Our understandings of the United States’ (US) urban black ghettos have profoundly changed. In the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, these areas were the “no go” zones of urban America. However, beginning in the 1990s, for a variety of reasons, several of these places economically revitalized and became gilded ghettos. In certain cities cultural heritage and “black branding” was used as a redevelopment strategy to attract tourists and upper- income residents to some of these redeveloping low-income communities (Lin 2011).
Black branding occurs when certain versions of black identity are expressed and institutionalized in a community’s social and built environments. In this paper, I use a single case study design to deepen our understandings of the ways in which urban African American stereotypes influence black branding in a revitalizing neighborhood (Yin 2014). My case is Washington, DC’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood, a historic and once low-income black neighborhood. This neighborhood is an interesting case because its black brand became institutionalized as the community experienced a significant influx of white residents. Using an array of ethnographic data, including participant observation, interviews and archival records, I argue that desires to minimize, and reinforce, iconic black ghetto stereotypes among cultural preservationists, real estate developers, long-term residents, and newcomers influence the black branding process. I also conceptualize the term “living the wire” to help explain what attracts some white newcomers to live in what is perceived by some as an “authentic” urban neighborhood. While the marketing of aspects of black culture as an attractable community asset may signify some improvements in American race relations, it also reproduces and maintains traditional black stereotypes.