It was there that Jelly Roll Morton plunked his baaad piano, that poet Jean Toomer celebrated the publication of his work in the avant garde Broom magazine, and where the Gourmet Club met the second Tuesday evening of every month. That was U Street at its zenith in the boisterous '20s, depression '30s and wartime '40s.
The U Street rollercoaster sped downward in the years after, and by the '60s and '70s it had become one of Washington's symbols for the urban crisis -- a center for crime and drugs.
Last week, even the bums were disinherited as the steel ball leveled one of the few remaining relics from U Street's earlier glory, the Booker T. Theatre, and with it the rickety house nearby where old Eddie Davis lived. "It tore me up," said Davis. "I had some of my things in there. I didn't get no warning. Before I know anything, the truck was there. That place was me, and still is . . . "
U Street took its downward slide without a strong hand from the city to stop it, and in that vacuum of leadership, the strip became a caldron that exploded in the riots of the '60s. Now it is on the verge of yet another incarnation, and once again faces an uncertain future, for the city does not yet have a comprehensive plan for its development. And in the meantime, relics of its early origins are toppled and men like Eddie Davis land in the streets.
Davis is one of the "ekes," the men and women who eke out a survival against odds so high that their ability to be alive mocks our affluence. As we bemoan the gas crunch, Eddie swings along on his single crutch, walking to U Street several times from a Fifth Street shelter where he's found occasional relief from sleeping in cars and doorways.
When he returned to U Street the other day, Davis looked for his familiar bottomless chair and the three-legged table where daily he'd "held court" on the sidewalk in dubious better days. It, too, was gone.
The city's landscape is a canvas in process, and the bright brush strokes are being painted with a degree of affluence. And in the lack of room for men like Eddie, a familiar pattern is taking place. When the slum houses and the black businesses go, so do the poor people who can't afford the luxury housing and services that will replace them.
From the turn of the century until 1954, U Street pulsated with vitality created by the restricted life of a segregated city. It was one of the most important entertainment strips in Washington, a center of night light and sporting activity, part red light and part legal business area.
Sterling Brown, 78, the internationally-known poet who was born in Washington, taught at Howard University, and who frequented the street and nearby arteries, remembers:
"The 1200 block was the aristocratic place -- Howard university professors, doctors, lawyers. I used to go to the Hiawatha Theater and watch 'Perils of Pauline.' At the Prudential Bank, Tally Holmes would stand in front and collect the loans. Jell Eye Pinckney was a local character and my friend.
"The Lincoln Theater was of the highest class. I was in a group of Howard radicals who picketed 'Gone With the Wind.' Dr. Ralph Bunche [then head of Howard's political science department and later undersecretary general of the United Nations] was with us.And on Thursday all the maids got off and came and said we were crazy, that's how slavery was. We just told them to go back and wash some windows and kept on picketing."
The traditional main avenue of the city's black business community, banks, funeral parlors, restaurants, skating rinks, dance halls and bowling alleys lined the street then. Murray Brothers Printing Company began when Freeman Murray gave his three sons a small hand press for Christmas in 1895. The company is still in business.
U Street lost the dubious advantages of a segregated market after 1954 when the city hotels and later the restaurants desegregated, and blacks began to stay and to eat downtown.
By 1965, with the urban renewal bulldozers threatening, the merchants tried to revive activity with plans to take advantage of renewal activity. But violet crime increased and a leading merchant was killed during a holdup.
Then, in 1968, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the area erupted in violet rioting. Looting and burning left much of the street in rubble.It appeared that the final nail was banged into the coffin as the frightened middle-class stayed away, many businesses moved out, and the criminals and prostitutes took up residence.
Afternoon on U Street today: Addicts openly make a connection as a car screeches to a halt and men rush forward. A promenade passes abandoned law offices and the giant grey Masonic Temple. A dude twirls backward three times to eye a woman. A fast-talking addict corners a photographer.
At the corner of 15th and U stands the C&B Deli where Eddie Davis goes every day to see his friend, proprietor William Burnett. "He doesn't have no place to go," says Burnett. "Now, I don't think nobody here would even rent him a place."
Burnett's own business is down by half and the rent on his store has been nearly doubled from $140 to $275 on a month to month lease.
Behind a counter at C&B, near the quart-bottles of perfume, Samuel F. Harrison, 79, remembers Eddie and the street in better times. "Eddie used to shine my shoes when I was a waiter." Harrison still frequents the now seedy joints like the Success Cafe. He tucks his thumbs rakishly into a trim waistband. "I bend around a long time," he laughs.
Now U Street is about to change again. "At this stage, there is no [public] action program under way in terms of redevelopment," says James Gibson, director of the city's Office of Planning and Development." It will be a year or two before things get into gear. There are significant things going on in the private sector."
Developer Barrett Linde, has obtained a zoning change to build between 11th and 12th streets "it will be totally unsubsidized and primary housing."
The subway is scheduled to come to U Street in the late 1980s, a date that Gibson says, "looks like will be stepped up."
Displacement "will be an obvious byproduct of revitalizing U Street," Gibson said. "We are trying to forecast the kind of displacement . . . so we can get into focus a public policy . . . We are just beginning to sort through this to see what the city can do. We'll know more in a couple of months."
Meanwhile, Eddie Davis chases his anguish with generous swigs of Ripple, his eyes like raspberry moons.
"Say," he asks a visitor. "You think you can get me a room? Nobody much around here no more. Some people I know have gone to Maryland. I go out there, I get killed. They don't know me out there."