National Building Museum helps teens explore Shaw, a neighborhood in transition


Grace Mills, 12, plays Jenga with Bella Bergman, 13, left, and Sarah Carleton, 13, right, before the start of the Investigating Where We Live program at the National Building Museum in Washington on July 3. (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)

Jasmin Perrier never gave much thought to the Shaw neighborhood when she rode past. To her 13-year-old eyes, it was just another neighborhood.

Then the rising eighth-grader from Columbia Heights listened to James H. Grigsby III, who was born in Shaw 85 years ago, reminisce about seeing such greats as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington perform at the neighborhood’s three theaters.

She heard Constance Tate recall walking past a cordon of soldiers surrounding Shiloh Baptist Church on Ninth Street NW after the 1968 riots. Now just shy of 90, Tate notices that Sunday services are attracting a growing number of young, white residents new to Shaw.

And Jasmin met Alexander Padro of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, who has worked to redevelop Shaw’s most decrepit commercial stretches while maintaining a supply of affordable housing. He proudly showed off a photo from barely a decade ago of boarded-up stores, now spiffed up and housing a bank, apartments and the offices of Padro’s nonprofit group Shaw Main Streets.

“I’ve learned there’s a lot of history in a lot of the buildings in Shaw,” said Jasmin, an aspiring journalist who is enrolled in a National Building Museum program that for 17 years has sent teenagers into D.C. neighborhoods where there is rapid demographic and economic change.


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“I used to drive by thinking it was just a normal neighborhood,” she said. “Now I know a lot of important things happened here. It’s not like you can see that at first glance.”

Jasmin is one of 30 middle and high school students from the District and Maryland who are part of “Investigating Where We Live,” the museum’s effort to engage teens in what officials call the “built environment” around them. Every summer, the program dispatches teenagers on repeated forays into a different neighborhood — last year, it was Anacostia’s historic district — along with volunteer photographers, journalists, urban planners, architects and engineers who act as guides and mentors.

They talk to longtime residents and newcomers who are transforming the neighborhoods, take photographs and write reports on what they learn, which are incorporated into a display that will be exhibited in the museum starting at the end of this month.

The goal is to provide a deeper appreciation of the need to preserve a sense of history despite the rapid pace of redevelopment .

“We all need more background on the urban-built environment,” said Scott Kratz, the museum’s vice president for education. “Most [of us] don’t spend more than a few minutes thinking about where we work, how we get there and how it impacts us. The kids may not end up as planners or architects or engineers, but hopefully they’ll be more engaged in making informed decisions to create better cities and neighborhoods for all of us.”

Neighborhoods such as Shaw are changing so dramatically, Kratz said, that the teenagers’ photographs and essays will be a snapshot in time for future historians.

In the fewer than two blocks between Shaw Main Streets and Shiloh Baptist, Ninth Street exhibits a split personality. A job-placement center for ex-convicts and a corner liquor store are followed in quick succession by a Pilates studio, an art gallery and a residential complex under construction that will feature a rooftop dog park, gym and spa. Underscoring the changes in the neighborhood, Tate and Grigsby, the deacons from Shiloh Baptist who talked with the teenagers, no longer live in Shaw.

The teens witnessed firsthand how quickly history can be cast aside and forgotten. They visited the empty lot where once stood the house of Addison Scurlock, a photographer who at the turn of the 20th century documented African American life in the Shaw and U Street neighborhoods. The building that housed his studio is now a sports bar.

Padro acknowledged that change can simultaneously be hopeful and a little sad.

“People who have lived for a long time in single-family residences, sometimes for generations, have had the opportunity to cash in,” he said. “They’ve been able to take houses purchased for $10,000 or $15,000 and sell them for up to half a million dollars, without doing anything. I don’t begrudge them that. The money’s allowed them to buy homes in suburbs — one-level homes, better suited to them. But we’ve lost a lot of institutional memory — people who can remember Carter G. Woodson walking down the street giving kids candy and books.”

Before enrolling in the museum’s program, Nick Whittaker, a 15-year-old junior from Laurel who hopes to become a professional writer, had never heard of Woodson, the founder of what is now African American History Month and whose house, on Ninth Street, still stands. The National Park Service has acquired the house and hopes to restore it as a center for black scholarship.

“I’ve learned a lot about the civil rights movement,” Nick said. “There are a lot more stories than the obvious ones, like Martin Luther King.”

Tate takes a benevolent view of the cranes rising to redevelop Shaw, making her neighborhood look more like the one of her childhood, not the one she abandoned for Petworth. She told the students that she thinks it eventually will become as vital as ever.

“This community is going to go back to like it was when I was growing up,” she said. “But it will take a long time. One day, it will be a teeming community again, with the same values it’s had all along.”

But Nick said he hopes that what’s new in the neighborhood doesn’t crowd out the old.

“It has to be a mix,” he said. “What other choice is there?”

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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