A screening of “Chocolate City,” a documentary about the displacement of a community of African Americans in the District, drew a crowd of more than 100 students and D.C. residents late last week.
Produced by filmmakers Ellie Walton and Sam Wild, the film tells the story of the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg neighborhood in Southeast after 400 low-income families and 300 senior citizens were relocated to make way for new development under a D.C. government project. The screening was sponsored by the Office of Community Service.
“They took our neighborhood to put more houses in there to get more money,” said Debra Frazier, a resident featured in the film, adding that city officials did not communicate well with the residents.
“Ten people there made the decisions about our lives,” she said.
Walton, who is a D.C. native, decided on the topic as part of her master’s thesis for the University of London after seeing a play by a local playwright and performer, Anu Yadav. Yadav collected reflections and dialogues from the Arthur Caper residents, and started a one-person play to bring awareness to the negative aspects of gentrification.
Walton said local universities such as GW can contribute to gentrification, although it is important not to place blame on a specific group of people.
“Universities have transient populations, so students sometimes don’t have vested interests in bettering the city,” Walton said. “At the same time, students can bring in new ideas that positively impact the community.”
The 2001 housing project that affected the subjects of the movie, called HOPE VI, sought to build new complexes and transform the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg area into a mixed-income neighborhood.
Told through the eyes of residents who lived through the transformation, the film explores the juxtaposition of the renowned democracy of the federal government and what residents saw as the lack of democracy just blocks away. Shots of the Washington Monument as seen from the low-income neighborhood highlighted the idea of the divided city or the two distinct cities.
One resident who passed by the Capitol on her way to work said, “I’m so close to power yet I’m so far away.”
The documentary featured one instance in which the residents were able to make their voices heard. When the city decided to close down the local recreation center, the kids who used it mobilized and created a petition to keep it open.
Frazier said seeing 10 year-old children succeed in saving their center brought more attention to the neighborhood movement. Adults who previously felt powerless to stop the evictions now felt they could contribute as well.
The film included a segment about the clash between the blacks and Latinos in D.C. Several Cappers residents said it was unfair that there were so few resources to go around and that Latinos were taking jobs when they could be illegal and not speak English.
Yadav intervened and said blacks and Latinos should not be fighting, as they have too much in common with each other and share the same problems.
“There may be a vision that includes everyone,” Yadav added.
The film concludes, “We hope it gave you a reason to fight.” Even though the housing projects were already demolished, past residents hope to return to the place they grew up.
After the screening, Walton said, “They’re wanting to go back, but at every step there are hurdles.”