U Turn
The fabled D.C. street that played host to Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey reinvents itself once more

By Teresa Wiltz
Sunday, March 5, 2006

U Street has always been a quick-change artist. Old Jim Crow shaped its earliest existence, creating rigid rules of engagement, but also, perversely, carving out a niche where black folks could be. African Americans didn't have a place to go, so they made their own. And they owned it.

U Street was it.

Being mercurial, U Street stretched boundaries beyond its alphabetical confines. U Street became a neighborhood, a happening, a state of mind. Which is to say that U Street was also S and T and V and 14th streets, NW. And parts of Florida Avenue, too.

Segregation boxed black Washingtonians within narrow borders; downtown theaters, hotels and restaurants were off-limits. But at the start of the 20th century, U Street beckoned. Banks popped up. Schools. Hotels. Funeral homes. Print shops. Pharmacies. With U Street, black D.C. could lay claim to a world that was, to borrow a phrase of the hip-hop generation, "for us, by us."

"You were privileged just to be in that vicinity," remembers John "Butch" Snipes, who is fondly referred to as the "Mayor of U Street." A former business owner -- he had a deli, then a jeans store, then a custom-made-shirt store -- Snipes has spent his entire 70 years living and working around U Street, giving tours and spreading a little wisdom about the corridor's history. "I'm not talking just the street, know what I'm saying? I'm talking the neighborhood."

U Street was Howard University, and philosophy professor Alain Locke and his "New Negro" movement in the '20s, and blood transfusion pioneer Charles Drew training doctors at the med school in the '30s and '40s.

It was Redd Foxx meandering down the street between sets at the Howard Theater in the late '40s and early '50s, talking smack to anyone who'd listen. It was, without a doubt, native son Duke Ellington. But in those years, U street was also Pearl Bailey, dragging on a cigarette in the Bohemian Caverns, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong grooving at Club Bali, and Miles Davis at the Howard Theater. The '60s brought James Brown, rocking the WUST Radio Music Hall -- now the 9:30 Club.

It was cool jazz and hot vaudeville.

It was Joe Louis training at the Boys Club in the '40s, and Satchel Paige playing against the Homestead Grays in the '40s and '50s at Griffith Stadium. It was the Lincoln Theatre, and Lee's Flower & Card Shop, then and now. It was popping into a beauty shop for a press 'n' curl. It was -- and is -- Ben's Chili Bowl, since 1958. Leave your title, and your attitude, at the door. There at the counter you might find Stokely Carmichael or Cab Calloway or Nat King Cole or Martin Luther King Jr.

U Street was black business.

It was Billie Holiday in the early '40s, in a "double header of glorious entertainment" at the Howard Theater, sharing the stage with Benny Carter and His Orchestra, King & Duke's Rugcutters, Pedro & Delores and Spic & Span. Posters did the Lady justice, proclaiming: "She's a solid sender of sizzling songs/She's the heat wave that recently thrilled Washington/She's the first lady of swing-co-pation."

U Street was Black Broadway.

Young Snipes was there in the '40s, not yet the Mayor but a schoolboy checking it all out, giddy on the U Street vibe, dashing home from Sunday school to grab a quick bite so he could make the 1 o'clock show at the Howard.

Movies. Music. Fun: Forty cents at the door.

"We had a world within a world . . . We didn't have to go out of our community for anything," Snipes says.

Time changed all that, of course. Integration sent folks scattering. U Street shifted shape. The riots of '68 sent it up in flames, and the golden corridor morphed into a blighted arc. Businesses shuttered. Drug dealers hung out shingles. The Howard Theater closed in the early '70s and then reopened in 1977 and closed again in 1986. Ben's Chili Bowl hung tight. So did the Lincoln Theatre, until 1983.

U Street was the 'hood.

The '80s brought more drug dealing and a giant 60-foot-wide hole, which would eventually become home to the Green Line's U Street Metro stop. While the city commenced to digging, businesses around the hole sputtered along. Barely. Some folks went out of business.

By the '90s, U Street became the place to get your groove on: Republic Gardens and Club U. You could pop by day into a barbershop or get buzzed into Sandra Butler's Shear Movement for a blowout or a wrap set. For shopping, there was Top 2 Bottom, if you liked your lingerie on the exotic side. But mostly, U Street came alive at night, cars crawling up and down the street, club hoppers bopping in and out of dimly lit caverns. Danger lingered.

"Back in the day, as a young girl, I wouldn't have been on U Street by myself," says Rasheeda Shmar. She didn't feel safe. "It was a hot-spot street, a 24-7 hangout.

"Now, walking down the street, you speak and you say hello. Have a conversation."

At 20, almost 21, Shmar is all about the new U Street. Condos, funky boutiques, hip restaurants. She lives around Eastern Market, but U Street is her home. She has a fiance at Howard and a job at the Wild Women Wear Red shoe store. Which is where she's standing, right now, hair pouffed up and out in a righteous, 2006 'fro, breaking it down.

For Shmar, U Street is.

It's poetry readings and veggie burgers at Busboys and Poets. It's boho chic at Wild Women and club girl gear at Pink November. It's a $5,000 sectional in lipstick-red leather at Urban Essentials. It's the design-award-winning Langston Lofts, with condominiums now reselling for $400,000-plus. It's CakeLove cupcakes and owner Warren Brown's show on the Food Network. It's "Lion King Reloaded," D.C. youth's take on the original "Lion King," landing at the Lincoln Theatre in time for Black History Month. It's chilled-out jazz at the Bohemian Caverns and Yerba Buena steaming up the Black Cat with a potent set of Afro-Cuban/funk fusion on a hot summer night.

It's the African American Civil War Memorial and affluent whites walking mountain bikes down the block.

U Street is renewal and gentrification.

But now U Street is also resentment and fear, about being pushed out in the quest. "I've never seen so many white people [on U Street] before," says Danielle Boyd, 29. She's sitting in the chair at Shear Movement, fretting as Sandra Butler winds a curling iron through her hair.

"They're moving blacks out. If you're middle class, you can't afford to live in D.C. . . . This isn't going to be a black city anymore."

It's Toddre Monier, who opened Wild Women in 2002. On the one hand, worrying a little that one day she may not be able to afford U Street, and, on the other, embracing the new.

"I have a lot of fond memories on U Street," Monier, 32, says. "I met my husband on U Street . . . I had no idea that it was about to become what it's going to become. I do like what it has become. It's become a lot more metropolitan. It feels a lot more inclusive and international."

Change has not come everywhere, of course. Some places still wait to be reborn. There's the Howard Theater, boarded up, ready for its change to come. And it may come, soon, as the city solicits proposals from developers reenvisioning the Howard Theater as a multi-use facility that will spur more economic growth in the area.

U Street is Snipes, Mayor Past and Present, retired now from his businesses but still claiming U Street. Taking notes.

"I would like for the old and the new to work things out," he says.

You can't always control change, can't always control who grabs a building or a street and how they will reinvent it. It's happened before. It'll happen again.

But one thing will remain a constant, says Snipes: "There are memories in those buildings."

Teresa Wiltz is the arts writer for The Post's Style section.

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