Tony Puesan felt very much the pioneer when he opened his jazz club on 14th Street NW in 1993. On an avenue of boarded-up storefronts, a desolate reminder of the devastation wrought by the city’s 1968 race riots, the low rents were more than justified by the high crime rate. But Puesan saw a chance to bridge Washington’s racial divide. And he did, attracting a satisfying blend of blacks, whites and others to hear live music.
Now Puesan’s nightspot, the HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues, has moved to H Street NE. Once again, the lure was finding the racial mix that the influx of whites has made increasingly rare along the 14th Street corridor. On H Street, Puesan is confident he can not only keep the District’s jazz scene alive but also demonstrate that even as its demographics change, Washington still defines itself culturally and politically through its African American heritage.
“When we first opened, the majority was African American,” said Puesan. “But 15 years ago, the mix changed.” The block that once housed HR-57, the Afro-American newspaper and a black-owned beauty salon is now home to a high-end audio showroom and a sleek, minimalist Thai eatery.
“Cities evolve, the affluent come in, and people shift around,” said Puesan, 49, who is black and grew up in Adams Morgan. “But this city’s culture is still solidly African American, and that’s not changing.”
When new census data revealed last month that blacks are probably no longer a majority in Washington — a status they had held since shortly after World War II — some residents read that as confirmation that the District’s black identity is slipping away. From politicians to talk-show callers, in diners and schoolyards, many Washingtonians — and especially black residents who have spent all their lives in the city — took the census numbers as proof that the District is turning into one more majority-white city.
But in politics, business, culture and sports, the public face of Washington is still largely African American, and there’s considerable evidence that it may stay that way for a long time to come.
Washington remains “a magnet for black intellectuals, the black middle class and the black creative class,” said Richard Florida, whose theories about how the creative class of academics, artists and professionals vitalize cities have been the core of several best-selling books. Florida, who moved from the District to Toronto in 2007, said his interviews with young people across the country “identified greater Washington as a place they wanted to live — young policy wonks, foreign-born techies, gay professionals and also ambitious, college-educated African Americans.”
More than half of the anchors on the local TV news here are black — unlike any other city in the nation, according to Craig Allen, who studies the history of local TV news broadcasting at Arizona State University.
And the D.C. audience appears to be less conscious of race than it once was. “Washington was really the first market to go with diversity in TV news, in the ’70s,” Allen said. “It was something that station owners and managers were very careful and deliberate about. Now, despite how the population changes, there’s still a powerful African American presence in Washington TV news, including dual black anchors, which I can categorically say does not happen anywhere else. The audience hardly notices anymore.”
Similarly, the city’s cultural offerings seem unlikely to lose their emphasis on black artists and audiences. “No one is getting major foundation funding without being asked about the diversity of their audience and their offerings,” said Anne Corbett, executive director of the Cultural Development Corp., which creates spaces for arts groups and issues grants to D.C. artists. “Whatever the census shows, in the arts world, all we can think about is we need to do a better job of drawing audiences of color.”
Students of urban change argue that a city’s ethnic self-image often survives for generations after the defining group loses its demographic dominance.
“Cities have a certain background, and that culture permeates, even long after that group is no longer the majority,” said former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams, who teaches a course called “Leading Cities” at Harvard University. “The Irish influence in Boston is still very powerful, even though Irish people are no longer the bulk of the population.
“Just as [Massachusetts Gov.] Deval Patrick had to be steeped in Irish institutions to succeed in Boston,” Williams said, “the black institutions in the District will continue to dominate the city’s politics — the whole grapevine of churches, social groups, fraternities.”
That abiding identification with the long-dominant group means the latest census numbers do not portend a major shift in the city’s identity, said Blair Ruble, director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and author of a new book, “Washington’s U Street: A Biography.”
“The census numbers create a symbolic moment, but the data overamplifies the change in the city,” he said. Ruble argues that racial change in neighborhoods such as Shaw steal the headlines, but what makes the U Street corridor so important as a cultural and business center is that “it has always served as a zone of contact,” a racial, cultural and economic crossroads. That’s why 14th and U is where the largest crowds gathered on the night President Obama was elected, he writes.
“The larger truth is that we’re headed into a period in which all Americans are minorities, and Washington is ahead of much of the country in figuring out what that will be like,” Ruble said.
Political strategists looking at the data on race see support for two contradictory story lines:
A sharp increase in the proportion of white and Hispanic voters has led some black politicians to worry that their dominance in citywide elections — the District has not had a white mayor since the beginning of home rule in 1975 and has had only one non-black council chairman — will inevitably wane.
Marshall Brown, a longtime D.C. campaign strategist whose son Kwame is the council chairman, worries that the shift in population will result in a racially polarized electorate. “The longtime white population, the people who got involved in statehood, civil rights and environmental causes, thought of this as a black city,” said Brown, who is black. “But the new white voters aren’t involved like that. They want doggie parks and bike lanes. The result is a lot of tension.
“The new people believe more in their dogs than they do in people. They go into their little cafes, go out and throw their snowballs. This is not the District I knew. There’s no relationship with the black community; they don’t connect at church, they don’t go to the same cafes, they don’t volunteer in the neighborhood school, and a lot of longtime black residents feel threatened.”
But Tom Lindenfeld, chief strategist for Adrian M. Fenty’s successful 2006 mayoral campaign, isn’t so sure. The fact that the percentage of blacks is waning isn’t the issue, he says. It’s the attitude of the whites coming in.
“A lot of younger, more transient white people who live in D.C. still identify with where they came from and often still vote back there,” he said. “Whereas many black people identify with the District and local issues.”
Among whites who do vote in the city, “there’s a belief that racial harmony is better than division, and electing a white mayor could be harmful because it could create division,” said Lindenfeld, who is white.
But that doesn’t mean race can’t be a factor in city elections. “We still live in a city where white voters measure everything against Marion Barry,” Lindenfeld said. “If white voters believe they could end up with a mayor who could be anything like Barry, they recoil.”
In the 2010 face-off between Fenty and Vincent C. Gray, Fenty, the son of a biracial couple, won the white vote and Gray won the black vote, in both cases by overwhelming margins. As mayor, Fenty portrayed himself as a results-oriented technocrat who tore down inefficient structures and replaced low-performing people, many of them longtime residents. His successful challenger, in contrast, repeatedly promised to restore some ousted workers and focus more on the District’s have-nots.
Gray avoided direct comment on the racial shift when he greeted the new census data, which showed population growth, as “good news” in his State of the City address late last month. But he warned that “too many of us have operated under the false assumption that a rising tide would lift all boats. . . . The population west of the [Anacostia] river is growing, while east of the river it is stagnating or shrinking.”
Along H Street NE, where trendy bars and gourmet snack spots are replacing beauty supply and discount electronics stores, Puesan sees changes that trouble some longtime residents — new neighbors, higher prices, a streetcar line under construction. But Puesan likes what he hears.
“When I first got to 14th Street, you could hear the music of the whole city on the street, from cars, apartments, shops,” he said. “Whether it’s jazz or hip-hop or whatever, it identifies the city, and it’s always evolving, like the city. H Street is like that now — lots of music in the street, from street festivals, the stores, the people. After 48 years in this city, I don’t see change as a negative. It’s a rebirth, barricades coming down.”
The change can be unsettling, but at least some things are constant: Puesan spent a good part of last week in his new storefront, ready to open but for one thing — waiting for the District’s building inspectors to show up.