As a lifelong Washingtonian, I can remember the days when the city was widely branded as the “murder capital of America,” due in large part to drug infestation and how prostitutes lined downtown 14th Street as if it was their urban catwalk.
Being a native of this city also means that I can recall when the majority of businesses in Chinatown were actually owned by Asian Americans. And memories of the U Street corridor resembling a battlefield during its years of redevelopment are still vividly etched in my mind. I take pride in knowing a lot of this city’s rich and complex history, and often side-eye newcomers who believe the District was always the cosmopolitan “it city” that it’s known as today.
But one aspect of local history I don’t know intimately, but wish I did, is what D.C. was like during the Harlem Renaissance era when artists such as Billie “Lady Day” Holiday and Duke Ellington performed live nightly on U Street at such venues as Bohemian Caverns. Similarly, stories of the Lincoln Theatre during its heyday stir immense envy, as I imagine a town that drew the biggest icons for “one night in Chocolate City.”
Perhaps to catch a taste of what I’ve missed, a friend and I made our way to the newly reopened Howard Theatre last weekend to see the hip-hop group the Roots perform live. The modern and chic layout of the concert hall was a breath of fresh air for two young adults who had long ago grown tired of D.C.’s gritty urban entertainment venues. Walking into that space, I immediately knew that the theater’s recent unveiling was about much more than a great lineup in a refurbished venue; it symbolizes the hope that D.C. will reclaim the depth and soul of its past. And watching the Roots’ lead rapper, Black Thought, epitomize hip-hop at its best as drummer Questlove ripped the kick and the snare, I smiled at the thought that the Howard Theatre’s iconic history would soon be much more than elder murmurings within youthful imagination.
The theater’s restaurant-style seating, bar counters and open-floor space exist at many other establishments in the city, but the venue can boast of a rare feature — it seemingly seeks to build an inter-generational cultural bridge. Yes, Esperanza Spalding’s May 12 show may largely appeal to the 25-44 crowd, but Chaka Khan’s performance a week earlier is likely to draw D.C.’s more-seasoned partygoers, offering the best of all worlds.
It’s even rare to have a group like the Roots and an artist like Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) performing in this city in the same weekend, but industry pioneers such as Jill Newman, who produced the two shows through her company, Jill Newman Productions, have committed themselves to casting a bright light on this generation’s icons and are happy to use the Howard Theatre to do so.
Don’t misread my excitement for the Howard Theatre’s night-life potential as a disregard for what this area already has to offer, but there is no denying that a buried gem has been unearthed. Tucked neatly away from the Mardi Gras feel of overcrowded U Street, the Howard Theatre draws the city’s attention back to the LeDroit Park and Shaw communities. But this time around, the floodgates have opened widely, and the party lines that divide the District’s soul are more complex than ever. We must not forget that all of this begs not our one-time exploration but our ongoing support.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.