Signs of Gentrification—Chicago vs. DC

As a proud Chicagoan, I couldn’t help but compare some of the features in DC to those of my hometown—the Capital of the country to the Capital of the Midwest.

Many—if not most—American cities are in the midst of a revival of urban life. As most of you readers are probably aware (many of you probably sticking to the status quo of my generalization), Millennials don’t like to drive, they Uber. They don’t like to wait, everything must be sold/reserved/sent/otherwise acquired via an App. Things old are now chic. And everything—EVERYTHING—must be accessible by alternative transportation, whatever that definition means now.

It’s this last part that’s driving (pun intended) the most severe stint of gentrification the nation has ever seen. The District of Columbia has joined a list of unexpected cities to gentrify, such as Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, Virginia Beach, Sacramento and Los Angeles (yeah, who ever thought the world’s largest sprawling suburb would strive to be a city).

As a Chicagoan, I’ve been familiar with the term for years. Chicago, New York and San Francisco have been cool urban places to live for many years. Of course, the trend continues, but it got started when the term Yuppy (young urban professional) was being coined. Now that the entire Millenial generation is composed of yuppies, the term has less panache.

Thing is, for such a short amount of time, DC has made some serious strides to catch up with its gentrifying counterparts. So I’d like to compare some of the signs of a gentrifying city in Chicago and here in DC:

Chicago’s 606 vs. Georgetown Trail Branch

Chicago 606 Trail goes almost 3 miles from the West side to the Chicago River.

Chicago 606 Trail goes almost 3 miles from the West side to the Chicago River.

Much like New York’s High Line, the 606 Project has taken a defunct rail line and turned it into an urban green space. The Georgetown Trail Branch is in theory the same thing—defunct railroad, parkification, and voila, you’ve got a trail. The Georgetown Branch of the CSX Railroad wrapped around from Silver Spring, through Bethesda and down into Georgetown via the Chesapeake & Ohio canal route.

Lengthy and often beautiful, the Georgetown Trail doesn't always offer urban charm so much as suburban strolls.

Lengthy and often beautiful, the Georgetown Trail doesn’t always offer urban charm so much as suburban strolls.

However, there’s a rallying call around both New York and Chicago’s iterations that spawn from their true urban nature. Both these Northern cities organically derived from the needs for manufacturing. That unique demand asked for direct deliveries of goods to downtown areas of New York and Chicago, among other Northern industrial centers. DC’s Georgetown trail, however, is both little known and hardly a true urban contender against the sincere contrast that the 606 throws against the steel and concrete landscape it cuts through.

The Chicago Riverwalk vs. Georgetown Waterfront Park

What the Chicago Riverwalk lacks in size it nearly makes up for in skyline views.

What the Chicago Riverwalk lacks in size it nearly makes up for in skyline views.

Chicago’s got a great little river walk that goes about a mile or so, and they’ve just opened up a really nice new part with some modern architectural themes. As much as it pains me to say it, though, the DC river walk that wraps around long stretches of the Potomac trounces its Chicago counterpart. It’s banks are well vegetated, it’s got fountains, a boardwalk and a labyrinth.

One of many flora-heavy views from Georgetown's Waterfront Park

One of many flora-heavy views from Georgetown’s Waterfront Park

That said, Chicago has 24 beaches along its 28 miles of public parkland lake shore. So while I’ll give the river walk to the District, it’s on a technicality.

Lincoln Park + Rogers Park vs. Dupont Circle + LeDroit Park

Gentrification began so far back in Lincoln Park, that only my parents’ generation remembers it any other way. My mom grew up in the area just before it started becoming trendy in the early 1980s. At that time DuPont Circle was still an incredibly dangerous place for the yuppy elite.

The newest trends in gentrification in both cities seem to root out the areas along the metro (in Chicago, the “L”). These places are, again, very easy for the motor-vehicle-averse Millenial generation to access. I’d say both cities have actually gentrified huge swaths of areas, without dominating quite the entire city (or all the light rail lines!) More to go?

If you’ve been keeping track, then you’ve noticed that leaves us at a tie. But as the tie-breaker, I looked up the two cities on Versus, a website that does justice to the full twelve round bout that a true comparison of two urban centers requires. Chicago won in a landslide.

While I agree, I do see the beauty and the perqs of a gentrified nation’s capital. Of course, alongside all this development goes the destruction of neighborhoods and communities. Many would argue that the destruction of these communities can be progressive, as many very recently suffered from serious gang and drug trafficking problems. However, the fact is that families that may have lived in neighborhoods for generations can often no longer afford them once they become gentrified.

While it’s a developers dream, gentrification can be a sociologists worst nightmare. The upside is that one of the trends is creating some (semi-)affordable housing within new developments in these areas. Chicago, New York and Washington, among other places, stipulate a certain amount of units, or certain areas that are left for publically funded or otherwise reduced rent apartment.

There’s an upside and a downside to everything that happens in this world, and DC’s change is no exception. But no matter how you feel about it, development is moving at quite a clip—so join in or watch out.

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