D.C.’s dirty words

Two words I never grew up with: hipster and gentrification. This is likely a result of the declining fortunes of most of New England, which has trouble supporting the conditions that permit the use of these terms.

The words, widely intertwined, are lobbed about often in the comments of D.C. blogs, by residents of the city and even in The Washington Post.

“Stupid hipsters.”

“I live in a gentrified neighborhood.”

“The gentrification of D.C. by the hipsters continues.”

There are both pro– and anti-hipster websites. The definition of hipster appears mostly on slang dictionaries.  The Free Dictionary defines the term as:

One who is exceptionally aware of or interested in the latest trends and tastes, especially a devotee of modern jazz.

That seems way off from the way we all use it, does it not?

Merriam Webster gives this definition for gentrification, first used in 1964 (holy -ing y’all, get an editor on that):

the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents

These are relatively new words, and their definitions are constantly in flux. In D.C., “hipster” has nothing to do with the jazz scene. The definition of gentrification is unproven, according to a report by Columbia University, which refutes the notion that low-income residents get displaced.

I’m not sure that study even matters. It’s a little like our climate: we know it’s changing, but calling it global warming may not be entirely accurate. Maybe gentrifying neighborhoods should be more loosely labeled as “changing neighborhoods.” They are changing, but do we really know how and why?

Usage of these words has increased tenfold in the past years. Any person, usually white, living in Columbia Heights, can be a hipster. A neighborhood where you can see these so-called hipsters? Often gentrified.

The words are not inherently bad. They are not even unique to this area; like most things, New York beat us to the punch. But they certainly symbolize the bubbling disparities among the many racially and economically diverse residents of this city who live in such close quarters.

Tiny $500,000 rowhouses rub shoulders with the Potomac Gardens public housing in my neighborhood. A similar story can be told in Columbia Heights. If those houses were a block away in any direction, their value would increase significantly. Gentrification and hipster are sensitive subjects that reference how D.C. has changed in the last 20 years. For better and for worse.

But the words are ill-defined and negative. I would rather be called the non-race specific term Bama than a gentrifying hipster, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. Few people want to be called either at this point. The words are becoming insults and slurs.

What am I? My friends? People on U Street NW? Families that are moving to Trinidad? Choose one: hipsters or gentrifiers. It’s just not that simple.

These labels don’t advance the frank discussions we as a region need to be able to have everyday. But each time they are used in every-day conversation, the more powerful they get.

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