U Street and its surrounding areas were an exuberant epicenter of African-American culture, of local and national importance until the mid-twentieth century. The bars and clubs of “Black Broadway” regularly hosted the greatest jazz and blues performers of the era. The neighborhood reflected too the contradictions of African-American entrepreneurship and creativity during legalized racial inequality and segregation: While white Americans flocked to the neighborhood’s clubs, the performers themselves could only stay in the local Dunbar Hotel in this segregated city. The African-American businesses and residents that gave the neighborhood its character were unable to grow and put down roots, since nearly all were tenants, not landlords.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, rioters attacked buildings they were largely unable to own, symbols of their deliberately thwarted ambitions. State neglect left the primarily African-American residents few resources to rebuild the once vibrant neighborhood. Meanwhile, demographic composition began to change: In the 1970s, an influx of Ethiopian immigrants laid the foundation of what eventually came to be known as Little Ethiopia. Later that decade and throughout the 1980s, members of the LGBTQ community, primarily male and white, ostracized in their own communities, began to move into the neighborhood as well.
Rapid gentrification is erasing the layered history of this neighborhood. New developments tear down cultural landmarks before residents can mobilize to protect them. Chain corporations catering to upper-income patrons are replacing locally-owned businesses that are unable to afford skyrocketing rents. This is the story of urban America: As white flight reverses, gentrification is characteristic of many American metropolitan areas. Yet, given the national importance of this neighborhood and the pace of change, the greater U Street neighborhood provides both an ideal and an urgent site to model a new response to this process.