Urban Studies

The Target Effect, or, How Big Box Is Bringing Washington D.C. Together

Dan Mizrachi reports on how Target became the symbol of a changing neighborhood.

In Northwest Washington, D.C., the intersection of mostly white gentrifiers and mostly black locals isn’t a sandwich shop or a dive bar. It’s Target. And while new and old residents alike have mixed feelings about the neighborhood’s rapidly changing face, any resentment spares the big box store.

The two-floor Target, which anchors a massive shopping center at 14th and Irving Streets, serves both the area’s longtime black residents and its young professionals who can’t quite afford consumer staples from higher-end outlets. According to store manager Matt Roy, the Columbia Heights location has the company’s second-highest sales of ethnic hair care supplies.

They were also low on Modern Martini mix, as 28-year-old casting director Jenn discovered cheap champagnes for a celebration that evening. For upwardly mobile twenty-somethings with little disposable income and longtime residents who have been pulling low-five figure incomes for decades, Target satisfies an identical need.

At Columbia Heights Village, a low-income housing project near the store, Mildred does not mince words in her praise: “Target’s my store, yeah.” Mildred, a thirty-year resident of the area whose diabetes and heart problems prevent her from working, sits beside Mary, a landscaper by day and nanny by night. The two are not likely to become members of the Washington Sports Club, nor do they seem to need the latest Apple products at Best Buy. But Target, which sits in the same shopping complex as Washington Sports Club and Best Buy, is a different story. “There’s stuff that Target has that you can shop all in one,” says Mildred. “You ain’t gotta go to different stores. That’s the blessing.”

Back inside the store, Tom, a recent Georgetown grad from the Boston suburbs who now works as a consultant, shops for cleaning supplies. He lives in a studio apartment nearby at 14th Street and Park Road, not far from what was decades ago the city’s red light district.

Tom feels that he and his contemporaries might otherwise be inclined to shop at local small businesses, but he appreciates Target’s low prices. He also recognizes the store’s broader significance: “It’s the field in Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come. Target is like the bedrock of gentrification in the area.”

The foundation for Tom’s Field of Dreams metaphor originates in the late 1990s when the federal government tried to spur economic activity in the area. One major initiative was the District of Columbia’s “Enterprise Zone” policy, which the government implemented in 1997 to stimulate investment in undeveloped areas. (Columbia Heights remains an Enterprise Zone.) The initiative, according to a report by the Washington DC Economic Partnership, contains tax credits that encourage businesses to hire local residents, including up to $3,000 for each DC resident-employee, up to $2,400 for each employee from specific demographic groups, tax-exempt bond financing, and other incentives.

Developers have taken the bait. “The vast majority of Target’s employees live right here in DC,” says Roy, the store manager. According to the District of Columbia’s government website, the DCUSA complex, home to Target, has provided approximately 1,200 new jobs for local residents. The incentive policies, along with the opening of the Columbia Heights metro station in 1999, are the likely cause of business investment in the area. Construction of DCUSA began in the summer of 2006 and was completed by the spring of 2008.

As expected, rising income levels and a changing racial breakdown complete the story. According to census data, 2011 median household income was $60,026 in the 20010 zip code, where the DCUSA complex is located. In 1999 median household income in the same area was $33,408.

Demographics are also changing. The website Neighborhood Info DC shows that black residents comprised 58 percent of the neighborhood’s population in 2000. At that point, the population was only 5.6 percent white. But a decade of development has caused black residents to question their future in Columbia Heights, and the proof is in the numbers. During that time span, the black population declined to 39 percent. As of 2010, whites accounted for 24 percent of the neighborhood’s residents. Between 2000 and 2010, the white population rose almost as much as the black population declined.

Back at Columbia Heights Village, Mary bemoans the rising rents that gentrification has caused. “I think the way that race came in—how fast they came in—you had a lot of angry people,” says Mary. “They made it so hard for us to pay our rent up here because they were moving in; they can afford it, so that was their way of pushing us out.”

Nancy Baker and Anneka Baran, who were polishing off beers at Lou’s City Tavern, a bar on the ground floor of the high-rise Highland Park apartment building across the street from Target, are evidence of the newer crowd in Columbia Heights. They graduated from Brown University last year and moved into Highland Park, which sits directly above Lou’s. At Highland Park, which also lies across the street from the Columbia Heights Village housing project, rent for studio apartments starts at $1,850 a month.

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Anneka grew up in nearby Alexandria, VA. Her family now chides her for having moved to up-and-coming Columbia Heights. “When I say that I live in Columbia Heights I still kind of get a double take from my aunts and uncles. However, I love living here, and I feel very comfortable.” Anneka’s remarks confirm Mildred’s hunch about the neighborhood’s newer residents. “You have a lot of the white people who are moving back into the area. And a lot of them don’t know the area. They just get too comfortable,” she says, fearing for white residents’ safety.

In spite of the tension that wealthier white residents may have caused, Mary feels that Target has provided a net benefit to the community. “That was a blessing, because it’s needed,” she says. Still, although Mildred and Mary enjoy the store’s convenience, they also sense that developments like Target threaten their future in Columbia Heights. Gentrification, they recognize, creeps ever eastward. “The whites move in, the blacks move out,” says Mildred. The question remains whether Target and its ilk will price low-income residents out of the area. Mildred feels she knows the answer: “They can’t get rid of everybody.”