U Street and Neighborhood Change: A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

May 9, 2011
Emerging Issues

by Bill Barnes

Here's a value that often eludes urban policy thinkers: adding beauty to the world. Blair Ruble, in contrast, thinks "there is no higher mission for an urban community to fulfill." He's not so much talking about the aesthetics of physical surroundings; he's moved by the beauty of what people do and create in the places they make.

Ruble asserts this view in his terrific "biography" of "Washington's U Street." 
The U Street neighborhood lies about 20 blocks north of the National Mall and between North Capital Street and 16th Street in the Northwest quadrant of the District of Columbia. 

U Street is unique and uniquely significant. Its history and current condition nonetheless reflect themes common to many communities across the nation. 

A Neighborhood Biography

Ruble's book is a history of an urban space, a community - of black/white relations and "contact" among strangers; of the neighborhood's "most celebrated offspring," musician Duke Ellington, and also of the great baseball player, Buck Leonard; of historically black Howard University and segregated Griffith Stadium; and, especially, of jazz, poetry, modern dance, historical studies, civil rights activism, and other ways of "making the world richer and purer by adding more beauty to it." 

It's also a history of Jim Crow in Washington, the 1919 violence in which "African-Americans defended their community from white marauders," the area's "Black Broadway" era between the two world wars; a different kind of violence in April 1968 after the murder of Dr. King and the "New U" entertainment district of the last decade or so. 

Around 1900, more African-Americans lived in Washington than in any other American city. Historian Constance Green called the city "the undisputed center of American Negro civilization." 

Ruble says that U Street was the "undisputed heart of this undisputed center." Surrounded by a hostile white world - invigorated by the Jim Crow practices of the Woodrow Wilson Administration - a vigorous popular entertainment culture and a black elite grounded at Howard and in civic activism and the arts and humanities produced a remarkable flowering from people such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Duke Ellington, Mary Church Terrell, Langston Hughes and others less well-known.

The more things change ... 

The more things change ... well, the more they change. For better and worse, the world of U Street "could not survive desegregation." Anti-discrimination laws and practices gradually created housing, shopping and entertainment opportunities that drew U Streeters out of the area. "Life appeared to ebb out of the neighborhood." 

After the 1968 uprising and violence, U Street experienced several decades of poverty and dereliction. 

Beginning in the 1990s, the development of a "New U" brought different, mostly white, middle-class residents and patrons of new retail and entertainment venues. Some long-time residents disdained the emerging pattern. That reaction corresponds to a finding of recent research: "race is salient" in framing residents' reactions to "retail gentrification." 

The U Street story affirms the importance of having histories of places and the people who made them. The past is ever-present and the present demands a sense of the past. This applies everywhere and especially in Washington, a city whose existence as a community is often overlooked or even denied by a focus on the federal presence.

U Street also manifests the complex pluses and minuses of community change, in places large and small. Recent books about Harlem, for example, at once applaud and lament the gentrification of that area of Manhattan. Washington is experiencing much private and public discussion prompted by the 2010 Census results: "changing demographics raise issues for the city's cultural identity," "The Washington Post" recently headlined. 

In "The New Urban Renewal," Derek Hyra finds that "a greater segment of the African-American population is benefitting from revitalization" today than in the past: "race and class, as opposed to race alone, define who benefits and who does not."

Government is part of the causal picture. Building on a long line of "urban renewal" and "economic development" critiques going back to the 1950s, Hyra analyzes the important roles that policies, made at all levels of government, played in producing community outcomes in Harlem and in Chicago's Bronzeville. 

In the end, we come back to Blair Ruble's main point: amidst suffering and "silliness and stupidity," the challenge is for places to become environments where people can create, places that enhance rather than diminish people's talents and capacities. "City air makes people free" because it sets up the necessary creative balance between the demands of community and the imperative, as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin put it, that people be able to "choose as individuals how they shall live." 

In short, cities should be places where people can add beauty to the world.

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him atbarnes@nlc.org.