For the past century and half, there has been nothing like the narrative of the 14th and U-Street corridor. While complex and objectively bitter, its history is a miraculous tale, a ripe and mature story of an epic growth, a painful abatement and a resurging revival trying to amend what once was. What makes this urban adventure particularly distinctive is its ability to bring out the longing voice of a storyteller and ignite a flame in an ambitious listener. The history of 14th and U is an ever evolving story of cultural hegemony, the chronically dialectical relationship between those who have lived within and those who have just arrived.
Our scene begins in the mid 1800s, with the Horse-drawn Streetcar, a public transportation system envisioned to centralize and link together the capital. The American Civil War had just ended amongst conflicting views, still simmering, as an Emancipation Proclamation was signed to free the long time suppressed. Washington DC was beginning to urbanize, expanding upon the Lafayette Plan and stretching north. By 1882 and till the turn of the century, there was a shift to the Electric Streetcar for more reliability and efficiency as several new lines extended into the U-Street Area. As a preliminary highway system, these new lines served as connecting routes linking central DC to the Northern suburbia beyond Florida Ave. With the infrastructure’s “get on” and “get off” system, it was natural for the 14th street corridor to soon become a central influx for new and engaging commercial businesses.
In the early 1900s, 14th street became a highly successful primary transportation corridor, the backbone of a thriving commercial district. With so many gathered to the area, development of a residential community was born around the commercial infrastructure. While a seemingly predictable linear path of textbook urban development, what made the 14th and U corridor unique, was its people. In a highly segregated world, with very few places to go, African Americans had set up refuge in the area. U-street had become a place where simply being there meant being somebody. It was a community that provided Blacks with the commercial lifestyle that they had been denied everywhere else. African American’s were starting their businesses and opening shops that catered directly to other Blacks. Becoming a self-productive “City within a City,” education, literacy and overall productivity rates skyrocketed with various local institutions like Howard University and neighborhood public Libraries. In a city with such a difficult history, the 14th and U area become an “imperfect” meeting ground for both blacks and whites. Out of any of the various pieces coming into play, this by far was the key to U-Street’s growth, a figuratively locked in culture that brewed into a self-sufficient “hub” and later its demise.
By the 1920s, the automobile had taken over giving people the “limitless” freedom of driving anywhere they pleased. The automobile had such an influence on the 14th street corridor that the entire route was dubbed “Auto Row” due to all of the added commercial showrooms and parking garage infrastructure. The area was overrun with shops that sold, serviced or fixed cars. With such easy access to the area, the community built up many nodes serving as social mixing bowls. There was a soft or blurred edge between the commercial and residential because U-Street brought together a variety of people, all clashing together since their homes, apartments, places of worship, offices, restaurants, cafes, bars, theatres, stores and schools were all intertwined. No other DC neighborhood had this heavily dynamic relationship or distinction. Having embodied continual steadily growth through both of the World Wars, 14th and U surprisingly but, obviously did not survive desegregation. In the late 40s, President Truman signed a desegregation act that gave equal rights to blacks. Counter to intuition, the businesses that catered only to Black customers found themselves now competing against the huge White run stores and places now opened to African Americans.
After a period of agonizing decline, the violence following Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination is when everything finally fell apart in 1968. The once great flame that once guided the 14th and U-street corridor never came back. The area fell victim to decay, urban mismanagement and crime with a crack cocaine epidemic and an entire decade of underground subway construction. A massive portion of the area was ripped open to allow the Washington DC Metro Green Line to be built. Today, only three commercial businesses survived. Despite all this and after barely hanging in there for 20 years, the neighborhood saw a form of rebirth with the long awaited opening of the Metro Green Line and the Reeves Municipal Center in the early 90s.
Today, the gradual transformation and “revival” of the new 14th and U-Street has been a hegemonic process. The neighborhood's celebration of new trains and paved roads caused property values to increase causing the extreme gentrification one can see today. The area’s entertainment scene exploded in 2000, being the city’s premier nightspot. Richer business owners forced the previous “old-timers” out and despite the inclusion of the YMCA and the Thurgood Marshall Center in the 2000s which aimed to provide a local counterweight for the gentrification, there was little change.
All stories must have a happy ending and though superficially, the change has been dramatic with taller buildings and upscale lifestyles, beneath the surface, the new 14th and U corridor might not be so different after all. The area represents a place that has always represented the resilience of urban life. A community that has reinvented itself many times over.