A walk along the streets of Columbia Heights in northern Washington is a trip down memory lane for Franklin Garcia, 44.
Near 16th Street, there's the Shrine of the Sacred Heart church, where Garcia had his first Communion. Nearby on Columbia Road, there's the red brick building where he grew up. At family friends' apartments, he used to eat mangu, a Dominican dish made out of green plantains, then dance bachata and chat with neighbors and friends.
This, Garcia said, is where he was "fitting right in" after emigrating from the Dominican Republic in 1980, when the white population in Washington had fallen to 26.9% from 64% in 1950.
Then 11, Garcia's first impression of the United States was influenced by the realities of U.S. cities in the 1980s experiencing the last waves of white flight, a demographic trend that began after World War II, when home loans, cheap gas and booming construction in city outskirts led many returning soldiers' families, often white, to the suburbs.
While Spike Lee's expletive-laden rant this week during an African-American History Month lecture has shone a light on gentrification in Lee's Brooklyn, metropolises across the nation are grappling with the tensions that new faces often bring to historically minority neighborhoods.
Garcia's memories of Columbia Heights mirror those of minorities who once populated low-income communities such as Chicago's Lower West Side, Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, Denver's Highland and Los Angeles' Lincoln Heights -- tightly knit, geographically enclosed enclaves united by connections and commercial infrastructures that catered to local cultural niches.
Housing affordability, a key factor that lured people to these areas, decreased significantly during the boom of the late 1990s, when interest rates for home loans were low and more housing options emerged.
Home prices rose at more than twice the rate of inflation, while rent increases exceeded inflation between 1997 and 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Black and Latino residents, whose annual median income from 1960 to 2011 hovered about $20,000 below that of white families, were disproportionately affected, according to the Pew Research Center.
Thus, between 2000 and 2010, the demographic trend reversed: Minority residents in search of cheaper housing moved to the suburbs, as white families began returning to the cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
'This was home'
His family priced out of their one-bedroom apartment, Garcia lived through these changes. He wanted to return to Columbia Heights as an adult but couldn't afford it, so he moved to Petworth, two miles north.
About six years later, redevelopment returned to Garcia's doorstep, bringing retail and residential units near the Georgia Avenue rail station. Garcia packed his bags and headed north again to Woodridge, along the Maryland-Washington border.
All along, he yearned for Columbia Heights.
"It's always hard to come by and know ... that the community changed so much," Garcia said. "This was home for me at one time."
Like Garcia, many displaced minority residents in U.S. cities blame demographic shifts on gentrification efforts led by city governments who ignore the consequences of residents being "driven away from their traditions and communities."
But the causes and consequences of urban redevelopment are more complex. Each city's history, political leadership and community involvement have played unique roles in reshaping the locales.
In Charleston, South Carolina, initiatives taken to attract commercial activity have played the transformative role.
Its historic downtown, where Allison Lirish Dean, a communications associate with the research and policy institute, Policy Link, grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, has changed considerably from what she remembers.
Charleston's tradition as a trade hub and, more recently, its military presence, helped shape the city's appeal. A city-led initiative to capitalize on tourism -- one of Charleston's strongest economic forces -- also spurred significant urban reshaping.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the city designed urban plans to improve density, traffic flow and appearance of the downtown business district, with the aim of drawing consumers back from the suburbs. In the 1980s and 1990s, federal funding and tax breaks helped renovate the business infrastructure.
Charleston's population grew, home values rose, the wealthy acquired property and whites moved to the city, pushing some long-entrenched families out. Mainstream chain stores and high-end boutiques have now replaced the black-owned stores that laid their roots along Upper King Street, which thanks to historic preservation, still bears the facades of late 19th and early 20th centuries' architecture.
The Garden Theatre, a 1920s vaudeville-house-turned-cinema, was one of Dean's "favorite places" in the city. It's now an Urban Outfitters, and many of the once-nearby pawn shops and black fashion stores are gone. Boasting everything from Gap to Coach, Upper King Street is now known for fine dining and high-end shopping.
"I can go to a Urban Outfitters in Portland, in New York, anywhere pretty much in the country," Dean said. "But I can't necessarily in any city go to the Garden Theatre and see a performance of something local or have that experience."
A chunk of Charleston's unique character is lost, Dean said.