There are few Washington neighborhoods where past and present are as tightly intertwined as they are on U Street.
The site of today's U Street/Cardozo Metro stop was once home to cabarets, nightclubs and restaurants with names like the Green Parrot, the Turf Club and the Capital Grill. During the 1920s and 1930s, the strip known as "You Street," "Black Broadway" and "The Colored Man's Connecticut Avenue" was the political, economic and social center of black life in the District of Columbia. Today, the U Street corridor between Ninth and 17th streets in Northwest Washington seems intent on updating the strip's mid-century reputation.
From the 1920s through the 1950s, the Republic Gardens nightclub was the place to be for the black bourgeoisie. In 1999, a club of the same name in the same building hosts black luminaries from Magic Johnson to Puff Daddy -- as well as weekend crowds that literally bring traffic to a standstill. In U Street's heyday, young Washington upstarts like Duke Ellington honed their skills in its clubs. In the era of rap, DJs at State of the Union spin records by local hip-hop hopefuls like Priest da Nomad.
Of course, there was an interval between U Street's luminous past and fashionable present. By the 1950s, like many inner-city neighborhoods, the area had begun a slow decline. Integration created opportunities for blacks to live and hang out in other parts of the city. (Why go to the colored man's Connecticut Avenue when you can go to the real thing?) The 1968 riots following Martin Luther King's assassination hit the area hard: The burning and looting erupted near 14th and U, at the heart of today's nightlife strip. By the early 1970s, the area had been rendered an urban cliche -- it was filled with prostitutes, open-air drug markets and crumbling buildings through much of the 1970s and 1980s.
Since the city finished the U Street/
Cardozo Metro stop in 1991, the area has undergone a radical and much-heralded transformation. In addition to the coming of the Metro, the major factor in this rapid growth was the gradual expansion of gentrification north and west from Dupont Circle and the search for cheaper retail space by small businesses priced out of Dupont and Adams-Morgan.
Later, the Black Cat nightclub opened a few blocks to the south in 1993 and the 9:30 club relocated to a space just north of the area in 1996. Just this spring 2:K:9, another dance club and concert venue, opened almost within sight of the 9:30 club.
These days, the neighborhood is defined by contrasts. It's a place where you can eat oven-baked goat cheese and artichoke pizza -- or a half-smoke. Where you can find a gay and lesbian art gallery -- or a salon that will affix decals to your artificial fingernails.
If you exit the U Street/Cardozo station on the Vermont Avenue side, you'll run smack into the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum. It's the beginning of this short walking tour down U Street, and it symbolizes the beginning of the street's history as well. At the time Pierre L'Enfant designed the District of Columbia in 1791, there were no dwellings in the then-remote part of town. In fact, folks didn't start moving in until the Civil War, when three Union camps were established nearby.
During that war, thousands of African American soldiers served honorably, but their contributions were not widely celebrated until relatively recently. The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum (1000 U St. NW, 202/667-2667) pays tribute to their achievements.
The first thing you'll see as you step off Metro's escalators is the memorial itself, a 12-foot-tall bronze sculpture depicting soldiers from the United States Colored Troops and their families. Surrounding the figures is a semi-circular granite "Wall of Honor" with steel plaques bearing the names of 209,145 soldiers who fought in the Colored Troops. Adjacent to the memorial is the museum, a 10,000-square-foot chunk of the Masons' M.W. Prince Hall Grand Lodge, which was designed by a black architect and erected in 1922.
The Civil War provided the name of one of the communities that abuts U Street: Shaw. (In its early days, the neighborhood was referred to by locals as "14th and U.") The neighborhood was named after Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the all-black 54th Massachusetts regiment of the United States Colored Troops, who inspired the movie "Glory."
Cross U Street and make a stop at my favorite shoeshine and repair shop, Hollywood Al's (1003 U St. NW, 202/667-7613). I first wandered into the shop several years ago, clutching my beloved copper-red ankle boots. "I looove these boots," I begged, "is there anything you can do?" Al snatched the shoes from my hands, eyed the holey soles and shot me a reproachful glance. "You love these shoes?" he asked. "You don't act like you love these shoes....Come back Wed-
nesday." When I returned, my boots looked better than ever, with a gleaming coat of polish and brand new soles.
Scores of local and national celebrities have also had their soles healed at Al's. Their photographs hang from the cramped shop's walls: former mayors Sharon Pratt Kelly and Marion Barry, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Bill Cosby, to name a few.
If you hit the club strip at night short on cash, you may need to make a stop at the 24-hour ATM at the Industrial Bank of Washington (2002 11th St. NW, 202/722-2050; there's another location just north of U Street (2000 14th St. NW, 202/722-2075). Formed in 1913 and reorganized in 1934, it is one of the oldest black-owned banks in the country.
Continue along the strip, and you'll see another U Street gem, the Islander Caribbean Restaurant and Lounge (1201 U St. NW, 202/234-4955). It has hardwood floors and a cherry bar with a big-screen TV set; the wall opposite the bar is covered with palm trees and white sand, turquoise shores blending into a cottony sky. The menu features several delicious and fairly authentic West Indian entrees as well as mixed drinks ripe with paper fruit.
The Saloon (1205-1207 U St. NW, 202/462-2640) is a new kid on the block, having relocated from Georgetown less than two months ago. The first thing that caught my eye when I walked in was a sign posted over the bar reading "Y2K compliant." An arrow on the sign points toward a 1945 cash register which, along with its circa 1947 sibling, is used to ring up sales. The menu includes typical American food and an atypical beer selection: 14 drafts from 15 countries, their specialty being Belgian beers. But the visual splendor of this restaurant is the main draw; the restoration work is spectacular. The original building caved in, and it took three years to rebuild it from scratch.
If it's U Street, it must be Ben's Chili Bowl (1213 U St. NW, 202/667-0909). The diner that's been in business since 1958 draws people from all over the country and the world. Ben's is most famous for its pork-and-beef sausage half-smokes, chili dogs and cheese fries: the stuff of high blood pressure, perhaps, but delicious nonetheless. It's hard to imagine Ben's ever having been anything else, but, like many U Street buildings, it was once the site of a historically significant venue. The building once housed the Minnehaha Theater, one of the city's first silent movie houses -- you can still see the old facade above the Chili Bowl sign. (Note to chili-dog craving insomniacs: Ben's is open until the wee hours every night except Sunday.)
A couple doors down is the Lincoln Theatre (1215 U St. NW, 202/328-6000). Restored in 1994 to its former glory, the elegant 1922 theater has continued in the tradition that it began on U Street, featuring plays, dances, live entertainment, comedy and talent shows. It recently hosted the Reel Affirmations gay and lesbian film festival and the Mayor's Arts Awards ceremony, as well as an array of charity benefits, gospel musicals, beauty pageants and Apollo-style talent shows.
On the Northwest corner of 13th and U streets, there is another outdoor historical monument, "Remembering U Street." The mural, which extends for half a block, includes laminated photographs and text related to the street's prime. The mural stands at the former site of the Republic Theater, which played first-run movies starting in the 1920s. (Along with the rest of the strip, it had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s and was torn down during the construction of the U Street Metro station.)
During that time, when Washington rivaled Harlem as the nation's center of black artistic and intellectual activity, Shaw's favorite son, Duke Ellington, gave his first performances on the strip. Distinguished writer Jean Toomer (best known for the poetry and prose collection "Cane") and his grandfather, former Louisiana governor P.B.S. Pinchback, lived at 1341 U St., which is now a parking lot. Now-obscure street performers like "Struttin' Daniel" are also pictured on the mural and celebrated for their part in U Street's history.
Take a look across the street, and you'll get a good view of the Duke Ellington mural by Washington artist G. Byron Peck at the southeast corner of 13th and U streets above the Metro station's 13th Street entrance.
The lack of stuffiness at Republic Gardens (1355 U St. NW, 202/232-2710) is rare among D.C. clubs that target the same buppie demographic. Of late, many longtime patrons have taken to griping about the long lines and all-too-familiar crowd. But, along with the sophisticated decor -- think earth tones, metal sculpture and glossy brick walls -- and the mix of hip-hop and R&B, the happy hours keep bringing us back. From 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, a $5 cover gets you an open bar and complimentary buffet with some of the best jerk chicken I've ever had, vegetables, rolls, salad -- the works. As long as the management stays on good terms with whoever does their cooking, I'm sure I won't be the only one swallowing my pride and braving the impending cold season to get inside.
If you go to the club next door, State of the Union (1357 U St. NW, 202/588-8810), you'll learn something important about D.C.'s local hip-hop scene. To wit: There is a local hip-hop scene. State of the Union gives a stage to home-grown DJs, bands and MCs of which Washingtonians can be proud, as well as acid jazz, hip-hop and spoken-word poetry. You're always guaranteed good music and a diverse crowd.
Further down the street, the Campbell Heights Apartments at 15th and U stand at the erstwhile site of the Dunbar Hotel. It was named after poet and writer Paul Laurence Dunbar who, with his wife Alice, lived at 321 U St. around the turn of the century. The Dunbar was one of the leading hotels for blacks during segregation and the one where most black performers passing through Washington stayed.
Past the Reeves Center at 15 and U is Sisterspace and Books (1515 U St. NW, 202/332-3433). Here you can find books devoted to black women's issues and the black diaspora that you can't find anywhere else. I visited a handful of general-interest bookstores searching for Joan Morgan's "When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist" without any luck. But when I walked into Sisterspace it was displayed prominently, along with "The Truth That Never Hurts: Writing on Race, Gender and Freedom" by Barbara Smith and "Standing at the Scratch Line" a novel by Maya Angelou's talented son Guy Johnson.
Walk a couple of blocks more, make a U-turn on U Street, and head east to the Chi Cha Lounge (1624 U St. NW, 202/234-8400). This stylish bar and restaurant features a wonderful live Latin jazz band Sunday through Wednesday starting at 9 p.m. The rest of the week, a DJ spins house music. Their Andean food and tapas are just so-so, but dark adjoining rooms filled with couches, cushiony armchairs and coffee tables exude a living-room coziness. One of the only true neighborhood bars on the U street strip, Stetsons Famous Bar and Restaurant (1610 U St. NW, 202/667-6295) offers the simple pleasures of cold beer and an excellent rock and country jukebox, along with some perfunctory bar food (nachos, quesadillas, chicken wings, etc). The first floor bar, with its well-worn wooden floor, has the ramshackle feel of a roadhouse, while the second floor is a cozy spot to shoot a game of pool.
In the next block, take a peek into Millennium Decorative Arts (1528 U St. NW, 202/483-1218). The three-story vintage housewares and furnishings store has bright yellow walls and is stocked full of vintage furniture, lamps, glassware and clothing. They specialize in the work of major 1950s designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Paul McCobb, but its also the place to go for chrome cocktail shakers, formica-topped tables, op art juice glasses and the like. A few doors down, Meeps Fashionette (1520 U St. NW, 202/265-6546) is to clothing what Millennium is to housewares.
My favorite restaurant in Washington is the U-Topia Bar and Grill (1418 U St. NW, 202/483-7669). The menu of Mediterranean cuisine includes plenty of fish, poultry and pasta dishes, all presented beautifully. Check out the seafood bisque. The eatery's interior is exposed brick, and the rear of the restaurant serves as an art gallery with revolving exhibits of interesting, provocative work. The bright, swirling Picasso-like abstracts in the front room were done by owner Jamal Sahri himself. Live jazz, sometimes with a Latin or bluesy tinge, is played here from Thursday through Sunday nights. Neighboring Coppi's Pizza (1414 U St., 202/319-7773), named for Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi, is housed in a narrow space hung with bicycle memorabilia. A brick oven at the far end of the room is the source of the restaurant's designer pizzas, whose toppings range from smoked trout to more traditional choices.
Like every cool neighborhood, U Street has its requisite kinky sex shop, Exotic Pleasures Boutique (1356 U St. NW, 202/265-3804). The shop stocks lingerie, S&M gear and adult videos. Looking for "Black Leather/Black Skin," "Mistress in Da' Hood" or "Sistaz 'N Chainz"? You've come to the right place.
Eat at a table along the sidewalk or take a few steps down into Polly's Cafe (1342 U St. NW, 202/265-8385), a cozy neighborhood favorite best known for its eclectic jukebox and its unpretentious ambiance. (Stop by in winter when the coziness ante is upped considerably by the crackling fireplace.) Standouts on the menu include its Polly's burgers and their vegetarian counterpart, the Portobello mushroom steak.
The menu at Cafe Nema (1334 U St. NW, 202/667-3215) includes dishes from Somalia, the Middle East, France and Italy. On Thursday and Friday, it doubles as a nightclub, featuring one of D.C.'s best straight-ahead jazz bands, the Young Lions. The owners say erudite jazz fans often wander in thinking the bar is named after John Coltrane's first wife, Naima. ("Nema" is actually the Arabic word for "blessed," the name of the owner's daughter.) Like U-Topia's, this restaurant's exposed-brick walls also serve as a gallery.
While the rest of the strip is dead on Monday nights, one shining star beckons, Bar Nun/Club 2000 (1326 U St. NW, 202/667-6680). People of all ages, creeds and nationalities converge here for its popular poetry readings on Mondays. On other days, a DJ plays a blend of hip-hop and R&B. On Sundays, the club features oldie-but-goodie R&B and patrons can get a quick seated massage from one of the club's roaming massage therapists. Bar Nun's Friday fetish night ("Bound") is an industrial dance party. Bar Nun is not the strip's only poetic destination: Founded by an entrepreneurial Howard University student, Kaffa House (1212 U St. NW, 202/462-1212) combines live hip-hop, punk and reggae and -- appropriately -- Jamaican food in addition to hosting a weekly open mike poetry reading of its own.
Although "the new U" has been anointed one of Washington's coolest emerging neighborhoods, the emergence is ongoing. There are few retail establishments, and sections of the street are eyesores -- heaps of trash and boarded-up buildings where vandalism alternates with murals and graffiti art. At the same time, new destinations appear constantly on the U Street map, advancing ever eastward, away from the strip's more established western end. Head past the Metro and toward Ninth Street, and you'll find two of the easternmost -- for now, anyway -- the Velvet Lounge (915 U St. NW, 202/462-3213) and Kingpin (917 U St. NW, 202/588-5880). Though it sounds like the sort of place you might expect to hear Perry Como, the former is a rowhouse rock club with a bar downstairs and pool tables and a tiny performance space upstairs. The latter is a bar that's more like a friend's living room; but the small, second-floor nightspot is one of the best places to relax late at night after having made the rounds elsewhere on the U street strip.
Spend a long night exploring the area and you will experience a scene that has been repeated countless times during this century: That magical time after last call when the revelers file out of the clubs and U Street is transformed into a giant street party.
1. African American
Civil War Memorial
1000 U Street NW
2. Hollywood Al's
1003 U Street NW
3. Industrial Bank
2002 11th Street NW
4. The Islander
1201 U Street NW
5. The Saloon
1205-07 U Street NW
6. Ben's Chili Bowl
1213 U Street NW
7. Lincoln Theatre
1215 U Street NW
8. Remembering U Street
13th and U Streets NW
9. Republic Gardens
1355 U Street NW
10. State of the Union
1357 U Street NW
11. Sisterspace and Books
1515 U Street NW
12. Chi Cha Lounge
1624 U Street NW
13. Stetson's Famous Bar
1610 U Street NW
14. Millenium Decorative Arts
1528 U Street NW
15. Meeps Fashionette
1520 U Street NW
16. U-topia Bar and Grill
1418 U Street NW
17. Coppi's Pizza
1414 U Street NW
18. Exotic Pleasures Boutique
1356 U Street NW
19. Polly's Cafe
1342 U Street NW
20. Cafe Nema
1334 U Street NW
21. Bar Nun/Club 2000
1326 U Street NW
22. Duke Ellington Mural
1200 block U Street NW
23. Kaffa House
1212 U Street NW
24. Velvet Lounge
915 U Street NW
917 U Street NW