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WASHINGTON--I'm interning in the White House this summer. So far, it's been a phenomenal experience to rub shoulders with John Podesta, the current chief of staff--especially for someone who dreams of someday holding that post.
But there's one thing that has taught me far more about the most important things in life this summer than any errand I run for Mr. Podesta--my summer address:
Four 8th Street SE Washington, DC
The important part of that address is the "SE" for "Southeast." Washington is separated into four quadrants, with the Capitol building at the center. Southwest is the smallest quadrant. There's not much there to discuss. Northwest is the largest quadrant. It is predominantly rich and white and has a reputation as being the safest part of the city. Most interns live in the famous Georgetown and Dupont Circle neighborhoods of Northwest. The eastern quadrants of the city, particularly Southeast, are predominantly minority and poorer and have a more dangerous reputation. Being confronted by the disparity between those reputations has been an education unlike any other.
I was having dinner a month ago with a friend and her parents in suburban Maryland. They were mortified that I was going to be living in Southeast. They forbade my friend from coming down to visit my place because they feared crime. When I lived in Georgetown last summer, she was welcome to visit as much as she wanted. That a knife attack occurred on my old Georgetown block the week before I dined with them was meaningless. Further, there had been no reported crimes in my Southeast neighborhood, Eastern Market. Since then, there have been two high-profile murders in Georgetown and virtually no crime in my neighborhood.
Admittedly, Eastern Market is the nicest part of Southeast. Forming the southern half of Capitol Hill, the neighborhood is anchored by a giant red warehouse that turns into a vibrant flea market on the weekends. A number of shops, restaurants and bars line Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street, the main thoroughfares. Townhouses, some dating from the early 1800s, hug the side streets, home to the typical (at least for the District) army of government workers. In other words, Eastern Market is a lot like Georgetown.
To me, the fear expressed by my friend's parents is inexplicable. Such a fear of Southeast is common, even among city-dwellers. I'm sure it is part of the reason why only two Harvard students are living in my neighborhood this summer, even though the rent is much lower than in Northwest. Even the Let's Go travel guides warn visitors to stay away from 8th Street (my street) at night.
I really like Eastern Market. It feels like home to me. I'm planning on working in Washington after I graduate and I want to live here. Because I like it so much, I've been trying to understand why people fear it so much. I've come to an unsettling conclusion.
It's nearly impossible for a white guy who goes to Harvard to talk about race and class and be taken seriously. I hope you'll give me the benefit of the doubt, because I'm pretty sure both of these factors influence opinions about my neighborhood. Eastern Market used to be a depressed neighborhood and is undergoing something of a renaissance. Georgetown has been the established center of Washington money and power for 200 years. Eastern Market is adjacent to more run-down and depressed areas on three sides. Georgetown juts against areas that are even more ritzy and exclusive. Although Eastern Market itself is predominantly white, many of the surrounding blocks are predominantly minority. Georgetown is a very white community.
I believe fear of Southeast is based primarily on fear of the different and the unknown. I do not believe my friend's parents are racist or elitist. Such epithets imply a much more active hatred than I see at work in people's fears about my neighborhood and the surrounding areas. Instead, I think that my Georgetown and suburban friends fear Southeast for the same reasons that cross-racial friendships are rare. People are more comfortable with other people who are like them. Well off, white suburbanites feel more comfortable with other well off, white suburbanites. The run down buildings and the different colors of skin are unsettling to people used to the chic atmosphere of Georgetown.
Prejudices like this are a fact of life. The trick is overcoming them and not avoiding a gem of a neighborhood like Eastern Market because you fear what you do not know. Living in Southeast for a summer has shown me the benefits to be gained from living in a new and different community. I hope others can find ways to overcome their fears.
Todd E. Plants '01, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator in Eliot House. This summer he is a White House intern in the office of the chief of staff.
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