The new neighbors: A look at Mount Pleasant’s changing demographics

D.C. resident Allison Wolfe said it was the diversity of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, located in Northwest between 16th Street and the National Zoo, that persuaded her to move there about 10 years ago. But now she said a real estate boom in the area is starting to push out the minority residents.

A look today at the main drag of the neighborhood, Mount Pleasant Street, illustrates the diversity that captivated Wolfe about a decade ago. Stores along the strip are owned by Koreans, Moroccans, Hispanics and other minorities, and Spanish is the dominant language spoken up and down the street. While it is clear that Mount Pleasant is a Latino hub of Washington that includes a dash of black and Asian-American cultures as well, the future of this minority-grounded neighborhood is uncertain.

Mount Pleasant is one of several areas in city in the midst of a real estate frenzy. Houses that cost a couple hundred thousand dollars 10 years ago are now selling for anywhere between $750,000 to more than $1 million. This growing demand for housing in Mount Pleasant is bringing a new base of residents to the area, which is leaving long-time residents concerned.

“The face of the neighborhood has changed – and not for the better,” Wolfe said, adding that she tried to get involved in the community planning meetings in the neighborhood to preserve its diversity, but her ideas were shot down because she rents her apartment. “If you’re not a homeowner, you don’t have a lot of say.”

The new batches of buyers entering the neighborhood are willing to pay large sums of money to be in a neighborhood that has accessible public transportation and is close to downtown nightlife. The high real estate value of the area has motivated landowners to remodel their properties to make them more attractive to buyers. Residents said they’ve been given the impression that they need to either pay the new price or clear out for tenants who will, adding that based on average income levels in the area, most cannot pay the increased rent.

“These guys make $10, $8 an hour,” 35-year Mount Pleasant resident Walter Martinez said as he pointed to the Latino men conversing around him. “They can’t pay it.”

Other residents agreed, arguing that those who can’t fork over the cash are being forced out and others are very eager to pay in their place.

“New people are coming in – white people,” said Danny Flores, a 25-year resident of Mount Pleasant. “You know … it’s (about the) money.”

Although the ongoing demographic changes in Mount Pleasant make the issue appear to be a racial one, resident Jack McKay, a member of the 1D Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a locally elected group that makes zoning recommendations to the city, insisted that it’s simply about class and income.

“I don’t think anyone here can be called racist,” he said.

Residents in the neighborhood are not foreign to racial conflict. The area, which extends from Rock Creek Park east to 16th Street and south to Harvard Avenue, was blocks away from the race riots that occurred in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. After the riots, Mount Pleasant, which was a racially mixed area, was a victim of “white flight,” in which whites left the community to minorities, McKay said.

“Nobody wanted to live east of Rock Creek Park,” he said.

Latino immigrants also began moving to Mount Pleasant in the 1970s and 1980s following the riots because of the local Latino hangouts in the area and nearby job availabilities, Martinez, the 25-year resident, said.

Before the riots and immigration, though, Mount Pleasant was the “Washington away from Washington,” where most of the houses in the area were built in the 1910s and 1920s as summer getaways outside of downtown D.C. Many residents now say that the spacious homes in the area are attracting pricier buyers who are trying to renovate Mount Pleasant into a high-class suburb again.

“Newcomers coming from outside of the city have a different style of living,” Martinez said. “They like the way they live out there in the suburbs, and they make the rules.”

New commercial ventures have started to pop up alongside longstanding Latino restaurants and locally owned stores, residents said, and there has even been talk about bringing a Target to the area.

But even though Mount Pleasant is on the verge of becoming an upscale neighborhood once again, residents said that it’s not completely there yet. While several people described the neighborhood as safe, recent violent crimes – including a gang shooting in 2003 in the middle of Mount Pleasant Street and the shooting of a man who was walking his dog in September – have triggered an increase in police patrols.

Many long-time residents believe that the increased police presence is only to ease the concerns of the new white homeowners who have moved into the area.

Martinez – who recently made news for being arrested for standing outside of a 7-Eleven when an officer told him to move because of a “No Loitering” sign – believes that the growing police presence does not protect all the residents of Mount Pleasant. He spoke out about the arrest and said the people who socialize on the streets are not bad people, and he added that fraternizing is part of the Latino culture.

Resident Brianne McGonigle said she thinks the police presence is one of the benefits of the neighborhood, in addition to the diversity of the area. She said she decided to move to Mount Pleasant three years ago because of the location and the housing options.

“As a student, this is one of the few areas I could afford,” McGonigle said.

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