The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C.’s Black Broadway is gone. A Georgetown professor wants to remind U Street newcomers of its history.

Ben’s Chili Bowl opened on Aug. 22, 1958, at the height of “Black Broadway” on U Street in Washington. The restaurant remains in the same building today.
Ben’s Chili Bowl opened on Aug. 22, 1958, at the height of “Black Broadway” on U Street in Washington. The restaurant remains in the same building today. (Ben's Chili Bowl)
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As the District changes and grows, pieces of what once was are disappearing to make way for what’s next.

Entire city blocks razed for new development. Apartment buildings and businesses bought, sold and flipped. What has been lost along the way, said Georgetown University professor Ananya Chakravarti, is history.

Chakravarti, who moved from Egypt to the U Street corridor in Northwest Washington four years ago, said she was shocked at what she found when she arrived.

She was expecting Black Broadway, a bustling strip of black-owned businesses that had defined the area in the first half of the 20th century. It’s what she had read about when researching the area from abroad.

Instead, she found chain restaurants and shops — and only a handful of black-owned businesses.

“I was amazed — especially because I work in Georgetown, a historic neighborhood where everything is so preserved — that what I saw on U Street was this unchecked erasure,” Chakravarti said. “I started to think a lot about this question of erasure and how to archive the history that is part of this community.”

Chakravarti convened a team of students, community members and experts to assemble a digital collection of U Street history that, she hopes, will make the area’s rich past easier to access and understand. She calls it “community-based historical preservation.”

By the spring, she said, her team of Georgetown and Howard University undergraduate students hopes to have a mobile app that visitors and residents can use to access information while roaming the neighborhood.

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This weekend, the archiving project, dubbed “Remembering YoU,” is being launched with events aimed at bringing people with ties to the neighborhood back in both time and space.

Speakers will recount the U Street corridor’s cultural significance and its impact on art, science, history and music.

Ben’s Chili Bowl will serve up a walking tour, trivia and half-smokes.

The Mosche jazz trio will perform, and a Detroit nonprofit organization will lead a data-visualization workshop.

A documentary film on the Ethio­pian diaspora will explore that community’s ties to the region, and Donald Campbell, the owner of an electronics store known for filling the street with go-go music, will share his story of what happened when a newcomer demanded he turn the music off.

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Participants with ties to the area will be encouraged to sit in an audio booth to record their own oral histories, which will be digitized.

More than 20,000 black residents have been pushed out of their neighborhoods since the turn of the century, according to a National Community Reinvestment Coalition report. Development in neighborhoods including Shaw, Capitol Hill and Navy Yard has attracted affluent, largely white residents while pricing out many black Washingtonians.

The District also has one of the nation’s highest displacement rates for low-income residents, according to a report this year from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, which studies social and economic disparities in the United States.

Bernard Demczuk, 72, the de facto historian of Ben’s Chili Bowl and chair of the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation, said he hopes the effort will help newcomers better understand the rich history of an area that was the cradle of the District’s black renaissance and was home to black pioneers, intellectuals and artists, including writer Zora Neale Hurston, educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, composer Duke Ellington, and historian Carter G. Woodson.

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“The reason for the tension and anger at the people moving into this area is that they do not understand the 150 years of black excellence and black progress that built this neighborhood,” Demczuk said.

Demczuk, who has lived in the U Street neighborhood for more than 50 years, said the story of black accomplishments in the District has been preserved but not centralized.

Murals along U Street tell the city’s story. Photographs inside Ben’s Chili Bowl capture moments in time — from the civil rights movement to a lunch in 2009 when the United States’ first black president stopped by, 10 days before his inauguration.

By launching an app and creating a cohesive digital library driven by and for the community, Chakravarti said she hopes the stories and histories of the area will be easier to find and harder to ignore.

“Some of the people I’m talking to are in their late 70s, and there is this fear that all of the history of the city will disappear without a trace,” she said. “With D.C. being the fastest-gentrifying city, I think we as a community need to respond. This is my own way of doing that in the way that I know how.”

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