D.C.’S Black Broad­way

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARISSA J. LANG

A pro­ject seeks to col­lect and dig­i­tize oral his­to­ries and ar­ti­facts for ex­plor­ing in a mo­bile app.

As the District changes and grows, pieces of what once was are dis­ap­pear­ing to make way for what’s next.

En­tire city blocks razed for new de­vel­op­ment. Apart­ment build­ings and busi­nesses bought, sold and flipped. What has been lost along the way, said Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor Ananya Chakravart­i, is his­tory.

Chakravart­i, who moved from Egypt to the U Street cor­ri­dor in North­west Wash­ing­ton four years ago, said she was shocked at what she found when she ar­rived.

She was ex­pect­ing Black Broad­way, a bustling strip of black-owned busi­nesses that had de­fined the area in the first half of the 20th cen­tury. It’s what she had read about when re­search­ing the area from abroad.

In­stead, she found chain restau­rants and shops — and only a hand­ful of black-owned busi­nesses.

“I was amazed — es­pe­cially be­cause I work in Ge­orge­town, a his­toric neigh­bor­hood where ev­ery­thing is so pre­served — that what I saw on U Street was this unchecked era­sure,” Chakravart­i said. “I started to think a lot about this ques­tion of era­sure and how to ar­chive the his­tory that is part of this com­mu­nity.”

Chakravart­i con­vened a team of stu­dents, com­mu­nity mem­bers and ex­perts to assem­ble a dig­i­tal col­lec­tion of U Street his­tory that, she hopes, will make the area’s rich past eas­ier to ac­cess and un­der­stand. She calls it “com­mu­nity-based his­tor­i­cal preser­va­tion.”

By the spring, she said, her team of Ge­orge­town and Howard Uni­ver­sity un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents hopes to have a mo­bile app that vis­i­tors and res­i­dents can use to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion while

roam­ing the neigh­bor­hood.

This week­end, the ar­chiv­ing pro­ject, dubbed “Re­mem­ber­ing YOU,” is be­ing launched with events aimed at bring­ing peo­ple with ties to the neigh­bor­hood back in both time and space.

Speak­ers will re­count the U Street cor­ri­dor’s cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance and its im­pact on art, sci­ence, his­tory and mu­sic.

Ben’s Chili Bowl will serve up a walk­ing tour, trivia and half­smokes.

The Mosche jazz trio will per­form, and a Detroit non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion will lead a data-vi­su­al­iza­tion work­shop.

A doc­u­men­tary film on the Ethiopian di­as­pora will ex­plore that com­mu­nity’s ties to the re­gion, and Don­ald Campbell, the owner of an elec­tron­ics store known for fill­ing the street with go-go mu­sic, will share his story of what hap­pened when a new­comer de­manded he turn the mu­sic off.

Par­tic­i­pants with ties to the area will be en­cour­aged to sit in an au­dio booth to record their own oral his­to­ries, which will be dig­i­tized.

More than 20,000 black res­i­dents have been pushed out of their neigh­bor­hoods since the turn of the cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to a Na­tional Com­mu­nity Rein­vest­ment Coali­tion re­port. De­vel­op­ment in neigh­bor­hoods in­clud­ing Shaw, Capi­tol Hill and Navy Yard has at­tracted af­flu­ent, largely white res­i­dents while pric­ing out many black Wash­ing­to­ni­ans.

The District also has one of the na­tion’s high­est dis­place­ment rates for low-in­come res­i­dents, ac­cord­ing to a re­port this year from the In­sti­tute on Metropoli­tan Op­por­tu­nity, which stud­ies so­cial and eco­nomic dis­par­i­ties in the United States.

Bernard Dem­czuk, 72, the de facto his­to­rian of Ben’s Chili Bowl and chair of the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foun­da­tion, said he hopes the effort will help new­com­ers bet­ter un­der­stand the rich his­tory of an area that was the cra­dle of the District’s black re­nais­sance and was home to black pi­o­neers, in­tel­lec­tu­als and artists, in­clud­ing writer Zora Neale Hurston, ed­u­ca­tor and civil rights ac­tivist Mary Mcleod Bethune, com­poser Duke Elling­ton, and his­to­rian Carter G. Wood­son.

“The rea­son for the ten­sion and anger at the peo­ple mov­ing into this area is that they do not un­der­stand the 150 years of black ex­cel­lence and black progress that built this neigh­bor­hood,” Dem­czuk said.

Dem­czuk, who has lived in the U Street neigh­bor­hood for more than 50 years, said the story of black ac­com­plish­ments in the District has been pre­served but not cen­tral­ized.

Mu­rals along U Street tell the city’s story. Photograph­s in­side Ben’s Chili Bowl cap­ture mo­ments in time — from the civil rights move­ment to a lunch in 2009 when the United States’ first black pres­i­dent stopped by, 10 days be­fore his in­au­gu­ra­tion.

By launch­ing an app and cre­at­ing a co­he­sive dig­i­tal li­brary driven by and for the com­mu­nity, Chakravart­i said she hopes the sto­ries and his­to­ries of the area will be eas­ier to find and harder to ig­nore.

“Some of the peo­ple I’m talk­ing to are in their late 70s, and there is this fear that all of the his­tory of the city will dis­ap­pear with­out a trace,” she said. “With D.C. be­ing the fastest-gen­tri­fy­ing city, I think we as a com­mu­nity need to re­spond. This is my own way of do­ing that in the way that I know how.”


The junc­tion of U and 14th streets is at the heart of Wash­ing­ton’s his­toric U Street cor­ri­dor, where “Black Broad­way” once ex­isted.


CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: Ben’s Chili Bowl opened on Aug. 22, 1958, on U Street NW in Wash­ing­ton. The District land­mark re­mains in the same build­ing to­day. At the corner of U and 14th streets NW, a black-owned bank once op­er­ated, and ri­ots and fires swirled there in 1968 af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Mem­phis. John Bul­lock crosses U and 14th streets in July.



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