Washington's trendy U Street shows path of racial progress

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2009 

US NEWS NEIGHBORHOOD 2 MCT

Kamal and Nizam Ali, proprietors of Ben's Chili Bowl, the iconic diner that the brothers' parents opened a half-century ago in the city's historically black center of commerce and culture in Washington DC. The Bowl was at the epicenter of riots in 1968 following the murder of Dr. Martn Luther King.

CHUCK KENNEDY — Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — If Barack Obama's election represents the promise of a post-racial America, the legacy of the neighborhood around 14th and U streets NW, about two miles north of the White House, is testament to the societal evolution that enabled Obama's ascent — from the end of slavery through desegregation, race riots, urban flight and gentrification.

On U Street, Kamal and Nizam Ali are scrambling to keep up with all the change.

The brothers' mission: to get their family's new restaurant, Next Door, ready for the tourist rush when America's first black president is sworn in.

Next Door is next door to Ben's Chili Bowl, the iconic diner that the brothers' parents opened a half-century ago in the city's historically black center of commerce and culture. Ben's is living history, still a must-drop-in spot for African-American celebrities visiting the nation's capital.

However, Next Door, which opened in December, with a sleek bar and flat-panel TVs, is a modern incarnation for a neighborhood known more these days for its racial and economic diversity, youth appeal and gay friendliness, as well as hip boutiques, home furnishings stores, restaurants, clubs and condos.

Juli Thanki, 24, a graduate student from Philadelphia whose mother is American and father is from India, moved to U Street knowing nothing of its history. She just heard it was cool.

"It's rapidly being gentrified, it's a great music scene, a great social scene," she said. She chose an apartment in a building called the Ellington not because of its namesake, the native jazz bandleader and composer Duke Ellington, but because the building allows pets, looks pretty and is close to Metro, the subway.

"14th and U is absolutely right now the epitome of the new multicultural America," said Jane Freundel Levey. The historian and chief program officer for Washington's cultural tourism program studied the neighborhood as her group developed a self-guided heritage trail that visitors can walk.

Obama signs still hang in the windows of U Street shops run by proprietors from diverse backgrounds.

On election night, TV cameras beamed images of blacks and whites celebrating Obama's win together in the streets around 14th and U.

It was an emotional contrast to the images from the same intersection in April 1968, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination sparked race riots that took four days to quell. In the violence, looting and fires, a dozen people died and thousands more were injured and arrested. Businesses went under. Those who could leave did, and the devastated area sank into decades of crime and isolation.

"It's going to be crazy on Inauguration!" said Kamal Ali, 46, aka Ben Jr., during a recent tour of the two restaurants. He was wearing an Obama baseball cap.

Ali grew up hearing his dad talk about the rioting as Ben's survived lean times: "How scary it was. How he had to soap up the windows and write 'soul brother' in the hopes of not getting burned out. He had to carry a gun."

By then, the once-proud neighborhood was on the decline.

Its history had begun a century earlier, during the Civil War. Howard University, established in 1867, taught and attracted black intellectuals and artists, doctors, lawyers and business leaders.

During the era of segregation, the city's black business and culture coalesced around U Street and flourished. There were banks and insurance companies for blacks, and a hotel. It was dubbed Black Broadway. Historians say it was Harlem — until Harlem surpassed it.

From the 1910s through the 1950s, performance halls, then movie houses and jazz clubs sprang up: the Howard and Lincoln theaters, clubs with names such as Bali, the Casbah, Bengasi, Republic Gardens, and Crystal Caverns, restored today as the Bohemian Caverns.

Bandleader Duke Ellington, who grew up around here, held court. Over the years, America's jazz, soul and blues greats performed: Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway; pianist Jelly Roll Morton; trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis; saxophonist John Coltrane and others. So did Aretha Franklin, who'll sing at Obama's inauguration.

The music audiences were integrated, and some whites came to own area businesses and real estate as well. This was a major transportation route for streetcars and, later, buses.

Racial integration began U Street's decline, Levey said. With housing covenants no longer enforceable, blacks with money began to move to other parts of the city. "The community began to disperse," she said. "The people who stayed tended to be the lower-income people who didn't have as many options. A lot of the businesses closed down, the nightclubs closed down, the restaurants."

The death knell, Levey said, was the rioting of 1968. Drugs made the neighborhood dangerous through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Whites stayed away.

Former Mayor Marion Barry was credited with a major step in the U Street corridor's revitalization, with the opening in 1986 of the Reeves Center, with its city government offices.

The opening of the Whitman-Walker clinic at 14th and S Streets, focusing on HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention in the gay community, also contributed to the neighborhood's rebirth. The biggest catalysts were the 1991 opening of the U Street Metro station and the housing boom of recent years.

U Street's gentrification hasn't come without growing pains, some class resentment, and old-timers' fears about losing a history that many newcomers don't know.

Two women of color who stopped outside the Ellington building to pet Thanki's dog talked about those frictions.

"You have class differences," said Ngozi Messam, 37, a Jamaican-American breast health coordinator at Whitman-Walker. You need money now to rent or buy on U Street, she said. "You can't afford anything."

Dinandrea Vega, 42, a mixed-race Cuban-American social worker, pointed to the corner of 14th and U and spoke of how some of the neighborhood's lower-income youth respond to newcomers. "There's still resentment from the kids who hang out on the corner there.

"I think race is still an issue," she said. "But this is one of the most diverse areas" of the city.

Jerry Tolliver, 58, a black supermarket employee munching on a Ben's half-smoke hot dog with chili and onions at the diner's counter, said he'd been coming to Ben's since his youth and "vividly" remembers the riots and their aftermath. When asked whether he thinks the neighborhood, and the country, are entering a post-racial area, he chuckled.

When he watched election night coverage and saw the scene on U Street, however, he was deeply moved. "It was beautiful," he said.

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