Monday, May 05, 2008

U STREET: Looking Back at a Scarred Strip's Evolving Sense of Time and Place

AS THE HEARSE carrying my great uncle's casket made its way east on U Street NW, I couldn't help but laugh when it bounced up and down on the rough pavement.

I was in middle school at the time and meant no disrespect to my late great uncle, a Foggy Bottom native who had died at the age of 97 during that hot, humid summer of 1991. Still, the scene was sort of amusing. My great aunt couldn't technically blame the rough road on one of "Marion Barry's potholes," at least in the stretch between 10th and 13th streets. Although U Street's Metrorail station had gone into service that May, D.C.'s famous but faded Black Broadway was still a mess of construction -- wooden planks held up uneven metal plates, which gave Uncle Bill a wild ride to his final resting place at the family burial plot in Prospect Hill Cemetery off North Capitol Street.

The memory of the bumpy funeral procession along down-and-out U Street faded quickly, but when I resettled in the District of Columbia after college, the recollections resurfaced. U Street, I was told, was “coming back.” Indeed, when I explored the area, there were signs of new life. But memories of the corridor’s scars from my great uncle’s funeral procession were quickly resurrected. As U Street evolved in the past quarter century, Uncle Bill’s wild final ride, to me, was one of the many scenes of life, death and rebirth on a street that very much symbolizes everything good and bad associated with the District's recent renaissance.

A month ago, I left the District — a place where my family has roots dating back to the 1860s — and during my transition to my new environs in Brooklyn, I've been thinking back to U Street. I never lived in the neighborhood but like many who have resided in D.C. during the past decade, I've seen the place change slowly and then much more quickly in recent years as the real estate boom went into overdrive in a time when credit was dirt cheap, developers had big plans and dreams of a better city were ever expansive.

My favorite personal refuge has always been The Saloon, tucked into the streetscape slightly below sidewalk level just a stone's throw from Ben's Chili Bowl, which is very much the lasting symbol of U Street. A one-time roommate had discovered the place in 2003 and introduced it to me. Our group of friends gravitated there. I met there with writers and brainstormed ideas for DCist; I would sometimes hold office hours there with my freelancers for The Washington Post's Express newspaper. The staff is friendly, the specialized beer list is superb. A few years ago, the place was never terribly crowded. You could nearly always find a seat and on the off chance there wasn't one, they'd somehow make room. The Saloon has a no-standing rule and an odd regulation where you can't order beer and food at the same time. The place's peculiarities weren't meant to exclude, just create a civil, stable and comfortable environment for those who considered the bar a friendly, hidden gem where the stresses of professional life were temporarily left outside, unless of course you want to vent while snacking on pistachios.

But during this decade, construction cranes followed the U Street crowds as they looked eastward toward lower-numbered streets for new, cool places. The Ellington condo building opened at the corner of 13th and U streets NW in 2004 to much fanfare and more or less cemented gentrification into the streetscape. It's not that the street wasn't changing before the Ellington's arrival — from the Civil War to the Jazz Age to the 1968 riots to the construction of the Green Line, U Street's always been a place in transition — it's just that the massive building symbolized something very different. It aimed to institute a totally new environment almost immediately, like a Loudoun County neo-Colonial townhouse development, except with Art Deco-accents, ornamental brick and a neon sign. The Ellington had a catchy and annoying marketing slogan ("B U on U!"), a tanning salon and franchise restaurant imports from Ward 3 and beyond (Alero and Sala Thai) ... places very different from The Saloon and the other businesses that had helped rebuild U Street's sense of space and place — elements necessary for condo developers to take interest, bloggers to roost and provide an environment to complain (and later apologize for statements) about how "barbaric" it is that "young, computer savvy white people" in nearby Mount Pleasant don't have any cool coffee shops to hang out in.

A DCist commenter once wrote the following, reacting to the annoying background music on the Ellington's website:
The theme music for that building will have to be the sound of crass gentrification crushing a neighborhood's soul. Or possibly Beyonce, who is about as far from The Duke as you can get.
Back in 2004, the owner of The Saloon, Commy Jahanbein, told The Washington Post:
We didn't expect all these changes around us. But I don't worry about it. I'm happy with what I've got here. We cannot pretend to be something we are not.
The gentrification debate has played out time and time again on U Street and has shifted to new frontiers up 14th Street, Georgia Avenue and elsewhere. But this post isn't about praising or decrying gentrification, but about one's conception of place and time.

In the past year or so, finding a seat at The Saloon hasn't been as easy as it once was. It's grown more popular, a testament to U Street's new commercial vitality. I hadn't stopped by The Saloon as much as I used to for a variety of reasons. My old roommate Artie, who had introduced me to the place and its lovely Köstritzer Schwarzbier Lager, had his going away party there March of last year. If you knew how much he loved the place, you know it was the best place for his send-off. Artie, a campaign operative who was featured in the documentary "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?," was headed to New York City for a new job working as Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's press secretary. About a month later, Artie took his own life. After that, The Saloon I knew, the U Street I knew, was suddenly and forever changed.

A bunch of our friends pooled our money to get Artie's name painted on one of Saloon's exterior bricks as part of the bar's charitable Bricks for Schools fundraising efforts. It would cement his legacy on the building and on U Street, a memorial to his life and times and to me at least, the U Street as we knew it from our limited experience in recent years (including that unfortunate time at the now-defunct and burned-out Kingpin where a mutual friend consumed a bottle of nasty beer that we were told had been on the shelf for at least five years or so, a feat that got us free drinks for the rest of the evening.

When I co-founded DCist back in 2004, one of the prime directives from the folks at Gothamist in New York was to keep DCist's outlook on the city it covers upbeat and positive. It's done that more or less and to great success. But in the District, there's much to be bitter about. There are many problems. Skeptics and cynics abound, the product of the often awkward relationship between the District and federal government and the residents caught in the middle. But in the midst of all that, there are also many good reasons to be hopeful about Washington's future, too.

During one of my final weekends as a D.C. resident, I walked into The Saloon. It was jam-packed and didn't appear that there were any seats available. But the staff made room, once again. It was the same friendly, warm, engaging place, I've known for years, a gem in the midst of constant change on U Street, where the lives of so many have intersected. Let's hope things stay that way.

Images from Flickr users dbking, sandcastlematt and facelessb

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