The Rent Is Too Damn High: ‘Reinventing’ And Gentrifying Food

Or as we point out often, you can’t have gentrification without a gentry. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Petula Dvorak observes this about D.C. (boldface mine):

I visited a new Washington shop this week, a Temple of Cool so sleek and futuristic it took a few minutes to figure out what — exactly — they do in the shiny, white minimalist space.

Did I accidentally end up at the Genius Bar? Am I at a law firm? Oh, wait. That’s right.


Really, expensive, delicious, ah-mazing coffee: $4 for a highball glass of iced joe gone in four sips.

It’s one of those craft-caffeine palaces that are proliferating throughout Washington. This one is called Blue Bottle Coffee, now in Georgetown but soon opening outposts in other parts of the District.

This is what the nation’s capital is becoming, isn’t it?

Because, to be honest, I can’t afford to drink coffee at a place like this every day. And neither can many city residents who have been here much longer than I have…

it’s not just that fancy people have moved in with their fancy things.

Caviar and champagne aren’t displacing the catfish and beer of working-class, old-school Washington. No, the way it happens today is: The existing culture is co-opted and transformed — prettified, up-classed and one-percented — in a sort of feel-good gentrification that makes it inaccessible to the very people who have lived here their whole lives.

It’s a $9 half-smoke with hummus.

A $25 burger with foie gras.

A $4 shot of coffee.

See, we’re not getting rid of your food, we’re just reinventing it.

Washington has become a place where doughnuts, beer, burgers, chicken, coffee — staples of regular people — have been seized, crafted and fancified.

That’s what’s different, interesting and maybe troubling about this wave of gentrification. Don’t look for the Gucci store to see if your neighborhood’s hot. Look for the $25 plate of artisanal grits…

The changes in the District aren’t simply about the paling of Chocolate City. The city’s racial makeup has undergone a dramatic change, with African Americans no longer the majority of the population for the first time in decades.

Today’s shift is also about economics. The working class and the middle class — the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee drinkers, the $5 sandwich eaters — are being pushed out by the people who can afford the Temple of Cool.

I’ll be the first one to admit, I was pretty giddy when I heard this fancy coffee place was coming to our city. But when I got there and looked around, it made me uncomfortable — and nostalgic for the way Washington used to be.

I have to agree with Dvorak: D.C. is losing many of its affordable restaurants and stores (though it strains credulity to think that a Washington Post columnist can’t afford this). What moves in is often over-priced and also not what long time residents want or need. I’ll admit I’m not a high-brow kind of guy (or maybe I’m just a cheap bastid), but there’s a reason why these cheaper stores and restaurants are going out of business that has nothing to do with matters of taste–the store rent is too damn high (boldface mine):

When Pixie Windsor, otherwise known as Miss Pixie, first moved to 14th Street in 2008, there were still riot bars on the windows of her store. Her namesake furniture shop had already been open in Adams Morgan for more than a decade when she decided to move to the bigger space.

It was a transitional time in 14th Street history. It felt like the plans for new retail detailed in city reports two decades earlier were finally coming to fruition. More restaurants were opening, and there was an unofficial “furniture row” that included other independent stores. The rent for her 4,000-square-foot space was $6,500 a month and included a coffee shop space upstairs that was rented to another independent vendor.

Now, nine years later, her monthly rent has increased to $16,701.47. If there is a property tax increase, the cost will be passed directly on to her.

When it comes to food, in too many neighborhoods there simply isn’t enough profit margin in ‘cheap eats’ to pay these kinds of rents. But a six dollar hamburger transformed by the magic phrase ‘fast casual dining’ becomes ten dollars–and has a pretentious name that causes David Brooks to freak out.

Ok, that is an excellent development.

The exceptions to this phenomenon are those businesses where the business owns the building (e.g., Ben’s Chili Dogs). But if a business is renting, it’s too hard with low margins to survive. While D.C., and other cities, do have some local store and restaurant initiatives, if cities can’t figure out how to get business rents under control, we’re going to end up with a lot of overpriced stores and restaurants–which is another reason why lower-middle and middle class people are concerned about gentrification.

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1 Response to The Rent Is Too Damn High: ‘Reinventing’ And Gentrifying Food

  1. It’s happening everywhere. Even in places like Buffalo, NY.

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