ReadySetDC @ The Couch Sessions: The Three R’s of 14th and U: Renaissance, Riot and Rebirth
by Couch Sessions
Today, it just might be another busy junction to many of the District’s pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers, but in the history of the District, the intersection of 14th and U Streets, NW has been center stage for many pivotal phases, a street corner that has seen renaissance, riot, and rebirth,
Sitting just within the boundaries of L’Enfant’s Federal City, the 14th and U Street area was originally heavily wooded with rugged terrain. Eventually, the land was cleared and converted to orchards and farmland when it was purchased in 1760 by a Georgetown tobacco merchant. The area stayed relatively free of development until 1862 when Congress granted the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Company the right to lay tracks for horse-drawn streetcars. The 14th Street line eventually developed into a major thoroughfare, connecting residents from Florida Avenue down to the Federal City.
Much of the housing that exists today in the 14th and U area was constructed by speculative developers during the forty years after the start of the streetcar line, a response to the housing demand following the Civil War, the growth of the Federal government, and the general expansion of the Washington economy.
In the late 1800’s, the area residents were a socio-demographically mixed group. With increased segregation across the city, the 14th and U neighborhood emerged in the early 1900’s as a “city within a city” for the black community. Howard University’s nearby location made the greater U Street area a logical home for the artists and scholars in the black community. In years between 1895 and 1920, the number of black-owned businesses in the neighborhood increased drastically from 15 to more than 300. The U Street neighborhood was, at the time, the largest urban African American community in the nation. Harlem took this prize from U Street in 1920.
During this renaissance period, U Street became known as “Black Broadway.” A famous quote states that U street was so grand that “you had to wear a tie” just to walk down the street. Duke Ellington, the District’s native son and jazz great, spent his formative years just a couple blocks from 14th and U, living on the 1800 block of 13th St. Still today, Duke looks down upon the metro entrance from his painted likeness in a U Street mural. The culture of jazz still lives on, too, in a number of jazz clubs such as Twins and Bohemian Caverns located within a few blocks from 14th and U.
For the next few decades, 14th St remained a tenuously shared boundary between the predominantly black residents to the east and predominantly white residents to the west. The neighborhood’s dominance in the African American community began to wane in the 1960’s when racially restrictive real estate covenants were declared unconstitutional. With this ruling came many more housing opportunities for blacks in other parts of the city and surrounding jurisdictions. The exodus of professional African American families had already began over a decade earlier, and the courts decision, amongst other contributing factors, further exasperated the trend of both blacks and whites abandoning the city proper.
By the mid-1960’s, the glitz and glamour of “Black Broadway” had worn thin and 14th and U had deteriorated into an open drug market and drug trafficking nerve center of Washington, DC. Dr. King’s assassination on April 4th, 1968 was the spark that ignited riot in the already volatile greater U Street neighborhood. Within hours of Dr. King’s passing, a crowd gathered at 14th and U Street. Originally peacefully requesting that businesses close down out of respect for King, the crowd eventually grew agitated and turned riotous, starting with a brick thrown through the window of the Peoples Drug store. In the four days of rioting that followed, over 1,200 buildings were burned, three-quarters of which were stores, creating damages in excess of $165 million (in today’s dollars). The human toll of the estimated 20,000 rioters was twelve dead, over 1,000 injured, and more than 6,100 arrested. In the days that followed, Stokely Carmichael, of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, petitioned police for special permission to allow Ben’s Chili Bowl to remain open after curfew, giving food, shelter, and protection to the people working desperately to restore order from the chaos. The devastation of the race riots left a lasting scar not only on this area, but on the entire city’s collective memory.
Eighteen years after the riots burnt much of 14th and U to the ground, the neighborhood was still without notable revitalization or recovery. The rebirth of this area, that is still underway today, was jump-started by a $50 million dollar investment in a new municipal building by then-Mayor Marion Barry. This building, the Reeves Municipal Center, is located on the NW corner of 14th and U and is named after local lawyer, Frank D. Reeves. Reeves, a graduate of Howard University, was an accomplished civil rights lawyer who worked on Brown v. Board of Education and was the first African American to serve on the Democratic National Committee. The area was further catalyzed by the construction of the Green line Metrorail in 1991, with stops that provided better access to the neighborhood.
The Reeves Center, despite being a source of rebirth, has not been without tragedy. On February 13, 2005, a person was stabbed to death following an altercation and two women were assaulted on the dance floor at night club Club U, which operated on the weekends out of the Reeves Center’s glass atrium lobby, As one of the women was being brought to an ambulance outside, shots were fired in an effort to kill her. The nightclub was shut down, and no longer operates out of the Reeves Center.
More recently, the NE corner of 14th and U has seen significant restaurant and nightlife development. Many of the establishments in the area pay homage to great African American creatives. Popular bookstore and eatery Busboys and Poets is named after Langston Hughes, (it’s spinoff Eatonville for Zora Neal Hurston), and bar and restaurant Marvin is so named in honor of Marvin Gaye. Patty Boom Boom, a Caribbean carry-out/bar/lounge, recently opened and construction is underway on music and arts club, Cuckoo Marans, and upscale steak house, Café Society. 14th and U’s revitalization has also brought hundreds of new upscale condominium and apartment residences to the immediate area. Just this past winter, 14th and U, was briefly thrust on to the national stage after a DC police officer brandished his weapon during a mass snowball fight.
Though tough economic times have slowed development across the city, it appears that 14th and U will continue to prosper from the revitalization of the greater U Street area. In due time, 14th and U will again be home to three streetcar lines – a major infrastructure investment that will continue the neighborhood’s renaissance. For all the changes that the neighborhood has seen, it is often still known for great jazz and half-smokes.
For a more in depth history, check out the Cultural Tourism brochure here.