Published through the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire on April 3, 2015
By Jose Soto
The U Street Corridor is a commercial and residential area in northwest D.C. The streets are buzzing with cars and pedestrians. There is a variety of trendy bars and restaurants. The apartments are of contemporary design. It is host to a mixture of races and ethnicities.
It looks nothing like it did in 1968.
To Lucielle Dawson, 92, who trimmed beards at a barber shop on U Street until the 1980s, this is progress. Dawson said the area was mostly populated by African-Americans like herself.
Seeing multi-ethnic assimilation on U Street makes Dawson happy.
“Now, color doesn’t mean anything,” she said.
But on April 5, 1968, color in fact did mean something.
Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot dead in Memphis, Tenn. In a time of increasing racial tension, King’s assassination triggered days of civil disturbances involving thousands of protesters. African-Americans took to the streets, rioting in over 100 cities nationwide.
D.C., Baltimore and Chicago were the sites of the largest riots. The National Guard and U.S. Army assisted local police in halting the demonstrations.
The U Street Corridor, an African-American mecca at the time, was severely hit. White- and black-owed businesses, theaters, clubs, diners and homes were heavily damaged. Reacting to Jim Crow practices still in place in parts of the South, the mostly black rioters on U Street lashed out along Seventh and 14th Streets Northwest and H Street Northeast. Ferocious fires turned businesses into rubble. Others were vandalized and looted. There were 7,000 arrests and 10 deaths.
Approximately 1,200 fires occurred over four days, resulting in $13 million in damages, according to the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency. That would be roughly $68 million today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator.
The area was left devastated.
U Street revitalized roughly 25 years after the riots through gentrification, a revamp of neighborhoods both cosmetically and socially.
Mateen Khan, chief operating officer of Rosies and Rockers, a clothing store boutique on U Street and 13th Street, said the redevelopment of U Street said the area has “really seen it all.”
“In recent decades, the change has been in the form of restaurants, bars and condos on 14th and U Street,” Khan said. “But it’s not going to stop there. If we’ve learned anything from this street, it’s that its always reinventing itself.”
Before the riots, the U Street Corridor thrived with African-American culture. Segregated blacks created their own community filled with music theaters, clubs, diners and homes.
Derrick Green, who lives on U Street and helps run the family owned Island Caribbean Restaurant & Lounge, said the area has returned “back to what it used to be.”
“After the riots, U Street was an area of D.C. people avoided,” Green said. “The years that followed brought drugs and heavy crime to U Street. No one wanted to come. Through gentrification, U Street is back to being what it was before, a lively entertainment area bursting with life. The only difference now is that it isn’t only black people who live and go out here.”
Charles Hostovsky, assistant professor of city and regional development at Catholic University of America, said gentrification on U Street was “systematic racism.”
“Segregation is part of that system, Hostovsky said. “Blacks couldn’t go into white neighborhoods. That was systematic.”
Hostovsky said mostly white, educated millennials make places like U Street trendy areas to live in because they are closer to jobs and public transit. This increases living expenses, including rent. There are no federal laws protecting existing residents from that. He says that is systematic.
“Through free-market economics, gentrifying poor communities is indirect racism,” Hostovsky said.
In 1970, the D.C. population was 756,000, with an African-American population of 71 percent. The population declined in 1980 and 1990, and reached 572,000 in 2000, when 60 percent of the population was black. The population began to rebound after that, reaching 659,000 in 2013, with African-Americans making up 49 percent of the population, according to Census information.
Hostovsky said the loss of African-Americans is significant.
“That is about 31,000 people, enough to be a small town,” Hostovsky said. “It isn’t to say that white millennials are racist. Rather, the economical approach to gentrification is racist.”
“Before that, U Street was left merely abandoned,” Levey said.Jane Freundel Levey, managing editor of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.,said U Street started gentrifying when the Reeves Municipal Center was built in 1986. It brought government service jobs to an area in need of revival.
“The center provided major employment. There hadn’t been any in the area since ’68,” Ruble said. “The area began to clean up, and eateries opened up. People started to have to come to the area. That put U Street back on people’s mental map.”
Both Levey and Ruble said the 1991 opening of the U Street Metro stop was the second factor that boosted gentrification.
“It allowed for people to get to U Street easier,” Ruble said. “Gentrification really accelerated in the 1990s and early 2000s.”
But rising property taxes and rents that followed made the neighborhood unaffordable for many.
“Some homeowners could cash out, but the real losers were renters – both residential and commercial – who were simply driven out,” Ruble said.
“When housing and commercial shift from rental to owner-occupied, you always lose lower-income residents of all races,” Levy said. “In the U Street area, they tended to be African-Americans.”
Walking down U Street today, it’s hard to imagine that rioting left the area in destruction. The redevelopment has reconstructed it aesthetically. Now, it looks more like a hotspot than a war zone.
The lack of gentrification or redevelopment, however, can serve as a clear reminder of the riots.
Such is the case in Chicago and Baltimore, where the ravages of the riots remain evident.
John Schwallenberg, a former counselor at the University of Baltimore, helped develop the Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth driving tour. He said that most of the areas affected remain “eerily the same.”
“Streets like Pennsylvania Avenue were one of the hardest areas hit during the riots,” Schwallenberg said. “When you see these streets now, they seem as if they’ve remained exactly the same.”
Pennsylvania Avenue once thrived with homes and businesses owned by African-Americans.
On Gay Street, another heavily hit area in Baltimore, is the Old Town Mall. Once a booming shopping district, it now sits vacant and decaying.
“The Old Town Mall has had two revitalizations, one shortly after the riots and one in the ’80s,” Schwallenberg said. “But the surrounding area and Baltimore’s economy is so bad that is never works out.”
Baltimore’s economy, at least in the riot-affected areas, has not been healthy.
Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of urban government and political development at Johns Hopkins University, said Baltimore is “depleted.”
“The mayor at the time, William Donald Schaefer, tried to convert the town from a blue-collar town into a tourist destination,” Crenson said. “The result was a shift in local economy into a national one. But with so many Baltimoreans, mostly whites, leaving town and no one coming in, the economy plummeted.”
Crenson did surveys for his 1983 book, “Neighborhood Politics.”Baltimore’s population went from 900,000 in 1970, 45 percent of which was black, to 730,000 by 1990. Baltimore’s population fell to 622,000 by 2013, with a black population of 63 percent. The median household income is $41,000, below the national median of $51,000.
“Many Baltimoreans don’t identify themselves with their community and therefore never advocate better living conditions,” Crenson said. “People usually identify with their neighborhoods if they’re safe. As areas get less safe, neighborhood identity just evaporates. There isn’t a neighborhood, there are just streets.”
Crenson said Baltimore has about 16,000 abandoned housing units and 15,000 empty lots where businesses and houses once stood.
The Station North Art District along Charles Avenue and North Street shows signs of gentrification, but only in a small portion of the area. The Maryland Institute College of Art is located near Charles Avenue. The surrounding area has gentrified with restaurants and bars. Down the street, buildings are in ruins.
In Chicago, the story line is the similar.
North Lawndale, a depressed area in Chicago, was heavily hit during the riots. Hardly any commercial or residential progress has been made.
Daniel Block, a geography professor at Chicago State University, said gentrification is happening very slowly.
“Gentrification, if any, has taken way too long,” Block said. “A lot of the areas affected by the riots here haven’t gentrified at all.”
Block said when areas do gentrify, it’s usually commercial properties, not residential properties, driving residents away.
Chicago’s population went from 3 million in 1970, of whom 34 percent were black, to 2.9 million by 1990. According to the 2013 Census, Chicago had 2.7 million residents, 32 percent of whom are black.
“The African-American community thinks of gentrification more like replacement here,” Block said.“White businesses and developers come and buy the area and it becomes too expensive to reside there. They have no other option but to leave.”
Block said that, like in Baltimore, the economic makeup of Chicago drives people out of the city, mostly African Americans in poor neighborhoods.
The median household income in Chicago is $47,000.
“Chicago is becoming a European-model city, where the rich, white people live inside, and the poor, black community lives outside,” Block said.
“Curiously, the areas that have gentrified the most, or perhaps redevelop is a better word, in Chicago are Hispanic communities, not African American,” Block said. “It seems as if some communities give up and accept their living conditions.”
Crenson said for areas to successfully gentrify, there needs to be mixed income, cultural assimilation and accessibility.
“D.C. has been successful at gentrifying because economics, population and markets come together well, but not by coincidence,” Ruble said.
“Having government jobs on U Street was a great idea because they aren’t going anywhere,” Ruble said. “Unlike cities like Baltimore that industrialized, D.C. federalized, which guarantees jobs. Businesses thrive because of the economy is right. People have money to spend.”
Gentrification is indisputable in Washington. Among some of the original buildings left virtually untouched are the Lincoln Theatre and Ben’s Chili Bowl, which are next to each other. The theater closed shortly after the riots and reopened in 1994.
Ben’s, famous for its chili half-smokes and casual atmosphere, once catered to the mostly African-American community. Now it serves the diverse customers of U Street. It has been open since 1958.
Dawson said she reminisces about waltzing to jazz music at the Lincoln Theatre and eating at Ben’s afterward during the 1950s and early 1960s.
The theater still puts on music shows, but there’s no waltzing. Patrons can eat at Ben’s or opt for Next Door, owned by Ben’s owners, where diners can sit at polished wood tables and enjoy crab cakes, salmon or a turkey burger.