Gentrification is a funny thing. The developers who bought up all the property along the U Street Corridor staked their fortunes on being able to attract wealthy individuals looking for a central location to live and shop. They capitalized on the history along the corridor and named buildings and businesses after DC’s most famous African-Americans. Ironically, they attracted a whole slew of white folks who seem to think the cultural history of DC is cool, but the low-income and working class black folk who are alive and well today don’t always make the best neighbors. Thus, a neighborhood like Shaw, which was for decades a bastion of the black middle class, who came together to build a sense of stability within a deeply segregated city, remains stable only for those African-Americans who bought and paid for property before the housing bubble or those who are extremely well-heeled.
And so it was with the U Street Corridor. Only three U Street businesses between Georgia Avenue and 16th Street survived the riots of the 60s, the neglect of the 70s, the housing boom and the coming of the U Street/Cardozo Metro Station. Those three businesses are Lee’s Flower and Card Shop, the Industrial Bank of Washington and Ben’s Chili Bowl. How they survived is chronicled in the audio podcast 192 Years of Black B’ness on U Street produced by Brenda Hayes and Be Steadwell. The report makes it clear that although these business owners are thriving now, that was not always the case. For those of us attempting to withstand the harsh winds of gentrification, it is a history well worth remembering.