Where We Live | Shaw in Northwest Washington

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A statue of Duke Ellington is in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest D.C. African American history and culture are central to Shaw’s story. Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and the “Father of Black History” Carter G. Woodson lived in the neighborhood. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post)

In 1969, Ibrahim Mumin and his roommate, both recent graduates of Howard University, were living in a friend’s townhouse in the Northwest Washington neighborhood known as Shaw. The arrangement worked until Mumin got married in 1981. He and his wife began renting another townhouse in Shaw, buying the home 10 years later.

“When we bought it — my wife has four brothers — and they wanted to know, ‘why are you moving my sister to the ghetto?’ ” he said.

“I said, ‘The ghetto? This neighborhood isn’t the ghetto. It has such a rich history; it’s been neglected, but it’s going to come back.’ ”

Mumin says he stayed intentionally, not accidentally. African American history and culture are central to Shaw’s story. Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and the “Father of Black History” Carter G. Woodson lived in the neighborhood. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Shaw’s Seventh and Ninth street corridors were lined with thriving businesses. But like other parts of D.C., Shaw was in precipitous decline by the mid-20th century. Sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the 1968 riots left the area characterized by boarded-up buildings, used-car lots and drugs.

Gretchen Wharton remembers that time well. Now 74, she’ has lived on the same block since she was six months old. She recalls watching looters and burning buildings from the window of her home at Fifth and S streets. While residents of all ages and races left for the suburbs, the Whartons never considered moving.

“So many of my friends would say to me, ‘I can’t believe you’re still living there with your mom.’ But my mom was like, this has always been our home and we’re going to stay until things get better,” Wharton says.

Mumin shared that hopeful perspective. At 15, he was arrested while desegregating his local library in Georgia, and he has carried a belief in civic action since.

“When I am confronted with something, I fight,” he said. “Shaw was our community, so it was our responsibility to get involved and improve it.”

Mumin worked to transform the neighborhood as the executive director of the Shaw Project Area Committee. Community activists supported job training for the disadvantaged, advocated for the preservation of historic African American landmarks, and partnered with law enforcement to reduce drug activity — all with the goal of attracting development in Shaw.

Their efforts paid off. In 1997, the city built the Walter E. Washington Convention Center near the Ninth Street corridor, which became the catalyst for Shaw’s revitalization.

Over the ensuing decades, the area was improved with public art, parks, an expansive recreation center, restaurants, music venues, renovated townhouses and new apartment complexes interspersed with affordable housing. The Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Library opened in 2010, replacing a library from 1975, and the historic Howard Theatre underwent a $29 million renovation in 2012.

“Shaw is safer and cleaner than it has been in decades,” says Alexander Padro, a long-serving ANC commissioner and executive director of Shaw Main Streets. “There used to be gang shootouts in the middle of the day with people diving out of the way for their lives. Now people can walk to their jobs, they can walk to get a coffee or go to a restaurant.”

Warren Weixler’s move to the neighborhood in 2013 was a business decision. He wanted to be close to his design firm, Swatchroom, but has since fallen in love with the area.

“Every time I think, ‘Maybe I could use a change of scenery. Maybe I should move and experience another neighborhood,’ I talk myself out of it,” he says. “I enjoy the multicultural fabric. You can walk from U Street down to the convention center and hear many languages, different types of food, and people of all different backgrounds.”

While gentrification is a contentious subject throughout the city, many longtime residents welcome newcomers.

“There are such good people here. Ones I’ve known my whole life and new people I’ve met. What I tell people is don’t come here with a Christopher Columbus complex,” says Mumin, who is put off by newcomers who claim to have discovered the neighborhood. Mumin points out that Shaw is not a new neighborhood but one with a long history.

“I want them to understand that they didn’t bring culture here. There was a lot of rich culture here already. I love to exchange and share stories. My neighbors just moved here from Australia last year. I’ve learned a lot about Australia, and they’ve learned a lot about D.C. The culture here is something I’m very proud of.”

Living there: Although descriptions of Shaw’s boundaries vary, Padro said the neighborhood’s generally accepted borders are New Jersey Avenue to the east, U Street and Florida Avenue to the north, 13th Street to the west and Mount Vernon Place and New York Avenue on the south. According to Long & Foster real estate agent John Coplen, 58 homes have sold in the past six months. These ranged from a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo that sold for $394,000 to a four-bedroom, five-bathroom rowhouse that sold for $2.5 million. There are 53 homes for sale, including a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo for $424,900 and a five-bedroom, four-bathroom rowhouse for $2.3­ million. There are 21 active rentals on the market. Rental data for the last six months puts the average monthly rent at $3,400.

Transportation: The Shaw-Howard University and Mount Vernon Square/Seventh St-Convention Center Metro stations are both on the Green and Yellow lines. Several bus routes also serve the area.

Schools: Seaton, Thomson and Cleveland elementary schools, and Dunbar High. Last year, the city’s decision to replace the long-closed Shaw Junior High School with Benjamin Banneker Academic High was a blow for Shaw residents who had hoped for a new middle school. Shaw does not have a community middle school, with most students attending School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens Middle School near Georgetown and Cardozo Middle School in Columbia Heights.