The New D.C. From The Outside Looking In

Akil Watson

Story was written by Akil Watson

My Unfamiliar Hometown (Part 1 of 2)

Hi, I’m Akil. I was born and raised in N.E. in the 80’s and 90’s. Chocolate City was the only home I knew until I unexpectedly landed in college in 1999. After that, destiny swept me even further away to Tokyo, where I have resided since 2004. I am currently days away from my first trip back to D.C. in 4 years.

I feel it necessary to give a bit more background on how my life experiences have changed my worldview before commenting on such an (obviously) polarizing topic as the drastic changes that have taken place in Washington over the past decade. In part two of this post, I will try to look forward a bit. Before that I’d like to trace back….so please bear with me.

Previous to moving away I was typical D.C. kid your growing up in the heart of Chocolate City. My first day of college was my introduction to being a Black man in America on a macro scale, as I like to call it. By that, I mean that I grew up in Washington seeing myself only as an individual. It wasn’t necessary to have the double consciousness you develop in a multicultural environment. Until high school graduation, all of my schools were at least 90%, and my neighborhood was 99% African American. College was a rude awakening for me. I had unknowingly entered a large school in a small town with a 7% Black population. To be honest it took years and a lot of soul searching to find myself in that new context and it wasn’t easy.

I get the feeling that D.C. and its long-term residents are experiencing a similar soul searching phase to find where they fit into a suddenly unfamiliar home. This is pure speculation on my part, however. I will have no idea how things are really developing in the Nation’s Capital until I touch down and feel the vibe for myself.

Thinking back, I clearly remember the moment I knew the Washington D.C. of my birth had started disappearing. It was on a September day in 2006. This was my 2nd time returning to visit since moving to Tokyo. My niece was about to be born, my cousin was getting married, and I was just happy to be back in the city hearing go-go on the radio and eating my mom’s home cooking.

I was in my rental car parked at a light near Dunbar HS (not even sure if the name has changed or not) and I glanced out my window while stopped at a light. A few guys hanging out in front of a corner store, a normal sight. Then, out of nowhere, a 20 something brown haired White man went jogging past them with her hair flapping in the breeze. I remember watching the scene, seemingly in slow motion, then chuckling to myself saying “DC has changed”. That was a sight I had never seen as an adolescent and I knew that there was a systemic shift going on. By coincidence, I was also reading a book on gentrification at the time, and the tea leaves were starting to make sense.

My later visit in 2013 showed me the speed in which sweeping change can come. Hearing and seeing the frustration and confusion of friends, families, and local residents, in general, was a bit dismaying to be honest…but at least we had President Obama, right? There was a mood of pride that permeated. I could still feel a bounce in everyone’s step (you don’t get too much bounce in everyday Tokyo, more like moving meditation). Even to this day, I can’t put my finger on what it was, but I imagine the feeling of optimism and pride still held strong from his first term. If my theory holds true, I imagine that emotion has all but dried up. On top of that, some of the online videos I have seen here and there are preparing me to come home to a completely face-lifted D.C.

On one hand, I am looking forward to experiencing what this new Washington has to offer. I am a 35-year-old father now. I have started eating organic and am excited at the idea of shopping at Whole Foods with my family (health food prices in Tokyo are not to be played with).

On the other hand, I am not naive enough to think that most of the long-term residents of the city have been thrilled to see the neighborhoods that nurtured them disappear overnight (even the field my friends and I grew up playing football on is a townhouse community and I feel some type of way about it). It has been surreal to watch Chocolate City melt away from afar. I can imagine it has been even more dismaying to watch it up-close.

With that said I have become an optimist in the past 4 years and learned to make peace with my position as a “Gaijin” (foreigner/outsider) here in Japan. I hope I am strong enough to bring that same optimism home as I come back to a familiar place that has drastically changed.

As I mentally prepare for my trip, some questions keep lingering in my mind:

What does a 2017 D.C. (and America) look like?

How are my people finding their place in the new D.C. socially and economically?

Has the flavor of the city disappeared, been marginalized, or just relocated?

What are the positive results of this change?

Is D.C. still my home or has it become the place where I grew up filled with people I love?

I am sure this trip to D.C. will lead to many unexpected answers and even more questions. That is why I am saving my perspective on the situation for AFTER my trip. Please stay tuned for part 2 where I look back and try to make some objective observations (and hopefully useful insight) on the state of Washington D.C. in 2017 and beyond.

Thanks for reading and wish me luck!


You can follow Akil on:

Japan According To Akil Podcast

Instagram @akil.watson

Twitter @akil_watson_jp


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