She’d lived on this historically black D.C. block for 40 years. Now the city she knew was vanishing, and so was her place in it.
She was moving slowly, but she needed to speed up. Her blue sandals clicked on the hardwood floor, echoing off the empty green walls of the two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment in Northwest Washington where she had spent the past 40 years of her life. Reluctantly, she spun from one room to the next, packing boxes, folding sheets, unfolding sheets, opening cupboards, closing cupboards, doing a mental inventory.
What to take? What not to take? Where would she and her family live now? She hadn’t looked for an apartment since everyone called D.C. by its old nickname: Chocolate City.
Now that city was vanishing, and so was Sanathera Price’s place in it.
“I really don’t want to move,” said Price, 61, sinking into a chair in the living room of her beloved apartment in the 1800 block of 13th Street NW. “My time is up, I guess. I know I have to move. But I’m stuck.”
Her emotions welled up in the thick, oppressive summer heat inside the apartment. The air conditioning was broken, and the fan had stopped spinning in the living room. She opened a window that faced a red brick wall. It wasn’t a pretty view but it was hers.
Outside, her block was a booming microcosm of gentrification. Construction workers hammered and drilled, transforming an apartment building two doors down into condos that will sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Tourists with rolling bags swept in and out of the huge brownstone mansion next door that has become a bustling bed-and-breakfast. Millennials sped up and down the sidewalk on scooters. The corner store across the street at 13th and T had begun selling organic milk to cater to the newcomers. Rowhouses around the corner where black people once lived were being gutted, renovated and flipped. Now her own building was being emptied of its last tenants to be remade into something far fancier, something she knew she would never be able to afford. Price had to pack, move and turn in her keys before Labor Day.
She’d planned to stay here until she became an old lady, in a building that sits just off U Street, a corridor known as Black Broadway. Next door to her was the historic century-old Whitelaw Hotel, designed by noted African American architect Isaiah T. Hatton. Down the street: a childhood home of Duke Ellington.
She’d moved to this block in Shaw when she was a mother in her 20s, raising three children and a nephew in a neighborhood that was once mostly black and is now overwhelmingly white.
She paid $525 a month to rent her two-bedroom apartment — at least $1,500 less than what many apartments in this neighborhood now commanded.
Price was wearing a blue summer dress and her thick hair was plaited in two French braids. She’d just gotten off work at the Social Security Administration office in Northeast Washington, where she has worked for as long as she has lived in this apartment.
“I am the kind of person who doesn’t like change,” she said. “I spent 40 years in the same job; 40 years in the same apartment.”
She’d cooked and cleaned at 1829 13th Street NW, first on the building’s third floor and later on the first floor. There were Christmas trees, home-cooked meals and first-day-of-school photos. And there was loss.
The Whitelaw Hotel, at 1839 13th St. NW, was described in 1919 as the "first hotel apartment of its size built for the exclusive use of colored people in this country." (Library of Congress/Library of Congress)
One day in 2001, her husband, Walter Hilliard, got out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to get to his job as a dump truck driver. Suddenly, he fell to the bedroom floor.
“I jumped up, turned on the light and found him,” she recalled. “His mouth was twisted, but he kept saying, ‘I’m all right. Just give me a minute.’ ”
But he wasn’t. He was taken to a hospital with an aneurysm that eventually killed him at age 53.
“He never came back home,” she said.
Now she lived in the apartment with her second husband, Elgin Allen, one of her sons, and two of her 10 grandchildren.
Through it all, Price said, her biggest fear was “getting put out. I never wanted to be put out.”
After four decades of dutifully paying her rent, that’s exactly what was happening.
‘More and more expensive’
Price is among thousands of people being displaced in the nation’s capital by warp-speed gentrification.
In Columbia Heights, Capitol Hill, Navy Yard and other neighborhoods, affluent white people have moved into the city, forcing less affluent black people out of the city.
The District has one the nation’s highest displacement rates for low-income residents, according to a study by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, which investigates social and economic disparities in the United States.
“We see over and over again, D.C. is getting more and more expensive with incentives for owners to turn buildings into luxury condos,” said Lori Leibowitz, managing attorney for the Neighborhood Legal Services Program. “As that process happens, our clients — many of them are black, and longtime residents — are getting pushed out of D.C.”
The forces of displacement arrived at Price’s doorstep five years ago, when her 14-unit building was sold by Talley R. Holmes Jr., a black lawyer and real estate magnate, to Clydeco 2013 LLC for $2.8 million. It is now worth an estimated $6 million, according to Redfin.
The residents formed an association under the city’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives tenants a chance to buy the building where they live. It also provides some negotiating leverage.
Clydeco and its agent, Frederick Silvers, assured Price and her neighbors that they would not have to move, according to the lawsuit.
I really don't want to move. My time is up, I guess. I know I have to move. But I’m stuck.
We see over and over again, D.C. is getting more and more expensive with incentives for owners to turn buildings into luxury condos. As that process happens, our clients — many of them are black, and longtime residents — are getting pushed out of D.C.
Lori Leibowitz, managing attorney for the Neighborhood Legal Services Program
The battered brick building, which was built in 1956, needed refurbishment. So the tenants voted to trade their purchase rights for repairs and a guarantee that they could remain in their rent-controlled apartments.
But most of the promised repairs never happened, and several months after the purchase was complete, the tenants filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court, claiming that Clydeco “had been lying during the negotiations.” According to the complaint, at the same time “it was telling the Building’s residents that it intended to operate the Building as a rental property for the long term and that they could stay in their homes, it was telling its lenders that it planned to convert the Building to condominiums and sell the units for hundreds of thousands of dollars each.”
Attorneys for Clydeco denied the allegations in a motion to dismiss the case. When reached by a reporter, one of the attorneys said he could not comment on the case, which was settled in June. The terms of the settlement were confidential.
Price, one of the last holdouts, had no choice. She had to pack up. Her 25-year-old daughter took the lead on looking for a new home for her mother. She checked out apartments in suburban Maryland. She researched a property for sale in Suitland.
“It was a nice little house with a yard,” Price said. But it was so far from the D.C. neighborhood she loved.
‘Who can afford that?’
Even with the settlement, Price wouldn’t be able to buy a million-dollar condo in Shaw. Or rent the apartment advertised across the street for $3,500 a month.
“Who can afford that?” she asked.
A white woman walked by and told Price that she’d seen the apartment, and that it was beautifully renovated. Price said she had no doubt that it was nice, but that it was beyond her means. The woman, who volunteered that she’d “inherited wealth,” agreed with Price that the neighborhood had become extraordinarily expensive. Later, Price wondered what the woman meant by “inherited wealth.”
“Do you think she means, like, millions of dollars?” she asked.
Shaw once boasted a concentration of African American wealth, epitomized by the Whitelaw Hotel. Built in 1919 by black entrepreneur John Whitelaw Lewis, the Whitelaw was a refuge during segregation when white-owned hotels refused to take bookings from African Americans. It drew legendary boxer Joe Louis, bandleader Cab Calloway, and legal giants Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall. Duke Ellington, who lived in several houses in Shaw when he was growing up, also stayed at the hotel. A photo of his tab still hangs in the lobby.
The Whitelaw was elegant, boasting its own ballroom. But with integration came its slow decline. Then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the 1968 uprising ripped through Shaw. By the 1970s, the hotel had become a drug haven. Trash piled up in the ballroom.
A detective told The Washington Post in 1977 that on almost any given day inside the Whitelaw, one might find “a drug addict crawling around the halls with a needle in his arm. Or somebody would stumble over you with a sawed-off shotgun. Or you’d stop a guy to ask him a few questions and a packet of dope would fall out of his pocket.”
That year, the D.C. government decided to close the Whitelaw for building code violations.
“You couldn’t live there. The riots destroyed the neighborhood back in ’68 and then the Whitelaw turned into a place you were lucky to come out alive,” said Jim Dickerson, founder of Manna, a nonprofit group that renovated the hotel and turned it into an affordable apartment building in 1991.
Mae Green moved into the Whitelaw in 1999. By then, white people were starting to buy in Shaw, but it still felt like her community. Twenty years later, that’s no longer true, she said.
“Like, you can go into the Rite Aid, and you will see 48 boxes of hair color and only three for a person of color,” said Green, who is black and works as a security guard downtown. “And it doesn’t make sense because we were here. We are still here. But it’s almost as if you don’t exist.”
Green and Price talked over the wrought-iron fence surrounding a patch of grass where their children once played. Their longtime neighbor Kia Hopkins, 44, a nursing assistant who has lived in the Whitelaw for 20 years, stopped to say hello. Hopkins said that the newcomers make her feel invisible.
“Sometimes, they look at you like, ‘What are you doing here?’ Or they bump you,” Hopkins said. “Just now, a lady let her dog come up on my leg. She didn’t say anything” or apologize. She just kept walking in the direction of Black Broadway, she added.
Price recounted what happened during her annual Fourth of July cookout in 2018. White neighbors, she said, “called the police. They said the music is too loud. But across the street they can have a party on the sidewalk, and nobody says a thing.”
‘A wreck when I bought it’
Price waved to another longtime neighbor, Gary Hyde, a white man who bought in Shaw long before it was gentrified.
Hyde, a federal worker, waved back. He walked up the stairs to his brownstone, where he lives and runs a bed-and-breakfast. The brownstone is sandwiched between Price’s apartment building and another brick apartment building, which he also owns and is turning into condos. Inside his house, jazz is playing. The living room is decorated with oil paintings and antiques. The afternoon light streams though the curved bay window over a piano that Ellington once played.
Hyde flipped through photos of what the brownstone, which had been used as a halfway house, once looked like.
“It was pretty much a wreck when I bought it” in 1999, he said. It had no kitchen. There were drop ceilings and fluorescent lighting throughout. “I did almost all the work — except plumbing and wiring.”
He paid $525,000 for the brownstone and the attached apartment building, which lacked a separate entrance back then. Now the brownstone alone is assessed at $1.1 million, according to D.C. tax records. The apartment building at 1825 13th Street NW is being transformed into a six-unit luxury condo building called the Boss Shepherd. It’s named for an influential figure in 19th century Washington — a white man who helped transform the city.
Hyde has renovated 12 houses in Shaw, now a far more desirable and expensive neighborhood than when he arrived in 1985. Nearly all his neighbors were black then, but he doesn’t consider himself a gentrifier. He said he helped stabilize the neighborhood and save houses from collapse, including one around the corner at 12th and T streets.
“When I walked through the door the first time, I fell through the floor,” he said. “I don’t think people think about that when they say gentrification is terrible across the board.”
LEFT: Bogdan Builders is converting this 13th Street brownstone, built in 1891 into luxury condominiums. RIGHT: The D.C. government decided to close the Whitelaw in the late 1970s for building code violations.
‘I’m part of the change’
On a late-summer evening, Price walked down her block and past the Duke Ellington house, which has a historical marker outside. The sidewalk in front of the red rowhouse memorializes Price’s son Wesley, who wrote his name in the wet cement.
Price pointed to a house that a black pastor and his wife once owned.
“He was this man who every morning got up and cleaned the whole street all the way to T,” she recalled. “Across the street was the home of a black doctor.”
But that man was gone and so was the black family that used to live next to him, and the family that lived next to them.
Price kept walking, like a tour guide explaining the history of her neighborhood. She stopped at a house that used to be a church.
Suddenly, a voice came from over the house’s low wrought-iron fence.
“I didn’t know it was a church,” said a white man drinking a glass of white wine on the front lawn. The homeowner, a real estate agent, moved here five years ago.
“Are you still in the neighborhood?” he asked Price.
She told him she still lived around the corner.
He said he knows gentrification has caused displacement.
“I’m part of the change,” he said. “I feel bad. There is one [black-owned] house left on this block. An original elderly couple who have been here a long time. When I moved here, there were more. I feel like they are being pushed out, but they are making millions on the houses they’ve had for so long.”
He said he can sometimes feel the resentment when he passes black people on the street. "We are a Friday hot spot for African Americans who come in from suburbs,” he said.
Price interrupted: “You think it’s African Americans from the suburbs or African Americans who moved out and are coming back to their neighborhoods?”
He said he didn’t know.
Price ended the conversation by inviting him to her annual summer cookout: “We barbecue. We play cards. I always invite all the neighbors.”
The man politely declined. He’d be at his beach house, he said.
She didn’t tell him that she won’t be his neighbor much longer.
‘This building was mine’
One by one, the boxes were loaded into a friend’s truck on a warm August night. After about an hour, Price’s apartment was empty.
She did one last walk through, remembering all that had passed here, 40 years of life.
Her eyes welled, but her daughter, Ciara Hilliard, told her: “Come on, Mom, don’t start that.”
Price, her son and two grandchildren were going to move in with Hilliard in Oxon Hill, Md., while Price’s husband would stay with his sister in Capitol Heights. They were still looking for a new place. But first Price had to walk away from her old place.
“I really thought this building was mine,” she lamented. “Mr. Holmes owned the building, but I ran it. I told him what was going on and when he had to make repairs. I welcomed new people to the building. I swept and mopped the floors in the stairwell — from the third floor all the way down to the laundry room. I made my husband paint the lobby. I used to put a Christmas tree by the door every year.”
When there was a fire a couple of years ago, she said, she was the one who banged on her neighbors’ doors to wake them up. “They called me the mayor of the building,” she recalled.
Her daughter tugged at her to leave.
“Come on, Mom. Don’t start,” she repeated. “I keep telling you, this is a fresh start. … You’re going to have a dishwasher. And air conditioning. And maybe a yard.”
Price looked one last time. Then she closed the door, locked it and handed in the keys to her home.