled” urban areas for the relative safety of the suburbs. Now, it seems, Whites are returning (though it is hard to say based on this Census data from where they arriving, it may be another city) en masse.

The series of five images below highlight the geographic implications of this demographic shift, we can see the expanding (geographically) population of Whites in the District of Columbia. As I noted above, this population isn’t distributing itself evenly across the urban landscape, it is clustering. And these clusters are on the periphery of existing block groups that have high concentrations of Whites. Each graphic compares results from the 2000 Census (left) and 2010 Census (right). In each, “White alone” is represented by green and “Black alone” is represented by purple. The first map depicts these two identities together in a dot density map with each dot representing about 100 people. We can clearly distinguish the East/West divide with concentrations of green in the west and purple in the south and east. However, a strong exception is the area around Capitol Hill, in the 2000 map it is a cluster of 7 or 8 block groups west of an unpopulated area spanning west-east. This area, incidentally is the National Mall and encompasses the Capitol (the circular area in the far-eastern end). The increase in the “White alone” population is particularly noticeable between the 2000 and 2010 censuses in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. If you look closely you can also perceive the “creep” of the “White alone” group in the western fringes of the northwest area between 2000 and 2010. This is the advancing “gentrification” line that is steadily marching east across the city.

Dot Density of D.C.'s White and Black Communities, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

Dot Density of D.C.’s White and Black Communities, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

The next two maps are only of the changes in the “White alone” population and more clearly shows the geographic spread of that population group, notice the increasing footprint in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and the westerly advance in mid and upper (northern) Northwest. A good example neighborhood of this area is Columbia Heights. When I first moved to the District back in 2001 (just after the Census), I was told to be careful in Columbia Heights at night (one park in particular) and I almost never went. I’m happy to report that I still don’t really go, but when I went recently (2010 or so) the neighborhood had completely changed. There’s now a Target and a Best Buy and rent is topping $2,000 per month for a 1-bedroom. Of course, there’s still a number of Blacks still living in the neighborhood but there has been a noticeable increase in Whites. The first set of maps uses proportional symbols to illustrate the growing population in absolute numbers. The second set, a standard choropleth of graduated colors, compares the ratio of those claiming to be “White alone” in a block group with the total population of that block group.

Concentration of D.C.'s Whites, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

Concentration of D.C.’s White Community, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

Proportion of D.C.'s White Population, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

Proportion of D.C.’s White Population, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

The final two maps below depict the corresponding contraction of the “Black alone” population in the city. Again, the western fringes (in 2000) and Capitol Hill saw tremendous decline in population by 2010. Some block groups that, in 2000, over 76% of the residents claimed to be “Black alone”, decreased to between 51% and 75% “Black alone” a decade later. This is especially evident in the choropleth map of population ratios, note the northern and north-central areas of the city. The other interesting find is the decrease in the proportion of the “White alone” community in west-north-west. Without a corresponding increase evident in the “Black alone” community, it appears that other population groups (perhaps Hispanics or Asians) have grown substantially in this cluster.

Concentration of D.C.'s Black Community, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

Concentration of D.C.’s Black Community, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

Proportion of D.C.'s Black Population, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

Proportion of D.C.’s Black Population, 2000/2010 (via ME!)

I’ve purposefully tried not to make any qualitative judgments about the nature of this demographic shift, because its good or bad depending on your perspective. On the one hand “gentrification” is associated with beautifying communities, improved public schools, more eclectic businesses, general economic development and improved living standards, and reduced criminality. While I haven’t presented these datasets yet, most exist in the same place I gathered this data. But, more to the point, “gentrification” is also associated with pricing out the original inhabitants of communities. As land values increase, so do rents and taxes leaving the original residents, who could afford to live in these areas previously, are left in the lurch and forced to move.

In this post I’ve briefly touched on the thorny urban geography subject of gentrification. I’ve emphasized the race/ethnicity aspect of the phenomena by looking at the shifting boundary of the White and Black communities in the District of Columbia. We saw the shifting westward “gentrification line” and the geographic and demographic changes occurring in the Northwest quadrant and Capitol Hill. Of course, to present “gentrification” as simply a “White alone” activity is a poor characterization of a complex process. In a future post, I will explore the issue of gentrification within the Black community of D.C. itself.


One thought on “Visualizing “Gentrification”: Reversing White Flight in the District

  1. Pingback: Visualizing Gentrification: an economic Geography perspective | Z Geography

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