How the marketing of blackness as a prized aesthetic often leaves the city’s Black residents behind.

The following is an excerpt from “Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City,” by Brandi Thompson Summers, published by the University of North Carolina Press. In it, the author analyzes the widespread gentrification of Washington, D.C. over the last two decades. A 2019 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) found that D.C. had the largest percentage of gentrifying neighborhoods of any city in the U.S., a shift that displaced more than 20,000 Black residents between 2000 and 2013. Against this backdrop, Thompson Summers examines how blackness is commodified and transformed from a demographic characterization to an aesthetic one — and how that transformation excludes Black people from the built environment. Her work zeroes in on the economic and racial shifts along the H Street Northeast corridor, now rebranded as the “Atlas District.” Thompson Summers will be the featured guest in a Next City webinar on Wednesday, April 29, at 1 p.m. Eastern. Sign up for this pay-what-you-wish event here

Creating authenticity is an integral process to the socio-spatial organization of gentrifying cities. Several scholars have addressed the role authenticity plays in the making of spaces, especially the role of power in integrating exclusionary practices. Authenticity inherently involves value and how people value a particular place. Furthermore, authenticity structures a sense of belonging by producing, protecting, and celebrating spatial narratives. Mobility is a privilege that is attached to whiteness, so it is those who possess whiteness who are more likely to call a neighborhood authentic or boast its “authentic” qualities as desirable.

As authenticity points to the look and feel of a particular place, I identify an explicit link between aesthetics and authenticity, where designations of authentic spaces are understood in aesthetic terms. This explores how the aesthetics of authenticity get inscribed in the built environment (through historic and cultural preservation, naming privatized public spaces, architecture, and food cultures). I also show how it draws upon the aesthetics of race as the city increasingly caters to “diverse” lifestyles.1


  • 1. The politics of this relationship between authenticity and race play out as the city attempts to market this authentic diversity (as we will see with the colorful “DC Cool” campaign). Ultimately, the city and new residents and tourists who come to D.C. have complementary investments in authenticity. From the perspective of the city, creating authenticity through branding strategies spurs economic growth and encourages tourism. Newer, white, upper-middle-class residents produce authenticity through preservation, which helps them to value and find meaning in certain people, places, and communities.