Where We Live: U Street

Photo courtesy of
’13th & U, NW’
courtesy of ‘NCinDC’

As we’re wrapping up District neighborhoods before moving on to the Maryland and Virginia ‘burbs, this week our featured neighborhood is U Street– one of DC’s greatest neighborhoods.  It has had its ups and downs, but today U Street is a vibrant urban community filled with one-of-a-kind restaurants, galleries, and bars.  Read on to find what you need to check out next time you’re in the area (including the bar where everybody knows your name), some surviving institutions from U Street’s heyday in the early twentieth century, and what makes U Street such a great neighborhood.

History: The U Street neighborhood was originally developed between 1860 and 1900, and it was filled with Victorian-era homes for the post-Civil War influx of residents. Then a streetcar came along and led to more commercial development along U Street. The U Street corridor became the most desirable area for African Americans to settle in the early 1900s, leading to the country’s largest urban African American community (until that title was claimed by Harlem in the 1920s). It was a major cultural center for the black community, and it was known as “Black Broadway”, with Lincoln Theater and Howard Theater in the area. And Duke Ellington grew up in the neighborhood too!

Here’s the part we all know– when the 1968 riots struck, U Street was the hardest hit neighborhood in the city. Lots of violence and rioting led to the closure of many shops in the area, and residents started leaving in droves. The neighborhood really struggled in the 1960s and 1970s, becoming an area known for drugs and violence.

But there’s a happy ending! In the 1990s and 2000s, the area had a building boom, with new condos, restaurants, and shopping options being constructed. This revitalization led to a new era for U Street, and now it is nationally recognized as a major urban revitalization success story.

Photo courtesy of
‘Alley Party’
courtesy of ‘Karon’

Neighborhood Character: U Street is just cool. It’s filled with swanky bars, unique restaurants, down-to-earth holes in the wall, lots of ethnic food, and some great shopping opportunities. It has a mix of luxury condos that were built in the past decade or so, along with a bunch of typical DC rowhouses. And no matter what time of day you’re out in U Street, there’s always something going on– it is definitely one of the most active streets in the city.

Catherine, U Street resident of three years and author of the fabulous U Street Girl blog, likes that U Street is a great cross section of the city.  She says, “I think you really can see where DC’s creative class is thriving. We have great art galleries along 14th Street, some wonderful little fashion stores, great funky shops. You can see it walking down the street with the fashion, cool bars, the graffiti. And then you have the history and the culture that goes along with it -  the legacy of Black Broadway, which we celebrate. We still have jazz clubs, and then we have the new places honoring the history – Busboys and Poets, Marvin.”

Transportation: U Street is in the middle of the city, and it is right in the middle of DC’s best transit options too. It has the U Street-Cardozo Metro station, a stop on the Adams Morgan-McPherson Square Circulator, several major bus routes, a SmartBike station, and plenty of Zipcars. U Street is one of the easiest neighborhoods to get to– you’ve always got lots of options in heading to the area (or heading out). It’s also a highly walkable neighborhood, with lots of activity along U Street (mostly from 10th Street NW to 18th Street NW), and 14th Street (all the way down to Logan Circle). Bottom line: this neighborhood has amazing transportation options.

Photo courtesy of
‘Ben’s Chili Bowl’
courtesy of ‘Rolenz’

What to See: There is so much to see in U Street, but here are some neighborhood favorites to check out:

  • Check out some of the places that have been in U Street since before the riots.  Only a few of the neighborhood establishments have survived, but among them are Ben’s Chili Bowl, Florida Avenue Grill, and Lee’s Flower and Card Shop. Don’t forget about the Lincoln Theater, which has been around since 1922.   These places are the heart of U Street, and like Catherine says, “New places are popping up it seems like every month. I think during all of this we need to remember where we’ve been to respect where we are now.”
  • Where to begin on the amazing selection of drinking and dining options?  There’s Marvin for fried chicken and waffles, Bar Pilar for fabulous red velvet cupcakes (and great other food/drinks), and The Gibson for a true speakeasy experience.
  • Get outside! Once it gets a bit warmer, escape the craziness of U Street by heading west to Meridian Hill Park. And come May, you can spend your Saturday mornings at the excellent farmer’s market at 14th & U.
  • Want to see a side of U Street that residents do?  Catherine clues us in to some of the off-the-beaten-path spots: “I really love JoJo’s on a Friday night. There’s this great soul/motown cover band called Just Us that has such heart and the scene is just so much fun, everyone’s singing and dancing along. I’m also a huge fan of Solly’s, it really is U street’s Cheers, the neighborhood bar where everyone knows your name (or at least recognizes you).”

What’s Nearby: U Street is north of Logan Circle and Shaw, east of Dupont Circle, and south of Columbia Heights.

Photo courtesy of
‘U Street’
courtesy of ‘Rolenz’

Why We Love U Street: The U Street Corridor is the real heart of DC– it’s a mix of local restaurants and big chains, of rowhouses and luxury condo buildings, and of young and old residents. It is a microcosm of DC, and its loss of population in the 60s and 70s and surge in population in the 90s and 2000s reflects that of the greater city. Plus, it’s just a really cool neighborhood– it’s a great place to go out any evening, it’s fun to walk around on weekends, and it is close to so many other neighborhoods that it feels like it’s in the middle of it all.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

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