Go to Main District of Columbia Page

U Street:
A U-Turn to Renewal

By Joel Glenn Brenner
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 06, 1993

Look out Adams-Morgan, U Street is taking a turn in your direction.

From funky coffeehouses to ethnic cuisine to theaters and art galleries and nightclubs, the U Street corridor between 12th and 16th streets NW is undergoing a cultural revolution, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the metamorphosis of Adams-Morgan in the early 1980s.

In the last year alone, more than two dozen restaurants have opened in the area, serving everything from Moroccan-style grilled lamb to down-home barbecue and brick-oven pizza. Nightclubs with names like State of the Union and the Black Cat have opened too, attracting an eclectic mix of yuppies and international students.

At the same time, numerous new ventures have moved into the area, including a Rite Aid drugstore, Trak Auto Center, the Upper Crust bakery, the Whitman Walker clinic and the Washington Blade newspaper.

"There isn't a single block that hasn't been touched by some form of new development," said Jeff Koenreich, president of the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association, which represents the 25,000 residents who live within a half-mile radius of the intersection of U Street and 14th Street. "It's like there's a race on to see who can move into the neighborhood next."

Koenreich and others who live in the community say they expect the U Street corridor to eclipse Adams-Morgan as the hub of urban hip by the end of the decade.

"You can already feel it on the weekends," said Susan Murphy, who lives in the 1600 block of T Street, just north of U Street. "The sidewalks are crowded with people hanging out, the bars are packed, the coffeehouses are busy. It's all just sort of come together in the last year."

Murphy said the block where she lives—once a haven for drug dealers—has undergone a "virtual overhaul" in the last two years, as new owners have moved in and fixed up the Victorian town houses. She said other blocks, such as 12th Place and Swann Street, have experienced a similar turnaround.

Eric Weider, a longtime resident and active member of the neighborhood association, attributes much of the change to the high cost of housing in nearby neighborhoods and a crackdown on crime in the U Street area.

"Once we cleaned up the streets, there was nothing stopping the neighborhood from realizing its potential," said Weider, who lives in the 1400 block of Corcoran Street. "Now, it's only a matter of time before we become the place to be on a Saturday night. We just have so much more to offer than Georgetown or Adams-Morgan."

Unlike those two communities, the U Street area is easily accessible by subway. Parking, too, is not a problem, according to residents. To ensure that parking remains plentiful, Koenreich said the neighborhood association plans to have a minimum of 500 public spaces available by Jan. 1, more than enough, he said, to accommodate incoming traffic.

The neighborhood also has benefited from its zoning designation, which requires developers to devote half of their ground-floor space to shops, restaurants and other arts-oriented activities.

"The character of this community is virtually assured because of the zoning restrictions," Koenreich said. "That's been a tremendous boon to the activity here."

But the biggest draw by far to the community, say those who live there, is its rich cultural heritage.

In its heyday, U Street was considered the gateway to the best of Washington's black community. In the segregated Washington of the 1920s, it was known as "the colored man's Connecticut Avenue" —home to hundreds of nightclubs and businesses designed by black architects and paid for by black financiers.

Entertainers such as Nat King Cole and Redd Foxx played the clubs along U Street frequently. Duke Ellington grew up in the neighborhood, and Pearl Bailey got her first job there. The largest and grandest theater for blacks, the Lincoln Theater, made its home in the community, as did the first black-owned and operated hotel, called the Whitelaw.

But in the 1950s, as many urban blacks fled the city in favor of the suburbs, the venerable community began to decline. The final blow came in 1968, when the torching and looting following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. left the community for dead.

For the next 22 years, U Street remained home to burned-out buildings, prostitution, open-air drug markets and urban decay. But even as U Street sank into depression, there were those who believed its glorious past might somehow be revived.

The District government was the first to try to pump life back into the community, opening the Franklin D. Reeves Municipal Center in 1986, an eight-story complex housing about 1,000 city workers and a few shops. But crime and years of Metro construction kept that project from stimulating additional investment.

It wasn't until last year, with the completion of the Metro stop, that any visible of sign of life could be seen in the community. Among the first businesses to open was Polly's Cafe near 14th and U streets, owned by a couple who live in the neighborhood and believed that U Street was poised for a rebound.

Elizabeth Bright, one of Polly's owners, witnessed firsthand the shift in the neighborhood's population in the late 1980s. In fact, the U.S. census shows incomes of residents in the area climbed 30 percent faster than the rate of inflation in the last decade. Nearly half the residents hold managerial and professional jobs, the census revealed, compared with less than a quarter in 1980.

But while the residents were becoming wealthier and better educated, Bright observed that there were still no businesses to serve them. Thus the creation of Polly's, a cozy neighborhood restaurant serving everything from burgers to brioche. But the rebirth of the community extends beyond cafes and clubs to its historic roots. Late last year, the fully restored Whitelaw hotel was reopened as housing for low-income residents. Next February, the 1,300-seat Lincoln Theater is scheduled to reopen, following a massive renovation. There also are plans to renovate the old 12th Street YMCA and turn it into a business center for nonprofit organizations that serve the black community.

While many of the entrepreneurs coming to the neighborhood are white, the U Street community has remained culturally diverse. According to the 1990 census, 56 percent of the neighborhood's 25,000 residents are black, with the remainder being white and Hispanic. Although the number of blacks is down from 73 percent in 1980, neighbors say they believe the mix has stabilized.

Although the value of homes in the neighborhood has skyrocketed in recent years, much of the housing stock remains relatively affordable. According to the census, the median home price was $177,000 in 1990, up from $73,000 in 1980. The median rent is $469 a month, compared with $205 a month in 1980.

"Compared with surrounding communities like Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan, U Street remains very affordable," explained Marvin Jawer, whose company owns large tracts of land in the neighborhood and is responsible for a good portion of the new development. "It's one of the reasons it has become so popular."

Jawer had bet that the neighborhood would grow because of its abundant stock of Victorian row houses, its proximity to downtown Washington and the arrival of the Metro station. Since the U Street station opened in May 1991, ridership has grown steadily and now averages 2,800 people a day.

Although most of the residents interviewed said they welcome the efforts of Jawer and others to breathe life into their neighborhood, some said they worry that growth is going uncontrolled. They don't want the traffic and noise that development is bound to bring. And they worry that poor and working-class families may be displaced as property values continue to climb.

But Koenreich of the neighborhood association said such worries are largely unfounded. Housing remains affordable and additional low-income housing is scheduled to be built in 1994.

At the same time, he said, the association is keeping a careful eye on the number of businesses and the types of businesses that receive liquor licenses.

"We've studied development in other communities and we don't plan on repeating their mistakes," he said.

Finally, Koenreich points out that most of the remaining undeveloped tracts of land belong to the District government.

"The fate of this community ultimately rests with the mayor and the city council," he said. "I don't think they'll do anything that would harm the neighborhood."

© Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top