Book review: Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City

Book review: Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City


Reviewed by Luisa G Melo

First Published:

02 Nov 2023, 3:57 am


Book review: Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City

Brandi Thompson Summers, Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019; 256 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-4696-5401-0, US $32.50/£33.95 (pbk)


Summers’ book draws on the history of the H Street corridor in Washington DC to understand how blackness has been aestheticised during the transformations of the neighbourhood throughout the 20th century until contemporary times. Washington DC, which was once known as Chocolate City for being the first, large, majority Black population in a major US city, now has majority white residents through gentrification. This transformation, carried out since the 2000s, affected not just the city’s demographics, but the city’s economics, culture and landscape. While other studies on gentrification have focused on the replacement of Black culture and aesthetics with white elite cultural preferences, Summers’ book argues that the aesthetics of blackness is commodified and used as part of the infrastructure of gentrification. Actors involved in the gentrifying project of DC have transformed the stigmatised Black image of the neighbourhood into a marketable aesthetic, resignifying and controlling those spaces to benefit the new white residents.

The physical transformation of the H Street area is followed by this transformation of blackness into a performative action. Summers calls ‘Black aesthetic emplacement’ the dissociation of Black aesthetics from Black embodiment, where images, music and other representation of Black culture become commodities sold in the neoliberal city. Black aesthetic emplacement is forged into the discourse of ‘post-racial city’ to attract investments and new upper-middle class residents. Promoting ‘blackness’ and ‘diversity’ while, at the same time, displacing Black residents and Black-owned shops is a neoliberal practice not unique to H Street. Private urban developers, with the support of public investment, promote the idea of ‘authentic’ neighbourhoods, depoliticising diversity and commodifying blackness. By recreating an idealised vision of the past, urban developers promote previously stigmatised Black neighbourhoods as an ‘authentic’ and ‘cool’ place to live while hiding the roots of racial inequality. Washington DC is seen in the book as a ‘post-chocolate city’, and in this way is emblematic of how post-racial and colourblind discourse relies on race-neutral narratives to implement revitalisation projects for the benefit of white people.

Summers uses a qualitative methodological approach to defend her argument, combining archival research and ethnographic observations. Although she did not specify which types of archives she analysed, we can see in the book that she mostly used newspapers and tourist pamphlets in her narration of H Street history and its commercial promotion. Her ethnographic work was conducted from 2011 to 2015, based on conversations with current and past residents; she joined tours and participated in public information sessions about the business grant applications for the area. As part of her ethnographic observations, Summers utilises visual analysis of the architectural landscape as well as advertisements and tourist trail markers in the neighbourhood. This visual part of her analysis seems the most interesting methodological contribution of this work, which broadens the traditional urban ethnography methods within Sociology. This methodological contribution would be strengthened with a more detailed discussion of the methods employed in her visual analysis.

H Street corridor is a case study to demonstrate how Black aesthetic emplacement is used in the process of neighbourhood transformation. Chapter 1 tells us the history of this area from the turning point of the 1968 riots to the current gentrification process, in order to understand of the neighbourhood’s transformation. During the riots of 1968, most of DC’s central areas were destroyed, but the DC government took the longest time to rebuild the H Street corridor damage, and it arguably never recovered. The riots exploded across the country after the assassination of Dr. King when a majority Black crowd decided to protest their dissatisfaction with poor living conditions in the streets of the US’s biggest cities. At this point, most of the white residents had already fled to the suburbs. Through analysing historical archives, Summers illustrates that the government’s response to addressing the DC riot’s damage was skewed and insufficient; public money was invested to rebuild primarily white-owned businesses instead of addressing the cause of the dissatisfaction and ‘disorder’. H Street then became a stagnant and marginalised area. Public investment in urban infrastructure arrived years later, along with the political transformation of the 1990s–2000s, when public money started to be invested to attract white residents.

In Chapter 2, Summers conceptualises the construction of a negative image of Black H Street to demonstrate that the neighbourhood ‘rehabilitation’ during the beginning of the 21st century is both physical and symbolic. The chapter describes in detail how the DC government prioritised main public funding for white private businesses, diverting it away from Black businesses. The book describes the text of the grant (Retail Priority Area Grant) as well as public meetings to show how the initiative excluded service-oriented traditionally Black businesses like barbershops, hair salons and liquor stores. The rehabilitation of the commercial corridor filtering resources to specific types of business illustrates how gentrification is state-sponsored through race-neutral language that reinforces racial inequality.

In Chapter 3, Summers shows how the concept of ‘diversity’ is used in the official narrative about the H Street corridor and how this narrative has been used in tourism projects to attract wealthy and middle-class new residents. The chapter walks us through touristic projects and initiatives – like the H Street Heritage Trailthe H Street Festival and the rebranding of the corridor as part of an AtlasDistrict– to show, through their graphic and textual narratives, the way in which all these projects claim an imaginative past of H Street. The official narrative presented in these projects builds a nostalgic past based on the imagination of a multiracial and multicultural neighbourhood that both celebrates diversity and overlooks inequalities. These narratives set up the idea of a racial and economic diversity that justifies the uneven transformation that has been responsible for gentrification in the H Street area.

The discourse of cultural diversity present in the agenda of neoliberal urbanism becomes explicit in the new business that emerges within the practice of gentrification. In Chapter 4, Summers walks us through the proliferation of craft breweries, boutiques and cafes in the process of rebranding the H Street corridor to show us how these new businesses rely on a discourse of authenticity that exoticises certain cultural identities. In the process of the neighbourhood transformation, the aesthetic of the landscape is recoded: the hipster aesthetics overlaps with Black space causing what Summers calls a semiotic displacement. Evoking authenticity often benefits and rewards white residents, and authenticity ‘ends up being a performance and a chosen lifestyle, as well as an instrument of displacement’ (p. 117).

In its last chapter, Black in Place analyses the use and control of public spaces, highlighting the ways in which they become racialised. The spatialisation of blackness in the H Street area demonstrates geographies of confinement and surveillance, where blackness is controlled to exist merely in a frame of spectacle and commodified image. Those dynamics had become explicit in H Street, where the space inhabited by Black bodies has been reduced to a single corner. The Eighth and H Street corner is a place where Black people still congregate and make use of that public space in a counter-consumptive way. By simply standing there, waiting for the bus, chatting or listening to music, the corner becomes a place for meaningful social exchange. However, even though the rebranding of the neighbourhood is built on the aesthetic of blackness, the only Black place that remains is constantly threatened by noise complaints from the new residents (Thompson Summers, 2021).

By looking at how race takes place in the process of gentrification and how blackness is commodified in the neoliberal project, Summers raises an important question about the visibility of blackness. By differentiating unseen from invisible, the author demonstrates how Black people who remain at H Street share the same geographic space but in a different condition; they are unseen, or ignored by their white counterparts. The corner mentioned in Chapter 5 exemplifies what Summers calls the ‘excess of blackness’: when Black people are being seen in a non-disciplined and contained way that differs from the performed blackness expected by the new white homeowner in the neighbourhood. This hypervisibility and unseen-ness of the Black body is a core aspect of understanding the spatial aesthetics of race, not just on H Street but across other Black neighbourhoods being gentrified in the United States.


Thompson Summers B (2021) Reclaiming the Chocolate City: Soundscapes of gentrification and resistance in Washington, DC. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 39(1): 30–46. CrossrefGoogle Scholar


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