January 20, 2009
Inauguration Diary: The ghosts of U Street
I woke up this morning thinking about the neighborhood we're staying in. Our friend rents an apartment on U Street, which is about 20 blocks north of the National Mall. Fifty years ago, the area was a middle class African-American neighborhood known for its white-owned jazz clubs and restaurants. Racial tensions between the residents and businesses boiled over in the 1960s, culminating after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Residents rioted around U Street and burned down several buildings. Middle class life in the area was over.
It was replaced by decades of povert, crime, drugs and prostitution. My friend's apartment was a brothel, next door was a heroin dealer and across the street was a cocaine dealer. This went on until 1995.
But as these things go, investors saw an opportunity in U Street. People began moving back to the city, and developers remodeled the row houses into nice apartments. Condos started going up, restaurants and clubs returned, and the area came back to life. It's now considered the "hip" area for young professionals to live in.
On election night, the ghosts of U Streets past came back - completely transformed. When Obama was declared the winner, thousands of people sponteneously rushed into the streets, not to riot, but celebrate. A diverse crowd celebrated into the early morning, culminating in a march to the White House. It was joyous, according to my friend.
Walking around U Street, it's the hope of life in an urban city. People of all races and income levels - the area is still located near middle class and poor housing - living together in a steady stream of commerce, entertainment and comraderie. It's a remarkable turn for an area once, literally, burning with racial tension.
Obama's presidency is certainly a bookend to that chapter in DC's history, and possibly American history. Beginning today, we'll join the new story that's unfolding.
Monday's Inauguration Diary: Obamamania!