There was a time when the intersection at 14th and U streets was the gateway to the best of Washington's black community. There was a time when just being there meant being somebody in black Washington, a time when U Street itself was known as "the colored man's Connecticut Avenue." There was a time when gangsters and president's wives and soul singers could be seen in the same nightclub at the same time. There was a time . . .
There was a time, from the 1920s to the 1960s, when U Street was a place of parades, both small and large. Easter Sunday brought the biggest parade, with black people flocking to the boulevard to flaunt their finery in a fabulous outdoor fashion show highlighted by women's extravagant hats and men's spit-shined shoes. The Elks paraded there, too, and conventions brought a circus-like display of clowns, cars and mystic might. In the smaller parades of life on U Street there was Father Divine, the black religious leader, showing off his foot-long fingernails, evidence that he never did any manual labor. As he walked along U Street, he was fanned by his female followers, whom he called angels.
There was a time, from the '30s through the '50s, when lines of black people waited at 7 a.m. outside candy stores, barber shops and flower shops to play a number with black bookmakers. Afterwards, they hung around until 10 a.m., when the number -- the previous day's total of bank transactions -- would be announced by the Treasury Department. In those days, the numbers business in Washington was unique: It was run by blacks, not whites.
There was a time, from the '30s to the '60s, when a Cafe Society of young gangsters, entertainers and pretty women who liked men with cars and money made their home in the nightclubs on U Street, particularly the Key Clubs, which gave each member his own key to the door, but also at haunts like the Caverns, a nightclub designed to mimic the inside of Luray Caverns. At the Caverns, and at other nearby clubs, one could get a table almost touching distance from great black entertainers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Pearl Bailey and Nat King Cole.
There was a time in the '40s and '50s when any black person who was anybody had to have a ticket to the annual President's Birthday Ball at the Lincoln Colonnade. The event even attracted a few wealthy and powerful whites. Both Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman made the motorcade trip uptown from the White House, parked in the alley and went in through the back door. The underground dance hall was also home to the fabulous Huntsman Club Dance, attended by the cream of black society.
There was a time, after World War II and until the riots of 1968, when 14th and U was at the heart of the black business world in Washington. The Industrial Bank of Washington was there. And farther down U Street you could find the city's largest black-owned pharmacy, black newspapers, offices of black lawyers, a black business school and Robert Scurlock, the foremost black photographer in the city. He offered a photo gallery of who's who in black Washington in his front window.
There was a time, until Griffith Stadium was closed in 1961, when thousands of area residents walked over to the stadium on hot summer afternoons to see the Homestead Grays, Washington's black baseball team, led by home-run king Josh Gibson, challenge the Kansas City Monarchs and their Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige.
There was a time, in the late '50s and early '60s, when the legendary soul singer Sam Cooke would sit around at Cecelia's restaurant on U Street, after finishing his last set at the Howard Theatre. Cooke was always trying to buy drinks for the beautiful young women in the restaurant.
There was a time in the '50s when a well-known madam operating in a luxury town house near 14th and U streets made a deal with Garfinckels department store -- then off limits to blacks -- to buy their finest lingerie for her women, who drew men from all over the city.
There was a time in the '50s when Arthur Ashe was a teen-ager who came to Washington from his home in Richmond to play in tennis tournaments. He practiced at Banneker Junior High School, and on his way to and from the courts he pressed his face against the car window, trying to see 14th and U.
"As I got older and traveled the country, I realized there were corners like 14th and U in some other cities," Ashe says. "There was 125th Street and Eighth Avenue in New York; there was the Desire District in New Orleans. If you were black, those were the places where you went to find out what was happening. In Washington, the corner of 14th and U was the grapevine. The cream of black society and everybody else passed through there, so if you were at 14th and U, you knew where the parties were, you knew who was in town, you knew if there was trouble. You were in the know.
"I envied the freedom other kids had to hang out at a corner like 14th and U. If you were at that corner, you always had the sense that something big was about to happen."
These days, U Street is a barren landscape. Reminders of a former vibrancy are all that remain: boarded-up theaters, flowery nightclub signs now covered with layers of greasy dirt and burned-out buildings. The finale for life along U Street began in 1954 when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, signaling an end to segregation in Washington's previously all-white bars, hotels and restaurants.
Working-class blacks remained faithful to U Street for years afterwards, but lawyers, doctors, entertainers and athletes moved their offices downtown and their families to white neighborhoods. They returned to visit -- even after integration, U Street remained a focal point for black food, black music and black gossip -- but life on the street inevitably slowed throughout the '50s and into the '60s.
Then came a cold, shattering chill that cracked the street for good -- the riots of 1968 in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Afterward, U Street was little more than an avenue of angst for blacks. The final blow to the area came with construction of the Metro system's Green Line, which has torn up the street and made it all but impossible for customers to get to the few die-hard businesses trying to hold on.
As bleak as 14th and U has seemed for two decades, its future holds some hope. The District government has anointed 14th and U by placing a municipal office building there. The subway will make travel to U Street convenient. Developer Jeffrey Cohen has renovated the old Manhattan Laundry building and has plans for other monuments, including restoration of the Lincoln Theatre.
To a people long powerless -- people who have loved U Street in her glory but could not save her from defeat -- many questions remain about the next decade. Who will next parade along U Street? Will whites take over the area as they took over once-black Georgetown? Will whites ignore the area, depriving it of money and attention? Is a revived black presence on U Street an old man's dream left over from the days of segregation?
These days at 14th and U streets, the rumble of construction mixes with the pathetic mumble of junkies. But the people remember a time when 14th and U was a gateway to glory, and they wait, patiently, for a return of the black boulevard. Here, in the voices of those who actually lived the rich life of this special part of Washington, are the distillations of a lifetime.