The Changing Complexion of U Street

On Historic Black Broadway, A Tanning Salon Sets Up Shop

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page C01

There's a tanning salon on U Street.

Wait a minute. A tanning salon is no surprise in most of Northwest Washington; Casa Del Sol in Cleveland Park and Solar Planet in Dupont Circle, to name just two, do very well, very well indeed, during the peak tanning season of February through June. That there is now a tanning salon on U Street . . . well, that's another story.

U Street, for those who don't know its history, was Harlem before there was a Harlem. Duke Ellington called it home. The Lincoln Theatre was the heart of what was then regarded as Black Broadway. The Madame CJ Walker College of Beauty Salon operated out of 1306 U St. It was named after its owner, whom history records as the country's first black woman millionaire.

The face of U Street has changed many times since its days as Black Broadway. Today it's home to trendy shops, franchise restaurants and community institutions.

Now that building's a Rite Aid, and there's a Starbucks down the block, and across the street is a tanning salon, called Sun on U.

On one particularly blessed Sunday afternoon -- a warm 65 degrees, not a cloud in the sky -- Sun on U is a busy place. That wasn't the case when it first opened last summer.

"Who opens a tanning salon in July?" asks Gregory Denney, one of the three owners. "We were supposed to open much earlier."

In March the salon had its best month yet, with more than 1,350 tannings. Many of them involved the 155 regular members -- a congressional aide, a nurse, a mortgage banker, a rescue worker. Busy people, with healthy glows. They're the ones who come in more than once a week, says Denney. Joining Sun on U is like joining a gym; you pay a $25 set-up fee, pick a monthly plan, and so on.

"Look at this place," instructs Denney, pointing out the yellows and the blues, the "illusion of color," inside the salon. "It's a beach decor without being beachy -- there are no palm trees here."

Sun on U was Denney's 40th birthday present to himself. He wanted a change of pace, of atmosphere, from his longtime job as a federal contractor. So he started the salon with his best friend and business partner, Lawrence Elliot, and his partner-partner, Charles Cox.

"It's been difficult juggling the housemother thing and the whole 'wife' bit and running this place," Denney tells a regular customer, who minutes before was perusing a trendy tanning product called "Envy My Dramatic Darkness." Denney and Cox have two adopted sons from China -- Benjamin is 8, Gregory is 2. Elliot lives with the family in a five-bedroom Alexandria home, and Denney, Cox and Elliot take turns manning Sun on U.

Right now, it's Denney.

He's got a white towel on his right hand, a disinfectant spray pump on his left. The 13 tanning beds need cleaning after each session -- including an upright, seven-foot, $37,000 "I, Robot"-esque tanning machine called the Matrix V28.

This is the New U Street, of Sunday brunches at Utopia or Health Bar or Alero. Of fashion boutiques such as Carbon that sell "fashion-forward" shoes you previously were more likely to find in Manhattan's SoHo. Where you have to fork over $2,485 to rent a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo on the fifth floor of the Ellington. Sun on U, as it happens, is on the ground level of the Ellington.

This is the New U where customers who crowd Ben's Chili Bowl at 1:30 a.m. on a weekend actually live on U Street, and now they're mostly white.

"If you haven't been on U Street in five years, you'd go, 'Where is U Street?' " says Nizam Ali, the youngest of the Ali family that runs Ben's Chili Bowl, the iconic establishment next door to the Lincoln Theatre. It opened in 1958, 12 years before Ali was born. "When the Starbucks came on this block, a little over a year ago, I was like, Whoa! Then the tanning salon opened up last summer, less than a block from here."

He shrugs.

"That was a real shock."

Sun on U's customers are diverse, says Denney -- but more whites than blacks for sure, more gay men than straight men definitely. (The owners are all white.) "Whatever your race or ethnicity or sexual orientation, you need a little pampering," he goes on. He is quick to say that, since opening in July, some 40 black women and 10 black men have come in for sessions.

"Black people go here?" Clarence Eugene Norfleet asks Denney. He's black. He didn't know, until now, that black people went to Sun on U.

Denney nods.

"They're probably lighter than me," adds Norfleet, who says his mother is light-skinned and his father is dark-skinned.

Norfleet first asks that he be referred to as Eugene Norfleet. "Eugene sounds like someone who would go tanning," the medical technologist says with a smile. He's gone to tanning salons two or three times before, the 61-year-old says, but this is the first one he has gone to regularly. He lives in Hyattsville and comes to Sun on U once every two weeks or so. He thinks tanning makes him look more healthy.

"I have to admit," says Norfleet, "I love it."

He turns to Denney and asks, "Is the Matrix ready?"

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