A neighbor pointed us to this poignant video footage of the riots that occurred 44 years ago here in Washington after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Contrary to popular belief, suburban flight and urban disinvestment were already well-underway by 1968. The destruction that occurred in American cities that year was not the cause of urban decay; it merely accelerated a pre-existing, post-war urban decline. Most middle-class Americans, regardless of race, do not want to live or shop in a war zone, after all. Thus DC’s commercial districts quickly declined.
The riots that year were a mixed result: they meaningfully displayed frustration at systematized racism in American society, but they also destroyed the essential businesses in DC’s majority-black neighborhoods.
The sociology of the matter is controversial, but it’s important we review accounts of the history just to know what happened.
Look carefully at video and you’ll recognize 7th Street in Shaw, U Street, and 14th Street. Washington was never the same after April 1968.
To reduce the liklihood that patrons will park on residential streets around the Howard Theatre, the theatre will sell prepaid private parking through Ticketmaster. The passes are for private lots owned by Howard University and other private owners.
In fact, we were looking on Ticketmaster at prices and availability for April’s Wanda Sykes show and spotted this prominent parking add-on at the bottom:
The lots described above are as follows:
- Valet shuttle Lot B – Howard University’s large parking lot at Georgia Avenue and W Street.
- Self-parking Lot A – Howard University’s HURB-I parking lot at 7th & T Streets.
- Premier Valet – private triangle lot at T Street and Florida Avenue, across from the theater.
When Progression Place, the office and apartment project at the Shaw Metro, finally opens, the theatre will lay claim to a significant number of the project’s underground parking spaces during nighttime hours, thus adding a another option.
Few things rile up neighbors like liquor licenses. Just outside LeDroit Park at 8th and T Streets, a proposal for a new restaurant, All Souls, has elicited the ire of several neighbors. The objectors, though small in number, are trying to stop a local restaurateur from turning a vacant storefront, pictured above, into a community asset. Much of this opposition is unwise and unwarranted and will hold back neighborhood improvement. We have heard the objections to All Souls for several months and would like to see this restaurant finally come to fruition.
While some objections, particularly regarding outdoor noise late into the night, are certainly reasonable, a few objectors have damaged their own credibility with an array of spurious objections.
The first of such complaints is that a restaurant serving alcohol across the street from an elementary school is unsavory. This is a red herring. Restaurants cannot serve alcohol to 10-year-olds and the main business of restaurants is at night, several hours after school has ended. The restaurateur has agreed to not serve alcohol before 5 pm.
The most ludicrous objection we heard is that patrons on the patio on 8th Street (along the blank wall in the photo above) will leer into a neighboring house. This is another red herring as drawing one’s window blinds or curtains can easily solve this problem.
Another objection is that a restaurant is inappropriate for what one objector alleged is a “residential street”. This is not entirely true. Most of the 1900 block of 8th Street is actually in a commercial zone C-2-B, which is intended for commercial uses, but also allows residential uses.
The restaurant site is surrounded by a residential zone (R-4) on three sides. Nonetheless, all zones have boundaries in which differing uses abut each other. It is the responsibility of residents to research and understand the zoning implications of where they live. It is also important for residents to understand their limitations in dictating how other people lawfully use their own property.
The restaurant building, as marked in the map below, is zoned for commercial uses (C-2-A), which permits restaurants as a matter of right. The law is very clear in this case that a restaurant is permitted in this location. The issuance of the alcohol license, which is necessary for any reastaurant to survive financially, is not by right, but must be requested. Thus, it is only in the alcohol license that the objectors have a viable case to block the business.
All Souls will improve the quality of life in several ways. It will provide a sit-down restaurant, something we consider a desirable neighborhood amenity. It will provide more eyes on the street to deter crime. Drug dealers and criminals at 7th & T Streets will feel less confident in their criminality when they see that there are numerous witnesses at sidewalk tables 100 feet away.
Most importantly, the conversion of a vacant property (pictured to the right) into a vibrant, occupied use improves the impression of the neighborhood. People rightly look upon vacant and abandoned space negatively. They look at active, lively restaurants positively. All Souls will improve the image of the neighborhood by improving the quality of life.
Let’s hope the unreasonable objections of a few don’t derail a potential community asset that we suspect the silent majority supports.
Cultural Tourism DC is finishing the installation of the signs for the Georgia Ave./Pleasant Plains Heritage Trail. Here is one we spotted outside the Dunbar Theater (now Wells Fargo bank) at 7th and T Streets NW.
The trail opening event will be on Saturday, October 15 at 11 am at the plaza in front of Howard University Hospital.
Work on the heritage trail for LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale has progressed greatly and we are on our way to having our own trail to honor LeDroit Park’s rich history.
Capital Bikeshare, the District’s smashingly successful bikesharing system, will expand this fall. Unfortunately, the expansion plans for this fall exclude LeDroit Park.
The District and Arlington launched the system a year ago with 14 stations in Arlington and 100 in the District. This fall, DDOT will add 34 stations in the District. In our area, DDOT will add a station by the Shaw Library and another at 1st Street NW and Rhode Island Avenue NW in Bloomingdale.
These additions should help alleviate the pressure placed on the existing stations at 7th & T Streets NW in Shaw and at Florida Avenue and R Street NW in Bloomingdale. Currently, LeDroiters and Bloomingdalers compete to use these two stations and thus frequently leave the stations empty or full during rushhour.
Last week DDOT Director Terry Bellamy announced that the district will add 50 stations early next year. We hope that in this new round DDOT focuses more attention on LeDroit Park and other neighborhoods in ANC 1B.
For instance, a Capital Bikeshare station could easily go in at the Park at LeDroit’s south entrance at 3rd and Elm Streets NW. This location is central to the neighborhood and could bring some extra eyes to the park throughout the day.
Outside of LeDroit Park, there is a noticeable station gap in the northern reaches of Bloomingdale and around Cardozo High School.
Capital Bikeshare is particuarly successful in our part of DC for several reasons:
- Car ownership is relatively low compared to the rest of the nation, region, and city. This inclines people to bike more.
- Parking is particularly difficult on many neighborhood streets, thus making cycling more attractive.
- The historical development of this area has permitted the close proximity of commercial uses to residential uses. This means trips to shops and restaurants are short and easily made by bike.
- Downtown is a short ride away and biking is often faster than taking the bus.
We came across this 1876 article documenting the initial improvements to the nascent LeDroit Park.
LE DROIT PARK. What Three Years Have Done.
September 4, 1876
Mr. James H. McGill, architect, has forwarded to the inspector of buildings, Mr. Thos. M. Plowman, a communication, in which he furnishes interesting information in relation to the improvements made in LeDroit Park within the last two years. He states that the different tracts of land composing the park were purchased at different times from June, 1872, to March, 1873, by Messrs. A.L. Barber & Co., and united by these gentlemen into one tract, which has been carefully surveyed and recorded. This park is in the form of an equilateral triangle, with one side resting on Boundary street [now Florida Avenue] and reaching from Seventh street eastward to Second street, and contains fifty acres. Until its subdivision by the present proprietor the eastern tract had been used for private residences and grounds, and the western portion had laid uninclosed for several years, and had been used as a public common. Improvements were soon commenced on a liberal scale; a handsome pattern of combination wood and iron fence was adopted and built all along the entire front and a board fence all along the rear, making one inclosure. All the interior fences were removed, and the lots thrown in together, affording a continuous sward. Streets were graded, graveled and guttered, brick sidewalks were put down, and gas, water and sewer mains laid.
The erection of buildings was commenced in July, 1873, since which time eight large brick residences have been erected on the north side of Maple avenue [now T Street] and two on the south side, costing from $4,000 to $12,000 each; ten houses on the north side and ten on the south side of Spruce street [now U Street], at an average cost of $3,500; two houses on the north side of Elm street, costing $3,000 each; four houses on east side, and five on the west side of Harewood avenue [now 3rd Street],costing from $4,000 to $10,000 each. A very superior stable and carriage-house has been completed for A. Langdon, esq., and another is in course of erection for A. R. Appleton, esq. Up to this date forty-one superior residences and two handsome stables have been constructed, at a cost of about $200,000. These houses are either built separately or in couples; are nearly all of brick; of varied designs, no two being alike either in size, shape or style of finish, or in the color of exterior. About $4,000 has been expended in the purchase and planting of ornamental shade trees and hedges, and about $50,000 in street improvements. About 4,500 lineal feet of streets have been graded and graveled, 9,000 feet of stone and brick gutters laid, 5,000 feet of brick pavement, 4,000 feet of sewer mains, 3,550 feet of water mains and 3,800 feet of gas mains laid. All of this expense has been by the proprietors of the property without a dollar from the District or authorities, and all the work has been done in the best and most liberal manner, under the direction of Mr. McGill. The plan contemplates the finishing of all its streets and the erection of two hundred tastefully-designed, conveniently-arranged and well-built detached and semi-detached residences, and when completed cannot fail of being a credit to all concerned. During the time stated the value of improvements constructed in other portions of the county amount to upwards of $100,000.
This is the third in a series on the Scurlock photo archive. Read the others.
The 1968 riots burned and economically destroyed many commercial districts throughout Washington. Riots came to U Street, too, and several properties which were obliterated have not entirely recovered from the devastation.
After World War II, many of America’s cities faced population and economic decline as the nation suburbanized; Washington was certainly no exception. The retail corridors on 14th St NW, U St NW, and H St NE were already declining when riots hit American cities in 1968 following the Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Addison Scurlock (1883-1964) was Washington’s most prominent black photographer and when the riots started in April 1968, Mr. Scurlock[‘s sons, who inherited his studio] at 9th and U Streets (where Nellie’s now stands) knew that [they were]
he was witnessing history in the making. Mr. Scurlock The Scurlocks photographed rioters at the beginning of the riots and photographed some of the aftermath.
The corner of 7th Street, Florida Avenue, and Georgia Avenue suffered from the mayhem. The southwest corner now houses a CVS and a parking lot on land that Howard University owns. Beneath this store runs the Metro tunnel between the Shaw and U Street stations. Back in 1968, this site featured a strip of retail stores until the riot.
One of the most striking Scurlock photos is of the northwest corner of 7th and T Streets NW, where the CVS currently stands. Rioters burned the buildings that stood on the site.
[Toggling between now and then photos will not work in RSS readers. View the actual post]
This is the second in a series on the Scurlock photo archive. Read the first entry.
During the Jazz Age of the 1920s and later into the 1930s, U Street was dubbed the “black Broadway” as it featured such venues as the Lincoln Colonnade (now the Lincoln Theater), the Howard Theatre, and other clubs and restaurants. In a segregated city in which blacks were excluded from most restaurants, theaters, and stores, U Street served as a refuge to catch a show and enjoy a meal.
[Toggling between now and then photos will not work in RSS readers. View the actual post]
We have referred to this area as the block of blight for its dilapidated buildings, copious litter, and frequent police arrests. It turns out that some things never change. Even when this photograph was taken, U Street was not uniform in character and the area around the Howard Theatre was considered downscale compared to the classier venues west on U Street. (For more on U Street’s evolution, see Blair Ruble’s recent book, Washington’s U Street: A Biography.)
Pictured here at the corner is National Grill, which, like Harrison’s Café in LeDroit Park, advertised itself as open all night. The lighted vertical sign attached to the façade appears to read “LUNCH” and the pediment at the cornice bears the building’s name, “Scott’s”. (View a larger version of the photo.)
Just to the right (south) of National Grill is the S.W. Keys Luncheonette, whose vertical sign advertises coffee and waffles. Just south of that is Harlem Cafe, located in a building that has since been replaced.
On T Street, just behind Scott’s Building and just before the Howard Theatre, you will see a sign that reads “BILLIARDS”. That marks Frank Holliday’s pool hall, a popular gathering spot for Howard scholars, jazz musicians, and city laborers alike. Duke Ellington captured the scene at the pool hall:
Guys from all walks of life seemed to converge there: school kids over and under sixteen; college students and graduates, some starting out in law and medicine and science; and lots of Pullman porters and dining-car waiters.
Just beyond the pool hall, you’ll see the Howard Theatre sporting its original Italianate façade. The theater was later covered with plaster, which was only recently removed for the restoration project.
Today the last two buildings on 7th Street are a Chinese take-out and a tiny market. One of the developers of Progression Place, the large development project underway on the block (rendering below), said that the late owner of these two buildings refused to sell to his development. Progression Place will incorporate every building on this block except for these two.
If anyone is looking for a two-building restoration project, here is your chance!
Construction is still moving along at the park on the site of the former Gage-Eckington School. In addition to the dog park, playground equipment, picnic tables, and field, there are two more amenities on their way to the site: bike sharing and car sharing. DDOT’s assistance in integrating both car sharing spaces and its own Capital Bikeshare (CaBi) system is a good example of collaboration between different city agencies.
ZipCar is a subscription service that places cars throughout several cities worldwide and rents the cars to members by the hour. The rental fee includes the cost of gas and insurance and each car has a reserved “home” parking space to which it must be returned at the end of the reservation. These spaces are in public streets, public alleys and in private parking lots and garages.
We occasionally rent ZipCars when we need to haul heavy items or need to travel to transit-inaccessible destinations. This arrangement is far cheaper than owning a car and relieves us of the normal hassles of car ownership, e.g. parking, maintenance, washing, fuel costs, and insurance costs.
CaBi is another subscription service and is a joint venture between DDOT and Arlington County. CaBi bikes are parked at numerous racks throughout DC and Arlington and more are on the way. A member inserts his key into the bike dock and the bike unlocks. The member has 30 minutes to ride the bike for free before returning it to any dock in DC or Arlington. CaBi is perfect for short one-way trips and we routinely use the CaBi station at Seventh and T Streets to commute to work downtown. It’s also useful for occasional trips to Whole Foods or Dupont Circle, which are just minutes away by bike.
Both bike sharing and car sharing benefit residents who don’t even use the services. The existence of these services reduces the pressure to own a car and thus reduces the parking demand placed on our streets. For those who would live car-less regardless of these services, it provides us with two more mobility options located close to home. Bike sharing and car sharing are welcome additions to the park site.
Photo: “Pick a Bike” by M. V. Jantzen
This email came through the neighborhood listserv.
On Saturday evening at 7pm en route to Shaw metro north entrance, I was jumped from behind and wrestled to the ground by a teenage thief trying to steal my iphone. Rather than risk being stabbed, I let go of the iphone. What is disturbing is that this is a busy road with many pedestrians walking by, yet not one person stopped to help, including the shopkeepers stood on the doorsteps. When I asked for assistance, I was told to use the payphone on the corner of 7th and T which is where the gang of teenagers preying on their victims hang out in the evening – including the evening I was attacked. There were 10 or 12 on the corner of 7th and T and all fled after I was robbed. A good Samaritan let me use his cellphone to call the police who arrived in under two minutes. They said they are aware of the gang on 7th and T and have been monitoring them, yet the brazen robberies and attacks in broad daylight continue unabated.
Given the proximity to the Howard Theater, I’m sure this kind of publicity will not be welcomed given the Theater’s planned reopening later this year. I have now been forced to avoid the Shaw metro and will take the U Street Cordoza location instead. Anyone walking in the vicinity of 7th and T should hide their cellphones. Ironically, I am a playwright, my most recent work being about race relations in DC. It is poignant I was attacked in the shadow of Howard Theater.
What a terrible incident, but we’re glad nobody was hurt.
The Block of Blight (600 block of T Street NW) is a perennial source of criminality, as confirmed by the MDP’s regular listing of arrests. The frequency of crime at the corner of Seventh and T Streets warrants a more frequent police presence that the area lacks.
We usually walk our friends to the Metro late at night lest they fall victim to this sort of incivility. Blight encourages crime and both are on display near the Shaw Metro Station. We gently, but consistently, remind visitors that the station and surrounding blight are actually in the Shaw neighborhood, not LeDroit Park, but hopefully we won’t have to reiterate that nuance forever.
Renovations on the Howard Theatre have already begun and the developer for the mixed-use UNCF project at the Metro assures us that the groundbreaking for that project is a month or two away.