Caste and Class in an Iconic Washington Apartment Building

Embry and I moved into an apartment house just over seven years ago. We love the place. It is only a block from where we lived for over 40 years; and when it was constructed during the 1930s, it instantly became one of DC’s finest buildings. It still is. There is a wide range of unit sizes and rent levels, and the building has large units, many with balconies, fireplaces, and fabulous views of  Rock Creek Park and Connecticut Ave. It also has all the amenities you would expect plus great service, an elegant  main entry  and terrific fitness center. It is a large building for DC—around 450 units—and while it has a good mix of ages, including a few young families, there are a lot of people our age, which makes it a NORC (“naturally occurring retirement community”). We could not ask for anything better.

So, what is the problem?

The “problem” is that the residents are almost all white people, financially secure, if not outright rich, and the staff are almost all people of color. We call them by their first names. They all call us Mister or Ms.

Well, you might say, what is wrong that? Isn’t that pretty much the way it is everywhere?

Exactly. That is the problem.

Having spent most of my adult life as a bleeding heart, progressive, with a consulting career involved in trying to help clients build affordable and seniors housing, I now find myself enjoying “the good life” in a segregated environment that when you get down to it is not all that different from the Jim Crow era I grew up in in an elite neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. Ok, I confess that I exaggerate. Our country is different in many ways from what it was when I was growing up, and we have made progress. We have had an African American president. People of color now run major corporations, go to elite colleges and universities, work for prestigious law firms, and have good jobs. So, sure, as a nation we are more diverse and more accepting of diversity than we used to be– but still not nearly enough. The income and wealth gap between the races doggedly continues.

But my question is why is this apartment house still a mostly segregated building and the surrounding neighborhoods still mostly white. Embry and I moved from North Carolina to DC in 1972 and have lived in the same neighborhood for over 50 years. That is a long time—almost two generations—plenty of time for changes to have happened. Yet in terms of racial diversity in our neighborhood, not much has changed. Most of our friends are white; and were it not for the various nonprofit housing boards I serve on and our neighborhood church, I doubt that I would have strong friendships with any people of color.

One argument regarding the reason for this defacto racial segregation has been that people of color can’t afford to live in these “desirable neighborhoods” or in  pricey apartments. That may have been true 50 years ago, but now there are lots of black and brown people that have management positions in private companies, have high level government jobs, work in professions like law and medicine, and have high incomes. Where are they living? Why aren’t they living here?

The invisible barrier of caste persists. Why is it so hard to overcome?

What makes this especially poignant is that most of my friends living here and in the surrounding neighborhood are, like me, bleeding heart liberals. We believe in racial integration. We believe that Black Lives Matter. We believe the United States can and should be a kinder and gentler nation. We are progressive Democrats, who have championed progressive causes most of our adult lives. Some of us were involved in our younger days in the civil rights movement. Yet here we are in a defacto segregated building as we edge toward the finish line, living in this comfortable environment of mainly white professionals. I can’t avoid wondering if we are not part of the problem. Are we the hypocrites that the Trump supporters say we are?

Sadly, the caste system is alive and well in Washington’s most desirable neighborhoods and apartment buildings, and I am part of it.

And  the class system is also alive and well. If there are working class, white people working here, I have not seen them. And certainly, none live here. The main barrier, of course, is financial. They can’t afford the rents. But even if they could, I suspect lifestyle and values would be a barrier to overcome. There may be Trump supporters in this building or in the greater neighborhood, but I have not met one.

We liberals in DC are labeled by many working class, white people as “coastal elites” — snotty, privileged, spoiled brats, who think we are successful because we are better than others when the truth is we had the luck of the draw to be born into families that could afford to send us to  private schools and summer camp. Of course, there are many exceptions of people who have pulled themselves out of the working class by their own bootstraps, but a lot more that have not been so fortunate. Many have been dealt tough hands, born into unstable families struggling to get by. They understand the  deck is stacked against them. The playing field is not level. And when they see us “elites” champion the cause of the minority population at the expense of themselves, who still struggle to get by, no wonder they are angry. They have benefitted from the caste system by having people to look down on. Now that this is changing, they are mad. If I were in their shoes, I suppose I would be too. That is why so many have flocked to Trump, who is a symptom, not the champion of the Great Discontent of the white working class.

I turned 80 this year and will not see the day when at a resident’s event, I will witness a room full of people of all shades of color or when the caste system will be a thing of the past.  My hope is that someday this will happen, that the invisible walls of caste and class will diminish. I am hopeful that at some point the vast gap between the privileged and the underprivileged will narrow to only a small opening. I doubt that this will happen in my children’s lifetime or even my grandchildren’s, but the fate of our country and our world will depend on it.







8 thoughts on “Caste and Class in an Iconic Washington Apartment Building

  1. We live in a late ‘60s rent controlled 1254 unit apartment & townhomes complex in San Francisco, also considered a city of coastal elites with many bleeding heart liberals whom some of the most ‘progressive’ of our city consider ‘corporate democrats’ and where our Representative Speaker Pelosi is considered a moderate. Our buildings were built as part of the Golden Gateway/Lower Embarcadero Redevelopment Area and replaced a delapidated produce market area along alongside a waterfront freeway, now demolished.
    We are fortunate in having a multi-generational, multi-racial and multi-ethnic tenancy and an active tenants association committed to building community, and in the past 2+ years an enlightened management with whom we work closely on safety/security and other issues in these Covid days when many of society’s mores have broken down.
    I believe our diversity comes from the rent-controlled nature of our building, where tenants once in are able to stay, if they wish, until as we say ‘they’ll have to carry me out’ (we’ve been here 2 3/4 years and are 75 & 76). Also, from a San Francisco that attracts a broad spectrum of out-of-state transplants and immigrants.
    This is not to say that class and caste are not an issue here. Our difficulties finding solutions for the ‘unhoused’ (aka ‘homeless’) make us a national punching bag when the income inequality helping perpetuate this here and in other urban centers remains something our country’s current political divides makes impossible to address.
    These are my waking thoughts and reactions on my iPhone, please ignore any typos 🙂

  2. Two things come to mind.

    1 The song from ‘West Side Story” – “Stick to your own kind, stick to your own kind”. The only difference – they were Jets and Sharks and we are – what are we? White and Wealthy? Like it or not, people stick to their own kind. And you’re one of them. And so am I. You’d like to live in a racially mixed community, and so would I, but………….? On our own terms???

    2 I have a problem – I would like to live somewhere that is more attractive, where there is a “village type” community. Suburbia, inc including US suburbia, is the land of the anonymous where people stick to their own kind. Here in the UK there are still rural village communities where everyone mixes – BUT, the rich are buying up the properties for second homes and, thus, destroying community. SO MUCH SO the the Welsh government is now making “incomers” pay much more for a property to help the locals get a foot in the market.

    Let’s have a blog about what sticking to your own kind really means to you.

  3. Re: ‘the residents are almost all white people’
    After reading Alec Bash’s comment, I’m curious: can you give us a more quantitative ethnic/color makeup of the building? You could do this by standing at the entrance and counting for a week. Or by attending a bunch of meetings. Or maybe your the management keeps track of DEI tenant data. How many foreigners (is that term PC?) are there? I would guess there would be quite a few darkish-skinned individuals from Asian or Mideastern countries. How many Hispanics, and any Mestizos? African-Americans (AAs) are roughly 1/8th the population, and about 75% of them are considered middle class or higher; that us, about 1 in 10 are AAs. ‘Equity’ standards for a middle-class building would suggest from 5 to 10% AAs. Feedback, please.

    1. Irwin,
      Always am impressed with your questions and insights. You have given me some homework to do and I will get on it. Much of the dilemma has to do with the human condition, which is to say, “People are no damn good.”

  4. Thoughtful post, dad! At this moment in time, there is more diversity in the suburbs, yes? My guess is a building/ community in Arlington or Hyattsville, for example, will be less segregated. Complex, compelling topic with much more to say!

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