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Authenticity and “Post-Chocolate” Cool in a Rapidly Gentrifying Washington, D.C. – Next City

Deindustrialization, gentrification, residential and commercial revitalization, and large-scale development create conditions for the displacement of older and poorer Black residents, as well as Black small businesses, leading to a shrinking Black population in D.C. But why have I chosen to describe Washington, D.C., as a “post-chocolate” city? “Post” shifts one’s thinking to “after” or “beyond” a particular condition or situation. In this context, “post” incorporates temporality when discussing spatial matters. “Post” speaks to a shift, a waning of sorts. Acknowledging D.C. as transitioning into a “post–Chocolate City” is a way to examine the intricacies of who and what are often left out, or what is incorporated. In other words, “post–Chocolate City” signals the afterlife of a fiercely and firmly recognized Black place. But what still remains? Certainly, there are other cities around the country that have large Black populations, but the “chocolate” moniker means much more than just having a lot of Black residents.

While Washington, D.C., was the first Chocolate City — the first large, majority Black city in the United States — it is analogous to so many other cities that experienced racism, segregation, high unemployment, and disproportionate incarceration rates but that also have prolific music, food culture, politics, and play. Chocolate City metaphorically undergirds “the relationships among history, politics, culture, inequality, knowledge, and Blackness.” Where some of the culinary metaphors (latte, cappuccino, s’mores, etc.) used to describe D.C.’s changing demographic landscape signal a shift to whiteness, “post-chocolate” is open-ended; the term doesn’t postulate what color or colors are next. D.C. is now a decidedly international city, so the divide between Black and white becomes more complicated. Post–Chocolate City does not specify what exists beyond chocolate; it simply designates a period after chocolate. The post–Chocolate City exemplifies a disappearing mode of social and cultural life that has been revised by an aesthetic infrastructure.

Connecting racial discourses with renewal efforts along the H Street, NE corridor, “Black in Place” explores the contemporary operation of race. I identify the way blackness is produced, inscribed, and apprehended in urban environments. In the process, I demonstrate how an ostensible demographic characterization operates as an aesthetic, as well as a politics. The production and circulation of meaning in urban development relies on aesthetics, or visual and affective judgments of taste, to assign value to individual and collective bodies and spaces. Aesthetics are used in urban planning and development through the use of branding strategies, heritage tourism, and lifestyle programs. They are used to attract commerce, customers, and residents. Therefore I consider the function of race as an aesthetic feature and illustrate how (and why) blackness, in particular, is mobilized as style. More specifically, the book situates the “revitalization” of D.C.’s “Atlas District” within a broader context of urban change and focuses on the ways Black aesthetic emplacement inscribes blackness in the built environment during an economic and political moment hailed as post-racial.

Conceptually, I argue that blackness is integral to the production of spaces. I imagine a definition of blackness that is capacious enough to speak to shifts in the urban terrain. Through representations of blackness we experience the circulation and articulation of blackness in aesthetic form. To imagine a definition of blackness in this way speaks to, as media studies theorist Lauren Cramer puts it, “the de-corporealization of blackness.”

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