U-Street: A Story of One Black Neighborhood In Gentrifying D.C.

Historically Black Neighborhood Being Stripped of its Soul, and What We Can Do about It

As a New York transplant to DC, I knew very little about what the city used to like be before. The first time, I got off the metro stop on U-street: African-American Civil War Memorial, I did not imagine the predominantly white area that I saw before my eyes.

Washington has very apparent signs of gentrification, such as newly constructed luxury buildings and Whole Foods; one has to try and find any tributes to the population that has lived there for a long time. As the director of U-Street: Contested and History PhD student at American University, Michael T. Barry Jr. shows us in his thought-provoking film, U-street corridor is an important part of Black history. It was the place of the Civil Right Movement; and where Black jazz players, intellectuals, and business-owners created a vibrant community. The riots of 1968 and the construction of the metro devastated the neighborhood, and it has not been revived since. Instead, it became a place where old brick buildings stand in an uncomfortable ensemble with glass-front modern ones. As the experts Professor of History Ibram X. Kendi and Professor of Public Administration and Policy Derek Hyra add, new developments “killed original architecture and vibe,” and U-Street became “sterilized.”

Barry Jr.’s brief, yet illuminating film also features a short clip by Dave Chapelle, famous comedian and DMV native, who makes a satirical observation about how much Black neighborhoods of Washington changed in the past three decades. Instead of the “old-fashioned” racism as a result of which baby-boomer white people did not want to live in “dangerous” neighborhoods, Chapelle points out that “a new type” of white people came in search of feel-good “diversity.” With avocado toasts and SoulCycle comes unaffordable housing, which displaces not just the people, but also erases Black culture that was once there. In the past few years, two jazz bars closed. U-Street: Contested ends on a hopeful note reminding us that remembering Black history of U-Street can help us prevent complete erasure of its past and remaining signs of Black culture such as Twins Jazz Bar.

Events like the Funk Parade can help people of different races and ethnicities come together, because only by interacting with one another can we begin addressing the racial tensions plaguing our nation. There are also concrete political steps we can take, such as demanding tax breaks for barber shops instead of the luxury buildings construction companies.

Michael Barry Jr.’s outstanding synthesis of eye-opening cinematography and meticulous academic research also warns the viewer that Anacostia might be next in the seemingly unstoppable wave of gentrification. But by using our political voices we can try and ensure affordable housing, thus reducing the harm to the existing predominantly African-American residents. Meanwhile, a larger societal concern to consider is the liberal racism of the present: “woke” progressives fetishize ethnic neighborhoods with the buzzword of “diversity,” or on the other hand, they pretend we live in a post-racial world, and we most certainly do not.


Laura Auketayeva



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