When Eric Shaw returned to the District about a year ago, he wanted to live in an area that was “close to everything.” He opted for the U Street corridor, also known as the Greater U Street Historic District.
Though the area is becoming known for its expanding array of restaurants, entertainment venues and nightlife options, the U Street corridor also is very much in touch with its past.
“It’s the same, but different,” said Shaw, director of the District’s Office of Planning. “There’s been a continual evolution.”
The historic district gained its designation in 1998 from the National Register of Historic Places.
But its roots extend well beyond that. The corridor was initially developed between 1862 and 1900, and it was “racially diverse in 1862,” according to Shaw.
Once you walk beyond the major arteries of 14th and U streets, what emerges are the original Victorian-era rowhouses that lend a majesty to an area that has undergone considerable change through the years.
From 1910 to 1948, the community was predominantly black. “Racial segregation existed at that time,” Shaw said.
ccording to the Greater U Street Historic District brochure, “the overall racial climate in Washington inspired a new ideology among blacks that transformed U Street into a self-sufficient community and the center of African-American life.” From 1886 to 1920, the number of businesses owned by African Americans jumped from 15 to 300, with most of them opening between 1910 and 1920, according to the brochure.
The first half of the 20th century was heyday of historic U Street, a time when the community developed in every area and became known for the emergence of theaters and jazz clubs where Edward “Duke” Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole and Ray Charles headlined.
New directions: Today’s U Street maintains its connections to the past but is moving in new directions.
“U Street is very multicultural,” said Olga Lefebvre, a political science student at Howard University. “U Street is the place to go out and party. It’s becoming very gentrified. Friday and Saturday nights, the streets are packed.”
Well known clubs abound, including the Black Cat, the 9:30 Club, Marvin (inspired by musician Marvin Gaye) and the landmark Bohemian Caverns, calling out to passersby with its ivory-and-black-piano-keys sign accented with a saxophone motif.
In today’s U Street area, old and new retail businesses sit side by side interspersed with clubs and restaurants that draw people into the area. Walk along the main arteries — U and 14th streets — and longtime businesses catch your eye.
Mulebone, a restaurant at the corner of 14th and V streets, was preparing to open its doors for “modern American cuisine with Southern accents.” If you look down the alleys, you see street murals splashing color across the walls with dates as recent as 2015. If you gaze up into the sky, you watch cranes constructing new buildings.
In between the new venues is the Lincoln Theatre at 1215 U St. NW, built in 1922 as a 1,600-seat movie theater. Its lineup of live music has replaced the films and vaudeville of years ago. Strains of the Delfonics version of “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” waft from Ben’s Chili Bowl, where the servers wear yellow T-shirts and big smiles.
Living there: If real estate prices are an indication, U Street is, indeed, thriving.
The historic district extends from 16th Street NW on the west to Seventh Street NW on the east and from Florida Avenue NW on the north to S Street NW on the south.
In the past 12 months, 75 properties have sold, ranging from a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condominium for $289,000 to a renovated three-bedroom, three-bath brick rowhouse — with 3,200 square feet on three levels plus a rooftop deck — for $1.5 million, said Tanya Slade, a real estate agent with Long & Foster in the District.
Thirteen properties are on the market, including a one-bedroom, one-bath condominium for $354,000 and a two-bedroom, two-bath penthouse for $1.4 million, Slade said.
Schools: Cleveland Elementary, Garrison Elementary and Cardozo Education Campus (grades six through 12).
Transit: The U Street station on Metro’s Green and Yellow lines sits in the heart of the neighborhood. Several Metrobus lines also serve the area.
Crime: In the past year, the area had two homicides, five assaults with a gun, 27 assaults without a gun, 16 robberies with a gun, 59 robberies without a gun and 44 burglaries, according to the D.C. police crime map.