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Black-owned bookstore battling D.C. gentrifi cation moves

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: Jul 3, 2019 - 3:06:15 PM

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WASHINGTON—Around Howard University, in the city’s most gentrification-competitive neighborhood, in the most gentrified city in the entire nation, the familiar culture/population-gentrification struggle, now has an anti-small business tone as the iconic Sankofa Video, Books & Café and dozens of supporters appealed to a D.C. Council committee to grant them a 10-year tax abatement.

Sankofa Video Books & Café is one of several Black-owned small businesses fighting to stay open amid rising property taxes and gentrification.

For more than a decade, rising property taxes forced the closure of several Black neighborhood establishments directly across the street from the prominent HBCU Howard University, including the Labamba Sub Shop, and “Children of the Sun,” among other small businesses.

The disappearance of those businesses also reflects the greater exodus of Black residents from the surrounding Shaw area and other parts of D.C. Since 1998 when Sankofa was founded, the District’s Black population has shrunk by more than 30 percentage points, while the White population has correspondingly increased.

With the population changes, Black business owners have publicly expressed concerns about the pace of economic development, citing fears of cultural erasure along with the economic damage.

Sankofa specializes in videos and books about people of African descent around the world. In 20 years, it has become a cultural center for Black intellectual life in D.C. Sankofa is home especially for those looking to learn about the African experience. The store was founded by acclaimed Ethiopian-born filmmaker and Howard University film professor Haile Gerima and his wife, Detroit-born Shirikiana Aina Gerima, as an outlet to distribute their acclaimed films—the first of which was “Sankofa,” whose title was taken from the Ghana, West African expression meaning “to go back and fetch it.”

The storefront has since grown to become a hub for reading and visual material that raises the Pan-African consciousness, featuring thousands of books, media, clothing and other items, now including an in-store café. Authors, poets, academics and other intellectuals often read from their works before live, often standing-room-only audiences.

“So see we have to make it plain that Sankofa and the other black bookstores are protected so that this idea of developing a city doesn’t mean us being rolled over,” Shirikiana Gerima told supporters outside the store at a rally June 1. “We know we don’t. We have to stand firmer. We can’t just be victims all the time.

“We are quite proud of what we have here. What we’re facing now with gentrification is what we’ve been facing since we’ve been here— on steroids,” she continued.

“Why is it they’re saying we can leave now in the name of development? What does development mean except a takeover, and you have got to leave, if you happen to be Black. If you happen to be White, you are going to get the profits of what we did.

“You walk down the street like you don’t notice that you are a new and in charge now and everybody and everything has to move out your way because you are here,” she said of the haughty attitude of most new, White residents in the neighborhood. “You create a distorted image. You’re creating a population that can be a dangerous population because they’ve been taught that they’re privileged; just being here makes them privileged. So let’s everybody say no, that’s not right.

“I don’t want the city to feel like they’re doing me a favor,” Mrs. Gerima said. “They should be saying ‘thank you Lordy’ because businesses like this have contributed to the strength of the city.

“Sometimes, I feel like I work for the city”, she said, according to a published report. “(To make ends meet) we rent out the office space, the conference room and the front space to families and community groups. In the history of development, the development came at the cost of families and businesses,” she said.

“In rough times, their commitment holds the city together. They pay their taxes, despite what they have to face. Then when the city makes good, they get pushed out.” To the contrary, she said, the city has a responsibility to help residents and business owners who stayed in the District and accentuated the local culture during its toughest times.

At the D.C. Committee on Business and Economic Development hearing June 3 on “The Mypheduh Films DBA Sankofa Video and Books Real Property Tax Exemption Act,” introduced by Council member Brianne Nadeau, Imar Hutchins, owner of the nearby Florida Avenue Grill testified about his own tax burden, which he said has increased more than 400 percent.

“Small businesses that make up the fabric of D.C. are disappearing,” Mr. Hutchins said, according to published reports. “They’re going out quietly. With them, we lose not only the jobs they represented but the cultural continuity. That’s why this case is so important. Sankofa should be thought of as representing other businesses that didn’t ask for help, that didn’t know how to mobilize people in a room to write the council or were too embarrassed by their situation until they struggled in solitude and went away.”

If passed, this bill would protect Sankofa from taxation and provide the bookstore with what’s described as equitable relief and serve as an example for other small Black-owned businesses. “The character of our neighborhoods depends on sustaining the small and local businesses that we know and love,” council member Nadeau told a reporter in an email about her sponsorship of the proposed legislation.

The D.C. Council Committee on Business and Economic Development voted unanimously in favor of the tax relief proposal on June 18. The full council will take up the measure in July.