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Interview with Gavin Derleth, Presenter at the Race, Ethnicity, and Place Conference, Fall 2018 | Siobhan Finnerty

For our fourth installment of Geography "In the Real World"-- where we showcase the accomplishment of GWU's Geography, Environmental Studies, and GIS students as they take their geographic education into real world work/study/research experiences-- we interviewed junior Geography major and GIS minor Gavin Derleth, who presented at the Race, Ethnicity and Place Conference in Austin, Texas this semester.

What are you doing research on?

I'm doing research on gentrification within Columbia Heights neighborhood in DC and the affect this has had on the demographics and makeup of the community itself.

Below is my abstract:

In this research I analyze the racial aspects of gentrification in Columbia Heights, a neighborhood in northwest DC which has historically been celebrated for its diversity.  I used Census data from the years 2010 to 2016 and ArcGIS to analyze and map different aspects of demographic change in the neighborhood over this period of time.  I also obtained information on redevelopment in Columbia Heights from published research. The results of this study show that the opening up of the Columbia Heights metro station in 1999 and commercial and retail development in the early 21st century shaped not only Columbia Height’s economic status, but also its racial makeup. The increased median income, property values and rents in the area have been accompanied by a continued decrease in the neighborhood’s minority populations with a significant drop in a historically large African American community and one of DC’s largest Hispanic communities. Though gentrification often focuses on economic and class conflict, in this neighborhood it also had a significant impact on the racial makeup of the community.


How have you been conducting it?

So far, I've looked specifically at census data from 2010 to 2016 to track the continued demographics changes occurring in the six different census tracts which are thought of as encompassing Columbia Heights. After getting the data from these census files I began to make some maps tracking changes in the neighborhood's three largest communities (white, African American and Hispanic) as well as the median income. In order to put this recent change into better context, I created a table which tracked the demographic makeup every 10 years since 1970. Finally, I used different scholarly literature to try and understand what factors were driving gentrification there.


What have you found?

The changes to the built environment and their effect on the cost of living is driving out an African American community which made up about 90 percent of the neighborhood in 1970 and a Hispanic community which began to grow with immigration in the 1980s and peaked in 2000 in the middle of the redevelopment of the area. With the growth of the neoliberal city, the projects that attracted commercial development eventually drove housing prices to unaffordable levels for many longtime community members who were displaced by more affluent residents. The “newcomers” brought with them their own demands which continue to shape the built environment and the types of businesses serving the community. It is important to consider not only how the continued redevelopment of the neighborhood affects people of different SES, but also how it affects the racial composition of the neighborhood. As the city population continues to grow both in size and in wealth, gentrification will play an increasingly prominent role in class and race relations within communities.


How was the experience presenting at an academic research conference?

The Race, Ethnicity and Place Conference was one of the most fascinating experiences I've had since coming to GW. Initially, I was quite nervous because there were almost no other undergraduates there other than the three of us from GW. However, the professors, students and researchers were incredibly friendly and open to talking about their research or other aspects of the world of Human Geography. The conference was also very interesting because it was heavily interdisciplinary with lots of research from different fields that all tied back to the theme of the conference.


How did you get involved in this research opportunity?

I got involved in this research early this summer when Dean/Professor Elizabeth Chacko reached out to me to see if I wanted to work to put together a poster for the conference. I had taken a sophomore colloquium geography class with Professor Chacko called "Migrants and the City". I was able to secure grants from GW Center for Career Services, the Department of Geography, and GW's CCAS.


How do you think this opportunity contributed to/augmented your GW Geography education, and/or to your future career goals?

Through this conference I was able to meet and converse with different professors and graduate students who are researching many of the things I'm interested in. I was also able to learn more about graduate school opportunities for Geography is especially valuable. I'm also working to continue my research with the help of Professor Chacko and hopefully secure grants/fellowships to make community-based research in Columbia Heights possible.


Have you completed a geography-oriented internship? Job? Study abroad? Ad-hoc field work? Independent research? Let us know! We are interviewing current (and past) GW Geography students who have taken their geography knowledge into the “real world.” If you are interested in sharing your experience, please send an e-mail to

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