Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pre-Gentrification Local History

I was walking along U Street during Howard homecoming when I overheard an interesting conversation. A Howard alumnus who appeared to be well under 30 commented to his friend that gentrification had overtaken U Street since his student days. So without digging into current gentrification debates about race and income, I became curious about the history of the neighborhood. I found that there was a lot about 14th and U that contributed to its current state, much of it I didn’t know about previously. What follows is a little lengthy but worth knowing if you live here.

I'll follow up not long from now with more recent events; there was just too much material for one post.

How U Street became a center for the black community
The history of African Americans in the neighborhood dates back to the Civil War when war refugees flowed into military encampments north of DC. Immediately after the war Howard University was founded in 1866 and helped to draw the black community’s intellectuals and artists to the neighborhood. In fact, until the 1920s, the 14th and U Street area it was the largest black community in America.

A lot of the residences in Logan/U Street were built during the Civil War and post-war population boom. In fact, the 1400 block of S Street, the 1400 block of Swann Street, the 1200 block of T Street, and the 1800 block of 12th Street all have homes dating back to this era. Driving at least part of the late 19th century boom was the installation of a major horse-drawn cross-town streetcar line on U Street.

As early as 1948, professional African American families began to leave the U Street corridor. The oft-mentioned “white flight” started around 1950, and the 1980 census showed the lowest reported number of white residents. Though the number of black residents to leave the city was fewer than white residents, the black population still fell by 88,000 between the 1950 and 1980 census. During the same period the city’s overall population fell by almost 164,000 and continued to decline another 66,000 between 1980 and 2000. By basic rule of supply and demand, housing prices sunk as people left the city.

Of course, we all know of the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Stokely Carmichael, a black activist, led crowds gathering at 14th and U to demand that local businesses close out of respect for King. Before long the mood of the crowd turned violent and looting had broken out. The following day, Carmichael addressed a rally at Howard after which rioting spread to 7th Street NW and H Street NE. An article in the Howard Hilltop states $24 million of damages were sustained in the five days of rioting, and a Wikipedia article estimates that the damages totaled $27 million is 1968 dollars.


Tim said...

Yeah, most of the changes that the Howard alum was refering to had were probably happening before she/he was in college. The pace may have picked up and the physical changes in the neighborhood landscape may have been more obvious, but the process started in the 1980s really, under Mayor Barry and the Reeves Center.

LeDroit Park has a neat history as well, check out this this from teh National Park Service and this from Howard University.

Max said...

I greatly enjoyed reading this post and your musings on the subject. My name is Max and I am a researcher with The George Washington University who is currently studying the revitalization of the neighborhood. I view this process as the natural consequence of the cultural void left by the riots and the flight of professional African-Americans from the area. I would be very much interested in interviewing the author of this post by phone or by email or in person. If this could be arranged, then please send an email to mmcgowen@gwu.edu.

Walker said...

For the record, Stokely Carmichael addressed no crowds at 14th and U Streets the day King was murdered. The offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were located at there and people were always in and out. I spoke at the same rally with Kwame Toure (Carmichael) at Howard and I am certain that the rebellion has begun before we took to the podium outside Douglass Hall. There were spontaneous and simultaneous eruptions of rage all over the city. To intimate that any one person put this in motion, with the exception of the assassin of Dr. King, is patently absurd. I joined the Howard University Emergency Relief effort which worked with people of various races across social class lines to bring food, water and vital transportation to the neighborhoods hardest hit. To my knowledge this is a history yet unwritten and I should know better.