Zygmunt Bauman on D.C.

I was reading a chapter on consumer capitalism in a 1998 book on globalization by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman at the recommendation of my intern, Andrew, and came across this passage about D.C.:

Contemporary cities are sites of an 'apartheid a rebours': those who can afford it, abandon the filth and squalor of the regions that those who cannot afford the move are stuck to. In Washington, D.C., they have already done it — in Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore they are close to have done it. In Washington no discrimination is practised in the housing market. And yet there is an invisible border stretching along 16th Street in the west and the Potomac river in the north-west, which those left behind are wise never to cross. Most of the adolescents left behind the invisible yet all-too-tangible border never saw dowtown Washington with all its splendours, ostentatious elegance and refined pleasures. In their life, that downtown does not exist. There is no talking over the border. The life experiences are so sharply different that it is not clear what the residents of the two sides could talk to each other about were they to meet and stop to converse. As Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked, 'If Lions could talk, we would not understand them.'

Amusingly ridiculous, with some truth in the mix.
Ridiculous: I think he must mean the Anacostia in the south-east, since there is not much of an invisible border between, say, Georgetown and Rosslyn. 1998 was clearly a different era (the year I moved to the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area), since I've lived rather east of 16th Street for four years. My old roomates had a 2000 guidebook that, apparently assuming the reader to be petrified of black people, advised not going east of 14th St NW, which we mocked from our house between 9th and 10th. So what's happening? Gentrifying imperialists re-occupying the “filth and squalor?” they previously abandoned? Why? Why do I now live at full mile east of 16th?
I don't know if Bauman is totally mystified by poor black people or what, but talking to one sure isn't like talking to a talking lion. I recommend these topics to Bauman, should he ever encounter a poor Washingtonian in person: Redskins; Wizards; the popular songs on 95.5 WPGC; how things are going with them, generally; things on TV. For starters. Too, too weird.
Of course, there are plenty of invisible borders in Washington, but they have become pretty gerrymandered and porous. I wouldn't say that the Anacostia is an “invisible” border, but it remains one heck of border, that's for sure.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center