Travel

U-Turn Hot in all the right ways, U Street is no longer just full of legends.

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • -
  • June, 2002

by Karen Feld

Washington’s young urban professionals have discovered what’s fast becoming this city’s SoHo in the historic U Street corridor. They’re looking with a fresh eye at the stretch of U Street from 11th to 16th streets. From the 1880s to the 1950s, this area was the center of Washington’s African-American culture. After the 1968 riots and looting that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, this bustling, self-contained neighborhood sank into urban decay. Now there’s life again in formerly abandoned buildings.

Trendy restaurants, clubs and design shops have moved in to replace the burned-out storefronts, many of which sat vacant for years. They’re next door neighbors with a Dollar Store and a Sunday flea market. Sam Shelton, who moved Kinetik, his innovative graphic-design firm, to a converted warehouse on U Street, shares the sentiments of many professionals in the area: “It’s urban, yet has a neighborhood feel.”

Commercial and residential development is booming – from the renovation of Victorian townhouses to the opening of upscale retail shops and national chains. The area, quiet during the week, becomes vibrantly alive on weekends. According to Greg Link, a resident and the proprietor of U Street design shop Home Rule, “That’s when the neighborhood comes out. Mostly young professionals. No baby carriages.”

Serving up some atmosphere with the chow at U – topia

Locals boast that jazz legend Duke Ellington grew up in the neighborhood and vocalist Pearl Bailey worked her first gig there. Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Leontyne Price and Redd Foxx played the U Street theaters and clubs, known as Washington’s “Black Broadway.” The Lincoln Theater (1215 U Street NW, 202-328-6000), a 1922 movie and vaudeville house, has been restored for special events. And the spirit of music lives on in the clubs. Tango nights are popular with a predominately Latin American and African-American late-night crowd at B.A. Restaurant Tango Lounge (1512-B 14th Street, 2002-234-0886). The New Vegas Lounge (1415 P Street, 202-483-3971) looks like a dive, but has great blues. To catch local bands and underground acts, go to the Black Cat (1811 14th Street NW, 202-667-7960). The 9:30 Club (815 V Street NW, 202-265-0930) is popular for local and national live music acts, as is Bohemian Caverns (201 11th Street NW at U, 202-299-0800), a stylish jazz club. The Velvet Lounge (915 U Street NW, 202-462-3213) has funky live entertainment. HR57 (1610 14th Street NW, 202-667-3700) is a storefront jazz mecca with open mike and impromptu jamming. Twin sisters have blended Ethiopian food and jazz into a hot spot called Twins Jazz (1344 U Street NW, 202-234-0072).

Left: Louis Armstrong plays at the Club Bali with Jack Teagarden and Earl “Fatha” Hines.
Right: Landmark restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of Bill Cosby’s favorite hangouts.
“Artists had to make a stake in the neighborhood,” says Joy Zinoman, who 25 years ago founded the nonprofit Studio Theatre (1333 P Street, 202-332-3300), one of the city’s cutting-edge theaters. She stages powerful contemporary shows in its two 200-seat theater spaces.

“When we moved in, rents were cheap, and there were condoms and hypodermic needles on the street,” recalls Zinoman. “Now the neighborhood is beyond transitional. It has exploded!” Next fall the Studio Theatre begins construction on a new theater that Zinoman says will be “architecturally dynamic.” She adds, “The lobby will look like the new Prada store in New York.”

Left: The nation’s only African-American Civil War memorial, The Spirit of Freedom.
Right: A stop along The Greater U Street Heritage Trail

Vintage poster advertising Cab Calloway at the Lincoln Colonnade

The Garden District (1801 14th Street NW, 202-797-9005), a nursery and design center, is a recent addition to this thriving community. Owner and landscape designer Joe Carmack calls 14th Street “a pedestrian and storefront-friendly street.” While many of the new entrepreneurs are white, the community is still culturally diverse.

The Whitelaw Hotel opened at 13th and T streets in 1919, the first luxury hotel in segregated D.C. to be owned and built by African Americans. Its guest register included boxer Joe Louis and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, as well as a host of entertainers who performed in the neighborhood. This landmark, condemned in 1977, has reopened as housing for low-income residents.

Lunch is served at Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Residents haven’t forgotten their heritage. The nation’s only African-American Civil War memorial, The Spirit of Freedom, stands at Vermont Avenue and U Street (1200 U Street NW, 202-667-2667).

The D.C. government has made efforts (controversial ones, but with some success) to revive the area, including a Metro stop and tax and housing incentives to lure tech companies and other businesses to the area east of 14th Street.

The place for jazz is the Bohemian Caverns.
Zoning designations, for instance, require developers to dedicate half the ground-floor space to shops, restaurants, or arts-oriented ventures, so as to bring people into the area during the day. But it’s not as much the government as the proximity to downtown and the passion of individual residents that has spurred the revitalization and is making the U Street/14th Street Corridor Washington’s hub of urban hip.

In the future, Zinoman hopes, “the neighborhood won’t just gentrify itself into ‘Starbucks-land’ but will stay funky, vital, and complex.” She’s doing her part: “I really do believe in community.”

-Karen Feld

Karen Feld samples nightlife and neighborhoods as The Sheet’s Washington editor.

BEST BITES

U-topia
Kuna (1324 U Street NW, 202-797-7908) looks like a hole in the wall but serves excellent pasta with fresh sauces.
Polly’s Cafe (1342 U Street NW, 202-265-8385) is an unpretentious neighborhood restaurant with basic good food.
Mar de Plata (1410 14th Street NW, 202-234-2679) offers a stylish and upscale Spanish menu, good for a pretheater dinner.
Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U Street NW, 202-667-0909), made famous by Bill Cosby, is one of few businesses to survive the ’68 riots. The young newbies, who go for chili dogs and genuine shakes, rub elbows with older African Americans who have been hanging out for years at this Washington institution.
Coppi’s (1414 U Street NW, 202-319-7773) is cramped, but serves good wood-oven pizza, plus pasta and fish.
U-topia (1418 U Street NW, 202-483-7669) is eclectic and hip, with good fish and veggie dishes – and live jazz six nights a week.

DESIGN-SAVVY SHOPPING

Millennium Decorative Arts (1528 U Street NW, 202-483-1218) is for mid-20th century kitsch and vintage housewares.
Boutique U (1100 U Street NW, 202-234-2727) sells skintight clothing for both sexes year-round.

Urban Essentials
Home Rule (1807 14th Street NW, 202-797-5544; www.homerule.com) is devoted to unusual contemporary industrial design.
Go Mama Go (1809 14th Street NW, 202-299-0850) is the place for bead curtains and retro kitchen towels – or have owner Noi Chudenorf show you coasters made from computer motherboards.
Trade Secrets (1515 U Street NW, 202-667-0634) features ethnic clothing on the lower level and, on special occasions, a jazz set with a glass of wine.
Urban Essentials (1330 U street NW, 202-299-0640) stocks must-haves such as faux paintings of vintage French ads.
Good Wood (1428 U Street NW, 202-986-3640) is an antique shop that just may have the sleigh bed you’ve been searching for. You may even catch local artist Sam Gilliam working in his studio upstairs.

DON’T MISS

Fusebox (1412 14th Street NW, 202-29909220; www.fuseboxdc.com) is a cutting-edge gallery for serious collectors.
Cada Vaz (1438 U Street, 202-667-2500) is the controversial new cultural and tech center that looks like a club inside.
Results (1612 U Street NW, 202-518-0001), a parking garage that has been converted to a gym is just what you’ll need with all those restaurants nearby.
-K.F.

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