Where We Live

'Not Quite Dupont' to Some; an Inspiration to Many

Map: Shaw
By Sadie Dingfelder
Special to the Washington Post
Saturday, May 3, 2008

Matthew Nguyen, 34, and Sergio Quintana, 32, had been house-hunting in the District for more than a year before they learned the name of their new favorite neighborhood.

"We had been looking in Shaw, but we didn't know the name, other than 'not quite Dupont, Logan or Thomas,' " Quintana said.

That's not unusual, as real estate agents and new residents started renaming sections of Shaw starting in the 1990s, said Alexander Padro, a Shaw resident and advisory neighborhood commissioner. "Some people think the name will harm their property values," he said. Perhaps that's why people at the north end of Shaw often refer to themselves as U Street residents, while those toward the south may say they live in Mount Vernon Square. And right in the middle of Shaw, there's Logan Circle -- an increasingly prestigious name many people are eager to claim, Padro said.

"The longtimers and the people sensitive to the neighborhood's history will still call it Shaw," he said.

Shaw, which stretches from about 15th Street NW to North Capitol Street, and from Florida Avenue to M Street, according to boundaries that planners set in the 1970s, is far from being an anonymous stretch of rowhouses sandwiched between better-known neighborhoods. Rather, it's an area with a rich history and relatively low prices, as well as burgeoning development and vocal homeowners.

One longtime resident, Lillian Gordon, 81, experienced some of the neighborhood's history firsthand. "Shaw was an old, established African American neighborhood," she said. "Shaw was called Black Broadway."

Under the name Lillian "The Body" Tillman, she said, she worked with choreographer Cholly Atkins and shared a stage with Nat King Cole. She performed at many of the neighborhood's venues; Crystal Caverns (now a jazz club called Bohemian Caverns) was her favorite spot.

"When you went downstairs, there were icicles," Gordon said. "It was a beautiful place; it had beautiful lights."

Just down the street from Gordon lives another dancer, Boris Willis, 40. Willis moved to Shaw a year ago to be near performance venues as well as his downtown day job. But Shaw soon offered him something he hadn't expected: inspiration. "I was surprised by how much black history there was right here," he said.

Guided by street placards, Willis learned that his former neighbors included the poet Langston Hughes and Carter G. Woodson, an educator known as the father of black history. The dancer also discovered that two tiny alleys he passed every day had held a 300-person shantytown beginning in the Civil War.

Moved to share his newfound knowledge, Willis visited a historic site every day in February, gave a short lecture on it and then performed an interpretive dance. His roommate taped the performances, and they posted them on a Web site called Dance-a-Day.

Willis isn't alone in his drive to spread the word about Shaw. Last year, Shaw was named one of the nation's "bloggiest" neighborhoods by the Web site Outside.in, which analyzed the volume of online posts and responses about the area. There are at least six sites devoted to Shaw.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company