14 June 2011

Do we really need to describe neighborhoods negatively?

Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.
On Sunday, the Washington Post ran an article about Industry Gallery, a design gallery here in DC. The Post mentioned that the gallery is located in Trinidad, which was a positive point in my mind, because many write-ups of the galleries along Florida Avenue NE at the southern edge of the neighborhood fail to mention the neighborhood, and instead take the somewhat lazy route and say they're located "near H Street."

Interestingly, the author chose to include a descriptor for Trinidad, calling it "the hardscrabble neighborhood in Northeast Washington" (emphasis mine). "Hardscrabble" is defined by Google thusly:

  1. Returning little in exchange for great effort
  2. Characterized by poverty and hardship

Monday, Matt Ashburn (owner of the Capital City Diner and a Trinidad resident) found an advertisement for a new restaurant coming to the H Street NE corridor. An excerpt:

We want to give the idea of a nice restaurant, but we are in a dive neighborhood.

What do they mean by "dive neighborhood?"

Why call Trinidad a place characterized by poverty and hardship?

The history of H Street NE, and why it includes so much disinvestment is important and shouldn't be glossed over. The long shadow of segregation and the 1968 DC riots are extremely important reasons why H Street is what it is today. It's not just a "dive."

Trinidad, by my personal experience, wouldn't qualify as "hardscrabble." It's a traditionally middle-class neighborhood that is being viewed in a new light given its proximity to the activity centers of DC, and is struggling to come to terms with what that will mean as the population of the neighborhood rapidly changes because of economic and social pressures.

We've been deeply involved with the Ivy City and Trinidad Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative, a process that is diligently working through a process to attempt to increase homeownership access while maintaining affordability in the neighborhood. We believe there will be a significant return from this "great effort," and the experience has shown that there is much more than "poverty and hardship" in our neighborhood.

Glib descriptions of these neighborhood are lazy. It's disappointing to see them applied to Trinidad and the H Street corridor.


  1. My goodness. Sloppy hackneyed writing? In a Washington Post article?

    Neighborhoods don't exist in a vaccuum but in relatino to other neighborhoods, so "x" will be "hip, vibrant and trendy" while "y" is "edgy and up-and-coming" and "z" is "ghetto." You miss the subtle nuances by using this sort of shorthand, but nobody ever accused the Washington Post of being "nuanced." So while anyone's particular neighborhood might not be "Chevy Chase" it probably isn't "Simple City" either. It's usually something in between, which makes for a pretty boring article. Which is why they go negative.

  2. At least they didn't use "violence plagued neighborhood", which they used to use all the time a year or two ago. Hardscrabble is an improvement (but will be nice when these types of descriptors go away all together).

  3. I'm trying to find the "like" button for monkeyrotica's comment.


  4. Guess the Post didn't get the memo that Trinidad has miraculously turned into paradise overnight.

    Sheesh, Trinidad residents and defenders have thin skins.

  5. I love the Dive Bar neon sign you chose from Flickr. I would drink there =)

  6. Well, Trinidad is a low income neighborhood with a working class character and a disproportionately high level of crime, especially gang related crime. I don't think hardscrabble is all that inappropriate a usage.

    And of course, many people are attracted to places that advertise as "divey" even if they are not. See H St NE.

  7. Anonymous at 12:17: It's not thin skin, it's just a question that we felt was worthy of discussion. I'm glad that you felt it rose to the level where it's worthy of commenting. Thanks!

    By the way, there are multiple levels of "there" between hell and paradise, no? We never made the claim that Trinidad was one or the other.

  8. anonymous @ 12:58

    Trinidad has a disproportionate level of crime relative to where in DC? Columbia Heights, perhaps? LOL. I walk, bike and drive through Trinidad all the time, at all hours. I missed this crime wave you're reporting. And gang related? Could you even name the so-called gangs you're talking about?

    And what does "working class character" mean, anyway? How do you quantify that?

    So many people use shortcuts to thinking when writing about urban neighborhoods.

    Shout out to monkeyerotica, one of the better commenters on DC blogs.

  9. In the case of the Washington Post article, the art set is entertained by such hardscrabble, dive, sketchy descriptors. To some, this language increases interest in the art itself as it makes for a more "interesting" story. "City renewal" spurs this for-your-consumption culture ...

  10. First, I don't take issue with the assertion that Trinidad is "hardscrabble" or divey.

    You're saying it's wrong to use words like these the describe a neighborhood, and in a way I agree that generalizations do a poor job of capturing the essence of a community. However, how is this any different than calling Georgetown "blue-blood" or Kalorama "tony" or Chevy Chase "posh". Those words don't exactly have a positive connotation. It's a way of saying snobby. It is a value judgment on a neighborhood just the way calling H Street "sketchy" would be.

    So if you'd extend your argument to include all neighborhood descriptors, and not just the ones you find personally offensive, I might jump on board...

  11. MJ: I'm all for that. Honestly, when we started having the conversations that led to this post, we thought aloud, "Does the Post need descriptors for Georgetown? Do they say 'the blue-blood neighborhood of Georgetown'? No, they just say 'Georgetown'."

    So why not just say "Trinidad"? If they're concerned that people aren't familiar with the neighborhood (certainly Trinidad is much less well-known than Georgetown), include a map, or talk about the cross-streets that are near the topic of the story.

  12. I'm from eckington and I've seen plenty of comments on blogs from people who say they're from Trinidad about how dangerous my neighborhood is. Maybe you should do a little neighbor education before preaching to the Post?

  13. Anonymous at 9:39: I can't speak for others who claim to live here. If they're telling you that Eckington is dangerous, why don't you let them know about the great things happening in your neighborhood and get them to change their tune?

  14. What's also lazy & shorthand is to refer to the 1968 'riots' as an isolated, crazy event that justifies "development." I applaud you for, at least, referring to 'years of segregation'.

  15. Marya: At no place in this article did we refer to the 1968 riots as an isolated event, nor did we discuss "development," and definitely did not conflate the two, as you claim. I'm not sure where you're reading that. Would you care to explain why you think that was part of the push of this blog post? I'm really interested in fleshing out this critique.


You can be curmudgeonly too, but let's try to be civil and constructive here, ok?