U Street

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U Street Corridor; Greater U Street Historic District
1870s–mid 20th c. Roughly bounded by Florida Ave., 7th, S, and 16th sts.

Washington, D.C.’s U Street Corridor, also known as the Shaw neighborhood, was home to one of the largest established urban African American communities of the twentieth century. Located near Howard University, the nation’s most prominent historically Black university, the U Street neighborhood was a historic hub for Black entrepreneurship, innovation, academia, and arts. In 1920, the urban African American community centered around U Street, and it would continue to develop as a productive center for Black American culture, producing internationally acclaimed artists including jazz musician Duke Ellington, opera star Alain Locke, and poet Langston Hughes. By 1960, 96 percent of all Black lawyers had been trained at Howard University, along with 50 percent of all Black architects, engineers, and physicians. Many of the educated professionals emerging from the U Street Corridor became leaders in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, contributing to the formation of the legal and social strategies that helped the movement progress.

The area that is now the Greater U Street Historic District was located in the northernmost portion of the city in Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for Washington, D.C., bounded to the north by Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue). During the Civil War, the Union Army established a hospital and multiple military camps in the area, and it became a safe zone for former slaves fleeing from the south. The population grew significantly after the war, when a streetcar began to run between the neighborhood and the central city. The 1870s brought massive public infrastructure improvements to the area, including paved roads, water and sewer lines, and street trees. Most of the iconic row houses of the Greater U Street Historic District were built in the years directly after these major improvements, between 1875 and 1900. Lining most of the residential streets in the area, the row houses are predominantly made of brick and many sport bay windows, turrets, and ornately decorated cornices. These characteristic residences along the U Street Corridor, many of which fell into disrepair during the late twentieth century, have become highly desirable in the twenty-first, often selling for upwards of one or two million dollars each.

Until the early twentieth century, the U Street neighborhood was racially mixed, with white and Black residents living in almost equal numbers throughout the area. From 1890 to 1910, large numbers of Black Americans moved to the area from around the nation, drawn by prestigious Black schools including Howard, and professional opportunities with the federal government and locally owned Black businesses and firms. With this influx, churches, schools, community groups, businesses, and entertainment venues began to appear in the U Street area, primarily concentrated between 7th and 14th streets. In the years between 1895 and 1920, the number of Black-owned businesses in the neighborhood rose from 15 to 300. Due to the high proportion of educated professionals in the community, most of the buildings constructed to support this development were designed, financed, and contracted by African Americans, a rare occurrence in the rest of the country during that time. By the early 1920s, the U Street area had come to be known as Washington, D.C.’s “Black Broadway,” hosting a variety of popular restaurants, theaters, and night clubs, including the Howard Theatre (1910, J. Edward Storck), the Lincoln Theatre (1921, Reginald Geare), and the Whitelaw Hotel (1919, Isaiah T. Hatton). Many of the neighborhood’s performance halls and church auditoriums became important community meeting places during the civil rights movement. 

The Washington, D.C. riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 caused widespread violence and destruction along the U Street Corridor, especially at the central intersection of 14th Street and U Street. In the aftermath of the riots, drug trafficking increased in the area and many business owners and residents began to relocate. By the late 1990s, revitalization efforts had begun along U Street, with the construction of new luxury apartments and condominiums, increased policing, and the establishment of new high-end restaurants and shops. In 1991 the Green Line Metro opened, offering service from Branch Avenue to Greenbelt. The metro project was initially promoted in the 1960s by Reverend Walter Fauntroy, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church and a congressional delegate, who believed the development of the D.C. highway system was part of a larger effort to Black residents out of the city. While there were hopes that the neighborhoods of U Street and Shaw would retain their existing populations, the metro construction destroyed many businesses and gentrification quickly followed.

In the twenty-first century, the U Street neighborhood is home to an increasing population of upper- and middle-class white residents who have moved into the new luxury apartments and renovated historic row houses in the area. The 14th street entertainment district is home to a host of new high-end restaurants, bars, boutiques, and specialty grocers. Although the area remains racially diverse, a large proportion of its long-time African American population has been displaced by the growing cost of living.

References

Levey, Bob, and Jane Freundel Level. "End of the Roads: In the Interstate Era, Congress ruled Washington like a fiefdom. Then a fight over some freeways inspired a biracial, neighborhood-level movement to fight the federal power." Washington Post, November 26, 2000. 

Ruble, Blair A. Washington’s U Street: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2012.

Ruble, Blair A. “Why Washington History Matters: Lessons from U Street.” Washington History 23 (2011): 59-63.

Smith, Kathryn S. “Remembering U Street.” Washington History 9.2 (1998): 28-53.

Schrag, Z. The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Trieschmann, Laura V., Anne Sellin, and Stephen Callcott, “Greater U Street Historic District,” District of Columbia. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1998. National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Sierra Druley
Coordinator: 
Thaïsa Way

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