Churches and Gentrification

This is not a theological post, no. This post comes out of an email about a PBS documentary and a search string in my stats. Let the Church Say Amen is scheduled to air March 29th at 10:30 on PBS and as part of it’s ‘learn more‘ section of the program’s web site it has listed In Shaw. According to their site the film is about storefront churches and apparently the Shaw neighborhood is featured. So I got to thinking about churches, in general, and gentrifying Shaw.
For one the churches around here are destinations for non-Shaw as well as some residents. Many of those non-residents have cars. I’m particularly thinking of 65 year olds with large Lincoln Towncars circa 1980, mint condition. I swear those things take up as much spaces as an SUV. You have churches that seem to have a fair number of people who drive in and try to park on the streets. Now as Shaw gets gentrified, bringing in folks with cars, there are fewer parking spots on the street. Around Shiloh Baptist on 9th Street, it is really bad. Even though the church has a parking lot, and cars park at an angle on 9th, the streets cannot hold all the cars and I’ve seen horrible parking violations by people trotting into church. Cars will double park, park too close to the curb, park on both sides of a narrow street, and park in places a car should never park. This does create tension between the church and residents with cars.
Second, some churches have missions to serve the poor and other community needs. There services range from counseling, breakfasts, food stocks, clothing, and day care. There is a church not far from me that serves a breakfast with a sermon. So far so good. There isn’t a lot of trash when the mostly male crowd of scruffy looking guys shuffle in and out. The men don’t hang out in front for very long and they either remain in or head out and on their way. But how do those missions relate to gentrification and the transitioning of a neighborhood? The complaints I remember from some neighbors related to who some of the services attracted to the neighborhood and how those folks interacted with the neighbors. In more middle class neighborhoods, by comparison by what I have observed, some church missions appear less obvious, or are carried out off site, so that neighboring residents are less aware of what the church does for the needy. The churches in the middle class neighborhoods I have attended, have only advertised their fundraisers (CROP walk, bake sale, bingo, etc) to their neighbors (via exterior bulletin boards), not their soup kitchens or homeless shelter support. Whereas here, you’ll see the signs advertising the breakfasts and the clothing give aways.
Lastly, there is the church as landowner. There are many churches, from store front to historical, that just have the land there main building sits on. Then you have other churches, like Shiloh that own surrounding properties. Some are good stewards of there property, some are just BAD, bad, bad. Bad landlords. Bad at upkeep. Bad neighbors. Bad in a way that allows the property to be used by drug dealers, prostitutes and the like because they have let the property fall into disrepair, or left it unsecured. The only good excuse I have ever heard for a church allowing this was a condition in a woman’s will that left her property to her church and stated that it could only be sold at a certain dollar amount. The church did not have the funds/will to improve it and because of the will’s conditions could not sell it. Ok, maybe not a good excuse. Some churches have been able to do good with their property and be good neighbors, buying former liquor stores and expanding space for their missions, or tearing down old buildings/ or rehabbing them and making nice auxiliary buildings that ‘go’ with the surrounding neighborhood reflecting the neighborhoods changes and improvements.

Comment policy on this post: No theological content please. Feel free to pan or praise a church as a non-profit in the community but avoid topics relating to creeds or beliefs.

10 thoughts on “Churches and Gentrification”

  1. This seems to be common not only in Shaw, but throughout the city. In “near northeast” where I live, it is not uncommon to have multi-lane roads choked down to a single lane by double-parked church goers. Many of these seems to be ex-area residents who now commute in from the suburbs. Additionally, at least one street gets completely blocked hindering the D6 bus, usually by SUVs with Maryland tags that double-park every afternoon picking kids up from a church-run daycare.

    Recently we received a flyer that mentioned that the city practices “relaxed enforcement” for parking near churches on Sundays. Not being a church-goer myself, I have to admit that it irks me that in addition to the tax-free status, parking laws do not apply. If I had a regular secular occassion that drew dozens of cars weekly, would I get the same treatment? Doubtfully.


  2. I can only use my fuzzy memory from my childhood visits to Shiloh but here goes….
    Long time ago, let’s say the mid 1980s, there really wasn’t a lot around the church so there weren’t a whole lot of people to complain about the parking. So over time people just got used to parking any which way they wanted. Fast forward today and the once vacant houses are no longer vacant and have car people, more people travelling through the area, and people who may have once walked to church moved out to PG and drive in.
    The churches, I think, do have history and political pull behind them as far as parking goes. History in that this is what they’ve been doing for the last 20-30 years for a few hours once a week and why should they change? Political pull in that as a block they have had a long term relationship with varying city services and the city government.
    The only other non-profit entity that probably may have gotten away with such parking behavior are private schools with parents picking up and dropping off kids. Of course the population of that group regularly turnsover at least every 4 years or 12 depending on the grades served, so they might be willing to adapt to change.

  3. You are right on regarding the horrible condition of a few properties that Shiloh owns but they are in a serious Catch 22. If they sell to the “highest bidder” they will get panned by their base consitutency who does not want Shaw to gentrify…if they do not it becomes an eyesore (and hopefully DC takes it under i.d.).

    As for the church parking…let them park where they want as long as they do not completely disrupt the flow of traffic on key arterial streets (for emergency crews, police, etc.). They come into the neighborhood and hopefully soon there will be restaurants where they can spend $$$ and stores…all in all making Shaw a better place.

    I do love the gentrification issues you discuss…and I know that we will not totally see eye to eye regarding most of those issues. I wrote a post on my blog you might want to check out from the point of view of someone completely new to the neighborhood.

  4. Try double parking in front of the synagogue at 16th and P during services & see what happens.

    The reason that parking rules are not enforced around churches is quite simple: churches (more specifically, the preachers) are a political power block that can ruin a mayor, and nobody’s going to annoy them. You’d have the guy over at Metropolitan Baptist (forget his name) screaming from the pulpit about how the parking tickets are part of a plan to drive non-whites out of the neighborhood in about twelve seconds.

    If you’re the praying type, I’d suggest praying you never need to call an ambulance on Sunday morning in Shaw or Logan Circle, because it probably won’t be able to navigate the car-choked streets.

  5. Well, history may explain it but it does not justify it. Given that in both cases (services and daycare) most of the plates are from Maryland, how much of a power bloc could they represent in DC politics.

    As far as coming into the neighborhood and spending money – fat chance. These are generally people who have sold out, moved to the burbs, and aren’t coming here looking to shop or eat.


  6. Yep for sure…I am sure all of those people eating at Duke’s and every other restaurant in their “Sunday best” are just people who like to dress up and go to Sunday brunch…yep they are sell outs because they have chosen to live in the suburbs because they have upgraded houses after cashing in on a condo or apartment and have decided city life is not for their family…yep sell outs.

    This is seriously the attitude that drives me crazy…

  7. The individual parishioners are not the power bloc; it’s just that nobody running for mayor wants the preachers going after them.

    Yes, churches do contribute to the community, but does that make them above the law? Parking rules exist for a reason and safety is a big one. If it’s safe to have streets blocked with double parked cars for church, why is it unsafe for other events? Why don’t we allow it for gay pride, for the Dupont farmer’s market, for the Logan Circle and Shaw house tours? What about residents who wind up trapped all day (and, yes, this happened to me when I lived in Logan Circle). What if someone needs to go to work or go visit family or do something on Sunday? Is it fair for them to be trapped until 3 PM because someone going to church can’t find a legal spot farther away, or take metro, or ride with a friend?

    Saying that those churchgoers spend some money is okaying a kind of extortion – we’re helping you, so screw you guys, you have to let us break the law. Very Christian attitude, isn’t that. I’ll put my old property tax and income tax bills up against the the meals tax they spend at the Florida Avenue Grill any day, thank you.

    If churches made any attempt to get along with their neighbors, that would be different but the attitude was screw you, you can’t touch us, sucker. That’s what I call a really antisocial neighbor.

  8. I leave further south of Shiloh and I think United House of Prayer for all Peoples is a bigger violator. The own the vast majority of the surrounding BLOCKS. They recent renovated the entire north side of the 500 block of L st NW. They promptly listed it all as rentals for Gallery Place Prices. While they appeared interested in letting people know they renovated the area, I doubt they made sure people knew how much they were charging.

  9. I leave further south of Shiloh and I think United House of Prayer for all Peoples is a bigger violator. The own the vast majority of the surrounding BLOCKS. They recent renovated the entire north side of the 500 block of L st NW. They promptly listed it all as rentals for Gallery Place Prices. While they appeared interested in letting people know they renovated the area, I doubt they made sure people knew how much they were charging.

Comments are closed.