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Washington Sees Biggest Influx of Whites in Seven Decades

The Capitol building is reflected in the Capitol Reflecting Pool on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
The Capitol building is reflected in the Capitol Reflecting Pool on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

March 25 (Bloomberg) -- In the four years since Lindsay Pettingill moved near Howard University in Washington, D.C., she has seen the growing mark of young newcomers like herself: The booming farmers’ market, the Macintosh laptops at the café, even the occasional Red Sox cap when the team comes to town.

The 30-year-old Georgetown University graduate student said she loves the century-old buildings and diversity of a neighborhood where blacks have long had a large majority.

“It’s just a little paradise,” Pettingill, who is white, said on a Friday afternoon, when the din of home-remodeling jobs could be heard every few blocks.

She’s part of an influx that’s pushing up the population of the nation’s capital for the first time since the 1940s, before hundreds of thousands were drawn to suburbs or fled during the racially charged decades after segregation ended.

The District of Columbia’s population gained 5 percent, to 601,723, from 2000 to 2010, driven by the biggest jump in white residents since the 1930s, data released by the U.S. Census Bureau yesterday showed. The capital’s white population rose by 50,286, or 32 percent, to 209,464. The black population slid by 39,035 to 301,053 -- dropping to 50 percent of the city, the smallest share since the 1950s.

“The changes are more dramatic than I was originally thinking,” said Peter Tatian, a researcher with the Urban Institute in Washington who studies the city’s neighborhoods. “It’s quite a big turnaround in terms of whites moving into the city.”

Reversing Trend

Washington joins eastern U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore and Newark, that grew or stabilized after decades of decline, reversing a trend that’s continuing in Detroit and other industrial cities in the Midwest.

Washington is benefiting from a drop in crime; an economy tied to an expanding federal government, which has helped buffer it from the recession; and traffic congestion in the suburbs that ranks among the worst in the nation.

Benjamin Orr, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, said the city is drawing in wealthier residents and capitalizing on interest in inner-city living. The biggest population gains were in Wards 2 and 6, adjacent districts that run through the center of the city from Georgetown through Capitol Hill.

“The district has become a more expensive place to live,” he said. “So households with less income are leaving the District and households with more income are moving in --and there’s a racial component to that demographic, like a lot of places in the country.”

Income Rises

Washington’s median household income rose by 41 percent to $56,519 during the decade, according to previously released census data. That compares with a 22 percent increase for the U.S. The average selling price of a single-family home was $603,000 in October 2010, up from $288,000 10 years earlier, city figures show.

The federal government has helped stoke the city’s growth. There were 212,000 federal employees in Washington at the end of September, an increase of 17 percent since 2001, according to the city’s annual financial reports. Overall, the number of jobs grew by 10 percent to 718,000 from September 2001 to September 2010, a period when the nation lost jobs.

Real-estate developer Adrian Washington, a city native and founder of Neighborhood Development Co., credits former Mayor Anthony Williams with fostering the turnaround by improving the city’s image and quality of services.

Williams, mayor from 1999 to 2007, took over a city once infamous for crime and the 1990 Federal Bureau of Investigation sting that captured then-Mayor Marion Barry smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room.

‘Much Better Place’

“The city has become a much better place,” said Washington, 52, who is black.

Washington, whose company works on revitalizing neighborhoods, said his condominium projects in the center of the city have drawn college-educated singles and couples in their late-20s and 30s.

Merry Alderman Ritsch, a white native of New York, bought a house three years ago in the Bloomingdale neighborhood near Howard. She said she appreciates the ethnic mix and the closeness of city life.

“I’ve never lived in an area that felt so much like a community,” said Ritsch, 32, as she pulled her 1-year-old son in a red wagon through Anna J. Cooper Circle, a park in Northwest Washington named for a black feminist and educator who once lived nearby.

Welcoming Change

The change is welcomed by James Patterson, a construction contractor who works from an office near the Howard Theatre, a shuttered landmark where musical luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye once played.

The theater is being restored. Patterson, 72, said it’s now typical to see women walking safely at night along streets that were once drug havens, and he’s heartened by the racial integration.

“It should have been this way all along,” said Patterson, who is black.

There are drawbacks. Simuel Washington, a 91-year-old retiree, said the demographic change has pushed up prices in the U Street neighborhood that was once the cultural heart of the black community.

“If you don’t have a decent salary, you can’t live,” said Washington, a retired government worker who has lived in the area since 1939. “Rich people are taking over.”

Great Migration

Washington was a prime destination during the Great Migration, the period from World War I through the middle of the century when blacks left farm jobs in the South for the cities of the North.

By 1960, black residents became a majority in Washington. In 1970, their share of the population peaked at 71 percent, after the riots that erupted in the wake of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. accelerated an exodus of whites.

The city’s black population has declined in each successive decade. Adrian Washington, the developer, attributed the decrease to black families leaving the Southeast neighborhoods, across the Anacostia River, for neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, which gained 54,000 black residents last decade.

Ward 8, in Southeast on the other side of the river, was the only one to lose population during the past decade.

Wealth Divide

Washington City Councilman Michael Brown said the economic revitalization leaves him concerned that some residents may be pushed out, leaving a city bisected less by race than wealth.

“I love the revitalization; I think it’s great,” said Brown, who said he wants to see more affordable housing developed. “But it has to include everyone.”

In neighborhoods near historically black Howard University, the average family income has jumped 36 percent since 2000, according to figures compiled by the Urban Institute and the Washington DC Local Initiatives Support Corp. While the median home price has fallen 11 percent from its 2006 peak, at $399,000, it’s still more than twice what it was at the start of the decade.

Derrick Hill, 51, who lives in his grandmother’s house in a Bloomingdale, said he appreciates some of the changes the increase in wealth has brought, such as the drop in crime.

Rents on Rise

Still, Hill estimated the price of a basement apartment has jumped to $1,600 from about $300 a decade ago, which has forced some people to leave.

“It would be nice if they could have more affordable places to live,” said Hill, an unemployed paralegal, who is black.

Pettingill, the Georgetown University student, said the neighborhood is also too costly for her to buy into.

“I can’t afford it,” said Pettingill, who moved to Washington from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But there are perks: As a political science student, she’s studying the impact of demographic change. She’s getting to see it firsthand.

To contact the reporter on this story: William Selway in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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