Film asks, “What Happened 2 Chocolate City?”

A photo of colorful buildings in front of a blue sky.

Adams Morgan in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan.

Filmmaker Mignotae Kebede’s new documentary film, “What Happened 2 Chocolate City (WH2CC),” ignites both memories and concerns for many Washingtonians.  

WH2CC closely follows the lives of three D.C. residents of varying ages, linking events in the city’s past to the shape of the current housing market in changing neighborhoods.    

The concern is the displacement felt by many longtime African-American D.C. residents and their families whose needs receive short-shrift from development-driven policymakers, according to Bruce Purnell, executive director of The Love More Movement, which promotes safe communities. Purnell appears in WH2CC.   

D.C.’s population has changed from 71.1 percent Black in 1970 to 47.1 percent Black in 2017. Now, many African-American residents with low and moderate incomes feel their homes, lives, history and dignity are being evicted by unmindful newcomers and uncaring federal and city policymakers.  

“We have fewer residents than D.C. had at its peak population and more housing than the city ever had, but more homelessness. The numbers don’t add up,” Kebede said. The 1950 Census recorded 802,178 residents in D.C. while the  2018 estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau was 702,455 people.   

Kebede hopes her film will inform long-standing D.C. residents and newcomers alike. 

Grasping the effects of gentrification and displacement and their impact on low- and moderate-income D.C. residents took time for the aspiring filmmaker.  

Kebede admits knowing little about D.C. other than it was still a largely African-American city when she arrived in 2010, after what she describes as a relatively privileged California upbringing, to study international relations and anthropology at George Washington University.  

A class assignment exploring the implications of a Harris-Teeter opening started her thinking more about what was happening in the District. Kebede says she vowed that if she was able to stay in the city after college she would be active in the community. 

Her interest was sparked when a technician installing WiFi in her new apartment asked if she knew the history of her building and expressed surprise at how the neighborhood had changed. The technician’s comments made her wonder: even though she and many millennials who flocked to the city in the last decade are socially progressive, how many have thought about their impact on the city and its long-standing residents and families? 

While New York City’s Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods are gentrifying, “people know the history of the neighborhoods,” Kebede said. The difference to her in D.C. is that “the Federal identity outweighs the local history.”  

An idea was born and she discovered few documentaries existed about D.C., much less one about the gentrification process and the residents whose lives are displaced either by being forced to move or through incarceration.    

Kebede began drafting ideas for the film in 2015, when she was 23 years old. Raising money proved challenging but a crowdfunding platform helped  get WH2CC started.  Eventually, Kebede focused WH2CC on three principal characters to highlight the city and its past and present.  

She was apprehensive about the reaction people in neighborhoods would display to an outsider, but she and her videographer, Mansa Johnson, from D.C.’s Lamond-Riggs neighborhood, often found surprising acceptance.  “I spent a year going there one or two times a week,” she says about the Arthur Capper Senior Public Housing in SE D.C. When the first person she wanted to feature declined, John Russell, agreed.  He experienced the 1968 riots and overcame addiction and homelessness before assuming a more settled existence. Then, a fire displaced him and other residents. 

“It’s empowering to tell your story,” says Purnell, who argues Kebede’s crowdfunded-film allows it to be “more organic” and to “challenge the status quo.”  

Kebede herself believes getting institutional support for her film proved difficult because so much of the money in the city “is tied up” with development interests.  

Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which assisted Kebede in her research, compliments WH2CC because if “focuses on those directly impacted” by the lack of affordable housing options and that is why ”it resonates so well with so many people.”  

 The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum scheduled a showing of WH2CC in March along with a Q&A with Kebede, tying it into a museum exhibition about displacement called “A Right to the City.” Parts of that exhibit have been on display at four D.C. public libraries while the museum is closed for construction. It will reopen on Oct. 11.   Hits on the museum’s online reservation system showed so much interest in Kebede’s film that a second showing was scheduled for the same day.  The 458 total attendance for WH2CC represents the largest audience for a film during Director of Education and Outreach Paul Perry’s six year tenure.  

 “People came from all parts of D.C. to see the film,” Perry recalls. “It generated a lot of interest [and] questions.” 

 Kebede is considering options to achieve wider recognition and distribution of WH2CC. She still wants to add some finishing touch-ups and to discuss the #Don’tMuteDC movement.   

 Lazere credits Kebede’s “perseverance” in coming this far. He hopes WH2CC helps people realize that the city and its voters and policymakers are making far-reaching choices. According to Lazere, the city could decide to better serve low- to moderate-income people like those in public housing complexes designated for demolition by ensuring they can remain close to their original homes and then return to affordable replacement housing that can accommodate their families.  

 The story of how D.C. manages to deal with gentrification and displacement is ongoing. That became very clear with the July  announcement that the city plans to use private developers to revamp approximately one-third of its public housing units.  

 If that plan is implemented, more than 2,600 families will be displaced. Some units would be demolished and replaced with mixed-income and affordable housing. Others would be extensively renovated but also aimed at mixed-income or affordable housing.  

 Though the current public housing complexes are often in poor condition — with more than 40 percent of units considered to be in urgent need of repair and $2.2 billion dollars in repairs needed over the next 17 years — the decision has created anxiety and uncertainty among low- and moderate-income residents who fear displacement and gentrification. Many say they’ve known other public housing residents who moved during redevelopment with assurances they could return only to find themselves permanently estranged from communities where they felt most comfortable. Adrift in new neighborhoods, many D.C. natives seem to feel priced out and dislocated. 

 Kebede hopes her film will better acquaint D.C.’s young newcomers with the history of the city and its importance to African-American residents and remind D.C.’s older residents — white and black — that policy decisions made years ago have shaped D.C. today.  That’s why D.C. residents — gentrifiers and older residents alike, have good reason to view WH2CC. And so do D.C.’s policymakers.  

Issues |Gentrification|Housing

Region |Washington DC

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