The Changing Face of U Street
Demographic Shifts, Construction Impacts Black Businesses

by Krishana Davis
Special to the AFRO

A Pinz-N-Needlez tattoo artist tattoos the lower back of a client. (AFROPhoto/KrishanaDavis)

It’s dusk on a summer Friday and a misty rain has slowed pedestrian traffic on U Street, NW.

But though walkers are few, most of the trendy bars and restaurants on the street are packed. At Indulj, a restaurant and lounge near the corner of 12th Street, the tables are full and the bar is abuzz as the overwhelmingly-Black crowd enjoys cocktails and neo-soul. Down the street at Bohemian Caverns, a restaurant/jazz club/lounge on three levels, a slightly older crowd still dressed in business attire huddles over what remains of their happy hour drinks.

Then, across the street, a sign of change. At Nellie’s Sports Bar, a mostly White group, with a sprinkling of Blacks and Hispanics, gathers on the rooftop for food and drinks and downstairs for Jenga.

Once known as Chocolate City, D.C. has morphed from majority Black to majority White and many African Americans who own businesses along the historic corridor worry that they may be displaced or priced out by Whites who have recently found U Street. And as if that weren’t worrisome enough, a road construction project that started earlier this month and is expected to continue through spring 2013 has left them fearful that their faithful customers may abandon them due to the confusion, even as they struggle to attract new business.

“All the construction creates a sense of caution because of the danger aspect. Knocking up the concrete will impact traffic flow and people who normally come through and see our work at Salon Essence won’t,” Master Bey, salon manager and stylist at Salon Essence, said.

The U St. Streetscape Project is a $5 million construction and beautification program along the 0.4-mile section of historic U Street between 9th and 14th Sts., NW. The project, paid for by local and federal funding sources, will include construction to widen the sidewalks, repave the uneven streets and sidewalks and improve the appearance of the area. The block-by-block renovation began on July 11on 9th Street, NW, officials said.

Monica Hernandez, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT), said the new improvements will make U Street mimic the look and feel of Adams Morgan.

“The roadway will become a much safer roadway,” she said. “We want to make sure our sidewalks are easily accessible.”

Nicknamed “The Black Broadway” by singer Pearl Bailey, in its heyday U Street was once a frequent stop for iconic figures of the Harlem Renaissance like writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who is today immortalized in a restaurant at 14th and V Sts., NW, Eatonville, named after her childhood hometown in Florida. Duke Ellington grew up in the U Street area.

The one-time mecca for the Black intelligentsia and cultural elite fell on hard times after riots in some of D.C.’s neighborhoods in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 left many of the businesses in ruin. Drugs and the dealers who plied them took up residence in the 1970s. D.C. city officials plotted in the late 1980s and early 1990s to return the street to its original luster. The Reeves Center, a government office building at the corner of 14th and U, was constructed with the support of then-Mayor Marion Barry to help spur economic development. In 1991, the Metro’s Green Line was extended to the U Street/Cardozo stop, across from the iconic Lincoln Theatre, which was renovated two years later.

Businesses that had limped along for decades, saw economic progress. Young people in search of fun found clubs like Republic Gardens. U Street institutions like Lee’s Flower and Card Shop drew customers from the suburbs. Trendy restaurants started opening, blending into the street known for long-time favorites such as Henry’s Soul Food Café.

Now, Black businesses that have called the street home for years are competing for customers with the newcomers. Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of the most well-known businesses on the street, has managed to thrive through race riots and drug conflicts, but Kamal Ali, a son of original owner Ben Ali, fears that construction may impact business anyway.

“They say construction won’t start on our block until September,” said Ali. “There will be the physical impact on the block, customer parking. How long will the sidewalk directly in front of us will be worked on?…Will it be day and night?”

Hernandez said DDOT has worked with the community since the project was announced. She said a full-time communications person has been designated to address business concerns and that block-by-block meetings have been held.

But Stacie Lee McBanks, general manager of the African American-family-owned Lee’s, said she has not seen efforts to reach out to business owners. Opened in 1945, Lee’s is located one block from the beginning of the project. She said she was given no formal notice of the work.

“It was a shock to us because I saw the sign that said construction was starting,” McBanks said. “I didn’t get information until I saw it on the news.”

Officials said other resources have been made available to the business owners through the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development, the Streetscape Loan Relief Fund and the Washington Area Community Investment Fund to provide economic stimulation and to promote the growth of small businesses.

Bey, of Salon Essence, said loans offered by Streetscape Loan Relief Fund provide no compensation for the construction. “The rep was talking about giving low [interest] loans which is forcing you into more debt,” he said. “A grant would be better—a stipend or offer to pay a gas or light bill.”

Tattoo shop owner Chris Mensah is a newcomer to the neighborhood. His business at Pinz-N-Needlez is largely based on word-of-mouth and his established clientele. “The construction is definitely going to impact the walk-in side of our business, especially because it’s seasonal,” he said.

After a rep from DDOT initially invited Mensah to a forum, he said no follow-up communication has occurred. “The sidewalks are fine to me, the streets however are a different story,” Mensah said. “The only bonus of the construction, I will say, is them lifting the meters. People are able to park right in front of the shop.”

Officials said the street improvement project is the first phase of a larger renovation effort which will eventually encompass an area down to Florida Avenue, NW.

As the jackhammers work, Lee’s owners have incorporated upgrades to keep up with the changes—from the construction and the new demographic.

“We try to keep up-to-date and keep our innovations going,” she said. “We want to keep up with the changing neighborhood and we want the neighbors to come in.”

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