In the blink of an eye, Sean Grubbs-Robishaw became the encapsulation of the privilege, arrogance and entitlement that bubbles below the surface in gentrification wars across the nation.
Grubbs-Robishaw is a white, bearded hipster, appearing to be in his mid- to late 30s, with a hubris that gives off an aura that the sun rises and sets when he says so. This became apparent last week when a controversy emerged in Washington, D.C., over whether Howard University’s neighbors should continue to walk their dogs and conduct yoga classes in the center of the campus known as “The Yard.”
When asked his thoughts on the subject on local news, Grubbs-Robishaw sounded very much like a colonizer imbued with the mindset that the only thing that matters is how the rest of the world can be bent to meet his desires.
“So, if they don’t want to be within D.C., then move the campus,” Grubbs-Robishaw said. “I think we need to work together, and I don’t think it should be ‘he or he or they or he.’ It’s our community and that’s how it should be.”
He either knows nothing about Howard or is completely dismissive of the legacy the university has forged over the last 152 years.
From Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice, to current presidential candidate Kamala Harris and far too many other historically significant graduates to even attempt to list them here, Howard’s contribution is so profound that America’s story cannot be told accurately without Howard.
To the school’s alums, of which I am one, “The Yard” — the space at the center of the main campus which the new neighbors like Grubbs-Robishaw believe are as much theirs as anyone else’s — is not a dog park; it’s sacred.
The Yard on any HBCU is particularly special to its graduates because, as time passes, it becomes crystal clear that the time spent there represents the last experience where skin color does not result in unexplainable penalties.
This cannot possibly resonate with Grubbs-Robishaw. The neighborhood he now lives in has over the last 25 years transformed from a blighted and dangerous ghetto into one that has priced out the former residents and attracts those who can handle, in some cases, million-dollar mortgages.
In fairness to Grubbs-Robishaw, this sort of urban displacement and infringement is not just happening in in Washington. Seven cities account for nearly half the gentrification in America, and Philadelphia and Washington are on that list.
Gentrification emboldens and further entitles those (usually white and young like Grubbs-Robishaw) taking over the neighborhood and demoralizes those (usually Black and poor) being pushed out. However, from city to city there are no substantive efforts from any city government that I’m aware of trying to put the brakes on gentrification.
“A major transformation is occurring in the most prosperous American cities,” according to the new study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. It reports that African Americans and Latinos “were pushed away before they could benefit from increased property values and opportunities in revitalized neighborhoods.”
Many of the current Howard students are disturbed by what is happening at Howard because they have seen it in their own hometowns. The yoga classes, the strollers, the dogs running wild on Howard’s campus create a sense that what was once sacred and comforting will, just like the surrounding neighborhood, be snatched away, too.