Landscape: U Street
By Mary Battiata
In the beginning, there was the old U. The first U. Black U. Negro, then. The heart of black cultural, economic and social life in segregated Washington. The Black Broadway, they called it. Alive 24 hours a day with music and theater and movie palaces and commerce, a place where black Washingtonians turned their backs on a white world that tried to grind them down, and made a world of their own.
"It wasn't a corridor," says Henry Whitehead, a local historian who's lived in Washington for 50 years. "It was a boulevard."
The next U was the post-riot U. The street that got burned in 1968 when the crowds at 14th and U heard that Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. Someone heaved a brick through the People's Drugstore window. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference office next door stayed open, but the drugstore went up in flames. And then it was lights out for a quarter-century. The U Street corridor already had been changed, first by the desegregation of housing and then by overcrowding after "urban revewal" leveled parts of Southwest. It became the haunt of junkies and dealers, with only a few hardy and brave businesses.
And now, in 1998, at the end of this century of separation and court-ordered coming together, there is a third U, also known as the New U. It is mixed black and white people living together, along with yellow and brown.
On the New U at night, there are grunge white kids in thrift-shop nylon and '50s flannel mixing with grunge black kids in Timberlands and ski parkas and sweats. Buppies from Prince George's County in sharp suits and shiny BMWs. Coffeehouse saints and poets with pierced noses and musicians, musicians, musicians. Graphic designers and sitar players. Cool used bookstores and cooler clubs promoting rock and hip hop and house and jazz. It's an alternative black white grunge retro roots flared folky world. Hip. Hop. It's a street of dreams and of dreamers. One of the 15 hippest neighborhoods in North America, according to a recent chronicle of hipness in the Utne Reader. It is a hopeful place. A hard-working place. And a wary one.
Because the U Streeters, all of them the young club owners who live in the neighborhood, too, the frail old ladies buying cough drops at the Rite Aid, the rockers eating chili dogs at 3 a.m. at Ben's Chili Bowl, the developers who want to tear everything down and the architects who want to keep it the way it was, the man washing the windows at the Islander Restaurant are part of a great social experiment.
It may be the American social experiment of the late 20th century, the one that's going to lead us into the great beige century to come. Or not.
Can't we all please just get along?
Which brings us to one more U, Marc Barnes' own personal U, which, on this December afternoon, is kind of blue.
Barnes is a club impresario and entrepreneur who made his name promoting parties for the buppie crowd. He's a big guy: big talker, big dreamer who describes himself as half-black, half-white (not African American, though "I hate the term African American," he says.)
He stands inside his club, Republic Gardens, as Hispanic and black and white staff hustle past with lists and linen and crates of liquor for the night ahead. When Barnes took the lease over two years ago from a guy who had reopened the place in the early '90s, he enlisted a local artist and made a very elegant, high-gloss space with curved brushed aluminum bar tops and tangerine walls and oil paintings. He thought it would attract a mixed crowd. Black and white. It hasn't happened.
Oh, he's had mostly-white functions there. Tony ones: the prom for the National Cathedral School, an event for the Hospital for Sick Children. But he also courted a black crowd, passing out fliers that touted Republic Gardens as the only black-owned club on U Street. Now mainly, except on nights when he's got the fights on the TVs above the bar, Republic Gardens is almost entirely black. Middle-class, young and black. Most of them drive cars with Maryland tags. They are the children and grandchildren of the middle-class blacks who left U Street for the suburbs in the past thirty years. In addition to them, there are a few hundred other scenesters, also black but less affluent, who don't meet the club's dress code and spend the evening hanging around on the sidewalk outside.
Barnes thinks (and his fellow club owners agree) that his club's all-black scene has actually inhibited the mix of people on U Street. Added a note of race-consciousness.
"It's oil and water," he says glumly. "No matter how much people think they're ready to integrate, it's not true yet. People look for a reason to discriminate. If I hang around with whites, my black friends say, 'Why are you hanging around with that white guy?' If you, as a white, come in here at night, a lot of black people in here are going to say, 'She's a freak.' "A black friend of mine took a white friend into an all-black coffee place around here and the white guy looks around and says, 'Wow. This is so cool. I'm not even scared.'
"Scared? Would you go into a Houston's [filled with white people] and say, 'Oh, it's so cool, I'm not scared?'
"People look for a reason to discriminate. And blacks are as prejudiced as whites.
"I love my crowd. But you know, I'd like to have an everybody night. But how do you get that? It's hard. You know what they say-when you go black, there's no going back."
But wait. Next door on U Street, a club called State of the Union is having an everybody night. As it does most nights.
And down the street at Polly's Cafe, the crowd is mixed, too, about 70/30, black/white. Locals of all stripes sit at the bar, or talk quietly at tables into the small hours. Ditto the little jazz clubs nearby. And at Ben's Chili Bowl, and at HR57, a comfortable jazz performance space up the street at 14th and U, where black and white musicians share the stage and the seats.
"What divides people most is not racial, it's cultural," says Henry Whitehead. "People go where there's music they feel comfortable with, but the important thing is the mix on the street-white and black people and everybody else feeling comfortable."
At Atticus Books, owners Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole do a third of their sales in African American titles. (The other two thirds: gay and lesbian, and "everybody else.") They could sell more African American stuff if they had the shelf space. "It's been huge for us. We didn't plan it that way, but it's definitely how it happened."
U Street's day world is about fifty-fifty, black and white. The night world, at the clubs, is slightly more white than black.
Keeping the mix is a labor. Of love, but a labor all the same.
"I have a very careful balance," says State of the Union's owner, Stuart Woodroffecq, an Englishman who came into the neighborhood six years ago and set up shop next door to Republic Gardens. Woodroffe, who identifies himself as working-class and a fan of Barnes's, says he often feels he has more in common with black American kids than white, but he likes both groups, and works hard to bring them together. "But we try very hard not to focus on the race thing. Because as soon as you do that, you're lost. And anyway, I don't believe in it. The reason for the tension is cultural differences. Black and white Americans have more in common than they think they do."
Like history. It's a commonplace, especially, perhaps, among white Washingtonians, that the city has no distinct identity of its own, nothing of the grit and fire of Chicago, say, or New York, or New Orleans. But that is wrong. This city does have an identity, and it is black, and the heart of it is on U Street. It's just that because of the way we live, if you're white, or even black, you may not know much about it, or think that it has much to do with you.
U Street's boosters and visionaries historians and architects and artists see a lot of commercial potential in this history. In New York City, after all, busloads of Swedish and German tourists stand on long lines in Harlem to see the Sunday services at the great gospel churches. Why not here? Why not bus in black and white tourists to the True Reformer hall to show off where the young Duke Ellington played? Why not come and see the (soon-to-be-erected) African American Civil War memorial? Why not show off the lunch counter where Mary McCleod Bethune picketed to desegregate lunch counters? The clubs where Billie Holiday sang. The street corners where writer Jean Toomer, master of the 1920s New Negro Renaissance, saw the chestnut blossoms and near-beer saloons, the rowhouses, the U Street spring that could "stir the root-life of a withered people, call them from their houses, and teach them to dream."
Why not? "One reason I spend so much time focusing on history here is that it can be a unifying thing," says Whitehead. "There can be a common appreciation of what was accomplished by the others."
Of course, it would be helpful if the buildings were still there. Many of the historic sites are gone already fallen to drugstores and fast food chains and the Metro Green Line. The fights for the ones that remain are always close and close to the wire, the wrecking ball stilled by last-minute applications for landmark status. The Lincoln Theater has been saved. But the grand old Republic is gone, and the Howard, built in 1910, the first legitimate theater in the country built for black audiences, is boarded up and has passed in and out of private stewardship. Its future rests with the Financial Control Board.
The long view is that the New U is just going through growing pains. It took off with a bang in the early 1990s and hit a lull in 1995, when a few businesses went bankrupt, as might be expected, and a few ballyhooed development projects failed to get off the ground. Now home sales and business loans are picking up, but it's too soon to tell whether the new spurt will be sustained. And whether one of city's most successfully integrated neighborhoods will stay that way or gentrify into a largely white extension of neighborhoods to the west Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan.
"We don't have a controlled and planned boom; it's more a hodgepodge," says Stanley Mayes, a lawyer and community activist who has spent most of his 47 years in the neighborhood.
Yes. The New U is an evolving place, where the property values are rising every month but you can still walk out your door at 7 p.m. and find a guy pissing in the glass-walled bus shelter. Crime is down, the streets are cleaner and better lit, but the bookstore gets broken into twice in two months. It's the kind of neighborhood where people who stand up to speak at meetings establish their bona fides by declaring how long they've lived in the neighborhood. Where the new neighbor who speaks passionately in favor or against something or other is gone two years later, selling his townhouse at a profit and transferring to San Diego.
Mayes and others say the corridor needs a major commercial anchor. It's got the D.C. government's Reeves building at 14th and U and the 9:30 club, one of the top-rated rock-and-roll venues in the country, at Ninth and V. But it needs more, they say. Apartments, a multiplex cinema, maybe, or a major grocery store. It needs the new convention center to do for it what the MCI Center is doing for the Chinatown area further downtown.
The U Streeters are up against ignorance and fear and hate and experience. Against the entropy of center cities in this century, and the history of race, and race-baiting, and Washington. The lassitude and corruption of city government during the Barry years. The social and economic tensions that come with gentrification.
But maybe, above and beyond that, the real question is about us. Who we are, what we want, what we think about, what we do when we see someone of the other color coming down the street or walking into a club. How comfortable we feel, how comfortable we are made to feel, standing in the middle of a club where everyone else is the other.
U Street is like a cat that, thrown from a building, has landed on its feet and is wondering which way to walk. Nowadays, when the clubs empty out in the wee hours and 3,000 patrons spill into the streets, the scene is a lively and calm mix of faces, black and white. A punch may get thrown every six months or so, but mostly, it's calm. And interesting.
The new U, to make it this time, and to hang on to what it has, is going to need everyone, black and white and yellow and brown.
For club owners, in 1990s, this requires the sociological antennae of Margaret Meade, the judicious wisdom of Solomon. A head for business, but an eye for human frailties.
"I think people really want to mix," says Woodroffe. "But it's a balance. There's a lot of power that goes with black guys and hip hop, so you have to play with that, to make sure everybody feels secure. Because if you drive three miles out of D.C. into Virginia, the white kids are scared to death so you have to play with that. So we concentrate on the music and we keep it a little more rundown than most clubs it's not so shiny you feel uncomfortable.
"I don't know. It's kind of up to people, isn't it? Whether they come. It's about overcoming fear of the unknown. I'm just trying to do the right thing. My idea is to set up your own little utopia amidst the craziness. We need to concentrate on what we have in common. And what we have in common is a taste for good music and cold beer."
Marc Barnes, having lost some of his regular crowd to a new club down the road, is diversifying this winter he's putting in a lounge area right up front at the bar. That way, on nights when there's no music, he says, black and white can come in with their own, create their own little sections. "So people don't have to stand on top of each other that way."
No. But they'll be in the same room.
It's all a long way from the high-water mark that older U street residents remember from earlier this century, when you got dressed up to walk the boulevard, greeted everyone you saw by name, when college professors resided next door to elevator operators and the only thing that mattered, says Henry Whitehead, was that you were clean and polite and that you went to church. Yes, it's a long way from that. And it's a start.
Mary Battiata is a Magazine staff writer.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company