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Facing Rapid Gentrification, D.C. Cultural Activist Fights to Preserve African-American Art, History

Vernard Gray said Black people in the area haven’t done enough to promote Black history, art and culture. (Photo by (Mary Hui/The Washington Post)

With several historic D.C. neighborhoods facing fast-encroaching gentrification, longtime locals fear that the rich, Black history of the city’s Southeast region is bound to be wiped out — and soon.

The rapid change has since prompted D.C. native and cultural activist Vernard Gray, 76, to launch a website called Made East River, a complete directory of people who create artistic products and offer creative services in Wards 7 and 8, according to The Washington Post.

“We’ve got stuff of value east of the river,” Gray told the newspaper. “Let’s discover it. Let’s explore it. Let’s make something happen.”

Gray’s project comes as the Southeast faces imminent gentrification, along with the threat of change and widespread displacement of residents who’ve lived in the area for decades. Through his efforts, Gray said he hopes Made East River will help preserve the rich culture, art and history of the area’s African-American residents.

The longtime artist and curator said the predominantly Black Southeast is often treated “like the backwater of the city.”

“Gentrification is happening,” Gray explained. “There’s no way of stopping it. But when they show up, they’ll think, ‘Okay, there’s something happening here.’ And they’ve got to honor that.”

To raise awareness about his website, Gray has contacted local artists, emailed community Listservs and passed out fliers in the area, The Washington Post reported. And just in case his project doesn’t work out, the local man made sure to have a few other ideas in his back pocket. Among them is the effort to host workshops where artists can share their ideas and knowledge with local residents and to organize community cooking contests.

Gray isn’t the only one looking to promote the Southeast neighborhood’s African-American history.

New website Go features local businesses where residents can eat, shop and play while DC Artists East offers a comprehensive directory of neighborhood artists. Both are ARCH Development Corporation projects in partnership with the Anacostia Business Improvement District and Department of Housing and Community Development, according to ARCH communications coordinator Kadija Bangura.

The Washington Post reported that over the years, new bars, cafes and luxury residential housing filled with affluent young hipsters have changed the racial makeup of the District’s Shaw-U Street neighborhood, which used to be nearly 90 percent Black. Gray said enough wasn’t done to exhibit the area’s Black culture.

“We, as in we Black folk, didn’t really claim the history of the place other than, ‘Back in the day,'” he told the newspaper.

Derek Hyra, a professor at American University and the author of “Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City,” believes Gray’s Black-led branding initiative might potentially give locals the power to fight back against redevelopment and gentrification in the region. Hyra warned, however, that there will always be more than one narrative in a single community and that those narratives can be “bent and manipulated by different people, even local people.”

Made East Rivers is still in its beginning stages, and its success largely depends on how many artists choose to list their products on the new website. The local man is still teeming with ideas on how to get his initiative off the ground.

“East of the river’s ego needs to be stroked somehow,” he told the newspaper.

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